Are you just as guilty…for ignoring Americas prison conditions?

Armstrong-El, Lennox K.



Are You Just as Guilty... For Ignoring Americas Prison Conditions? By Lennox Armstrong-El My name is Lennox Armstrong- El. I'm a prisoner in a level 1-2 facility in Virginia. This is my first time in prison. The following is an account of my experiences since I entered the Department of Corrections in 2012. My word count is limited so I'll stick to the facts without the fluff. It is my hope that the title of this work gets your attention. Because if you have turned a blind eye to America's prison conditions, then you are indeed guilty. I hope this information changes the way you look at America's prison system. Federal courts have agreed that there is no federal constitutional right to rehabilitation in prison. However, state-created rights to rehabilitation, programs for work, treatment, and education allow prisoners to use the federal constitution to enforce these rights under their respected state constitutions. So in other words, prisoners do have a state-created right to rehabilitation in prison. And thus, a constitutional right. They only need to learn how to enforce those rights. This isn't as easy as it sounds. In most cases it will require a prisoner to file a lawsuit under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code. Or, take some other legal action. Before he or she gets to that point they will have to face excessive and undue hardship that often burdens them with emotional distress and mental anguish. For the weaker inmates, this takes the fight right out of them. Normally, the fight ends before it begins. I mention rehabilitation and programming first because for the prisoner who is remorseful for what he has done who wants to better himself, rehab and reform is his primary goal(s). Prisoners must follow a process for everything they do or they may face disciplinary action. Most of these procedures involves filling out forms and submitting them to the proper departments. Unfortunately, this process is often ineffective. Discrimination of all sorts and favoritism corrupts the process of getting jobs or getting into programs. In just about all cases, grievances are unfounded. Complaints and grievances even disappear without a trace. You can appeal to the highest level. But unless your situation is extreme your complaint will be belittled or ignored, and the problem will persist. Despite popular opinion, it is not prisoners who create a bad prison environment, it is the people who run it. This is not to say that those hardcore criminals who continue to make trouble and fail to demonstrate an intent to change don't deserve a more harsh and restrictive punishment. In my opinion, if you continue to act out and break the law without a reasonable justification, you deserve what you get. You sleep in the bed you make. The problem is that the good guys are often mixed with the bad guys. And the end result is often the good guy being transformed into a bad guy. He becomes a product of his environment. So, in part, the current rate of recidivism is the result of overcrowded prisons and an inadequate system of inmate classification. Which falls back on the government as it is their responsibility to create the system. After decades of practice you would think they could get it right by now. Frankly, the government promotes recidivism because of the personal interests of financial benefits. It's no secret that judges, lawyers, doctors, and such have their hands in the gigantic pot of penal money. Which is indeed YOUR money. But you already know this and turn a blind eye. Zoom out, and look at the big picture... A first time offender is given 5 to 10 years for a stupid mistake that he regrets. He tries to better himself upon entering the DOC. Throughout his incarceration he is subjected to situations and circumstances that influence criminal thinking and behavior. Hatred, racism, schemes and scams, violence, emotional detachment, homosexuality, gambling, and so on. His efforts to better himself become frivolous, and fruitless. He tries hard. But the harder he tries, the more he faces discouragement and pessimism. The combination of stresses are overwhelming because after all, he's only human. Eventually he becomes emotionally numb and psychologically broken down. Most prisoners do not have a good support system with family and friends on the outside. The DOC system will promulgate that it encourages family interactivity. This is a big lie and anyone who has a family member in prison knows how difficult the system makes it to communicate and interact with their loved ones. Most of us don't receive money from outside and getting a job in the system is a task in itself because the prisons are so overcrowded. No job, no family, no friends, no adequate treatment, rehabilitative, educational, vocational programs, and no realistic opportunities to self-improvement. DOC libraries and law libraries are often insufficient and filled with outdated and damaged material. Whatever problems the prisoner previously face, he is now bombarded with a slew of new problems. There is no structured system for reform and rehab in prison. It's an individual endeavor every prisoner has to take upon him or herself. But there are certainly excessive measures taken to enforce even the slightest disciplinary actions. Most of which result in being fined up to $12.00, or punitive segregation. Not to mention the loss of good time, your job (if you have one), and any program you may be in or "on the list" to get in. The words "on the list" are in quotes because I wanted to emphasize them. You see, prison officials are obligated to offer the opportunity for prisoners to work and participate in programs. This is why there is a state-created liberty interest that is protected by the (federal) United States Constitution of America. They cannot sit back and do nothing at all. But they are not obligated to place any particular prisoner in any particular program, as long as they have a "legitimate penological interest that is reasonable." So even though most counselors, unit managers, wardens, assistant wardens and anyone who has any say-so in classifications, programming, treatment, and jobs often do the bare minimum of their duties, as long as they can provide "some evidence" that they have done 'something,' they are entitled to be borderline negligent. This is often done intentionally with deliberate indifference. A prisoner may stay "on the list" for a job or program anywhere from 1 month to several years! Some of the factors involved with the delay include overcrowding, favoritism, retaliation by prison officials, racism, ineffective counselors, ineligibility, etc. Unlawful as it is in broad light, almost all offender grievances are found to be meritless, or unfounded in regards to jobs and programming. As long as you're "on the list" they have made an effort. And thats all most courts care about. The entire process is illegal and a lay person could read the rules and regs and see that the prison system rarely follows its own rules. Around the 1990's there were about 1 million people incarcerated in the U.S. Now there's over 2.2 million! This is out of the 8 million who are under some kind of state "police" control e.g., house arrest, halfway houses, probation, parole, etc. It costs about $54,000 to $60,000 a year to house 1 prisoner. The costs to provide that same individual with some form of counseling and education services is significantly lower. The costs could easily be cut in half. Taxpayers- YOU- are being exploited through your taxes. You are contributing your hard earned tax dollars to a penal system that is defective and designed to make you pay even more taxes at a gradually increasing rate. But the "criminals" are blamed because it's easier to place the blame on the little guy- or- the defenseless. Why not pass some of that blame on to the court appointed public defender who makes a secret deal with the prosecuting attorney to offer the defendant a plea bargain that not only calls for incarceration, but places a noose around the "poor persons" neck for when he is released (probation)? "Poor person" is to be taken literally because it is poor people who are always shafted by the judicial system. Let's not forget about the incarcerated parents who need reform and rehab the most. As well as a reliable support system so that they can at least have an opportunity to show themselves worthy to their children, family, employer, probation and parole, etc. In the absence of these things there are a variety of problems that occur. Bad parenting, bad behaviors are passed down to the child, emotional and mental problems, drugs, alcohol, sexually transmitted disease, and this list is huge. The government is well aware of this. They already now the child is bound for prison, and they have already planned well ahead for his arrival into the DOC. A "person" is no different than cows in a grazing field with the tags on their ears once they are in the system. Livestock with dollar signs. So the benefits of rehabilitation and reform extend much further than credit is given. A persons remorse for his or her wrongdoing effects us all and requires a little support. "Who here (on Earth) is without sin?" No one here is perfect. If the governments intentions extended beyond punishment for crimes to allow for more effort in rehabilitation and reform within America's prison system this country would see a remarkable change. Recidivism would be reduced drastically. Governments lie and tell you that the primary goal of the Department of Corrections is to ensure public safety and security. Yet, the crime rate continues to rise. More prisons are being built, more taxes are paid, more families are torn apart, more constitutional rights are being violated, more children are put in jeopardy, and these things effect us all, as a Nation. WAKE UP and smell the REAL because the lies are downright funky! The lottery was at 1.5 BILLION in mid-Janurary 2016. From my prison bed I trickled tears for the homeless and starving children right here in our country. Millions upon millions are spent on defense weapons and military. Yet our veterans can't get a break anywhere they go. Even more millions are spent on entertainment, building prisons, and so many more irrelevant things. At some point you have to stop and ask yourself why the great and powerful U.S.A. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Why do they use your tax dollars to accomplish this? How can the government profit off of your money to incarcerate people? Why education and reform are not at the forefront in regards to the penal system? Why you are allowing your children to go through hell when you can do something about it? And why you are taking part in the destruction of a nation- the American people? Now I want to bring you inside the prison walls to show you where your money is going. My hope is that you see how important it is for our prison system to focus its attention on more opportunities for rehabilitative programming and job skills. This directly effects you, your loved ones, and our great nation. America's prisoners are being warehoused and then released in an even more unstable, unstructured, unsupported life. They're bound to return to prison, or die. It's time to take the veil off of your eyes and heed the words of Jesus who said, "let he without sin cast the first stone." You wake up every morning to go to work Monday thru Friday for 9 to 10 hours of your life- every single day. All for a broken government. You never once think about the bankruptcy of 1933. Or, that your money is pretty much a promissory note to pay a debt that does not even belong to you. Your children are being raised by daycare providers and (government regulated) school systems. They are barely being taught what they need to know to grow up and become happy, successful and productive members of society. The many hidden truths remain hidden because you refuse to seek and find. There are cures for cancer, diabetes, and even AIDS. There are government programs that help you when you need help- for anything. There are hidden technological and scientific advancements you can use to make your life easier. So much is hidden from us deep in the abyss of information. But we are content. We worked hard to be content. That contentment is now in jeopardy. The veil that covers your eyes so you don't see the truth was place there initially by those who put it there In all things that shall pass away, truth will not, it will remain. It's only hidden, not gone away. The best way to hide a secret is to cover it with many other things just like it. That way, you won't know the difference between the phony and the real- without thorough study and investigation. Entertainment, politics, sports, drugs, economy, work, etc. These are the things that occupy our minds and keep us from wanting to discover the truth. They are the "drugs" induced upon us that influence us to care less about what goes on behind the scenes. More powerful and addictive and destructive than all drugs combined. Nevertheless, you and your loved ones are directly effected by the happenings behind the scenes. This is surely something to think about. And so is the cruel dehumanization that's taking place inside of America's prisons and jails. Racism is at our forefront again today. This time the instigators are the very one's who are sworn to uphold the law. Open your eyes. Why do you think the media continues to broadcast almost daily the fatal shootings and merciless beatings of black people? White people and other races suffer the same injustices. It's just not put all over the news and in the newspapers. Do some research on your own if you don't believe me. The statistics are there for the public to see. You have access to the Internet, I don't. The media is instigating racism by focusing only on blacks instead of also broadcasting incidents with other races. Needless to say, this only creates chaos, hatred, violence, and retaliation. Frankly, it turns blacks against whites even more so because the police officers shown doing the shootings are most of the time, white. It's much easier to provoke a people who is already conditioned to react to a certain alert. In this case, blacks have a long history of being abused, and violently so. So here you have it again. The government influenced media uses your emotions to add fuel to the fire. The media can amplify any situation, tweak it to the governments liking, and create chaos at which point police powers (government) will arrive to bring order. This is how they keep the jails and prisons full. With all the trumped up charged as a result of the chaos, they're able to dig even deeper into your pockets for your hard earned money. How do you like them apples?! Pardon my frustration. I'm not a seasoned writer and I can't remember the last time I've wrote so much. But this had to be done. Somebody has to take the time to do it from the inside. I have no reason at all to lie and everything written in this work can be proven in one way or the other. The remainder of this work will be in an outline format because I feel that I may exceed my word count. I hope this information has been interesting and prompts you to take a close look at what's going on in America's prison system. Something needs to change, and soon. Or we will all suffer the aftermath of our governments insufficiencies. Thank you for taking your time to read this work. The following is based on the author's firsthand accounts inside the Virginia Department of Corrections and general facts about Americas prisons. 1) Insufficient Libraries and Law Libraries The facility I'm currently in has the smallest in the state- the smallest law library. It's a small room about 11ft. x 8ft. and has a max capacity of 3 inmates and 1 clerk. Inmates have to work elbow to elbow where we're packed like a can of sardines. Three desktop computers compromise desk space which is already inadequate in size. The computers have a law library system as required by state law. But 99% of the books in this law library are outdated and insufficient for developing modern legal work. This hinders prisoners from producing legal documents that are acceptable to the courts. Basically, we're being denied access to the courts. Also, inmates at this facility are prohibited from using a typewriter or a word processor to produce legal work. This is adding insult to injury. The books in the regular library are also outdated. The selection is minimum although there are several books kept in cardboard boxes. There is one bookshelf dedicated to self help books. The reference books are behind the counter and can't be checked out. There's less than 100 of them. Non-fiction books and books that inmates need to learn, research and study are out of date and in pretty bad condition. There are very few books prisoners can actually use to prepare themselves for re-entering society. 2) Problems with Visitation Occasionally, a visitor may get busted for bringing in contraband. This is nothing new and it is an issue that will always be as long as there are visiting privileges. But certain visitation rules are outrageous such as a female pants being tight- casual tight, not skin tight. Or a shirt that shows a little cleavage- a casual shirt. Or if a t-shirt is a little thin to where you can barely see the bra strap. For these reasons, visitors are often told to go change at the door, and they may not be allowed to come back in. C.O.s find the slightest reasons to deny visits. Visitors are given rules to follow only to be faced with a different set of rules upon arrival at the facility. They often drive long distances to see their loved ones and are forced to leave without being able to visit. Fathers are not allowed to hold their children during visits and some places don't even allow a husband and wife to hold hands. That's ridiculous! The DOC promulgates in its literature how it encourages family involvement and how it promotes keeping families connected. This is not true. The DOC discourages, complicates and hinders family and friend interaction and destroys the relationship that tie prisoners to their loved ones because of its rule and regulations. 3) Ineffective Counselors In my prison experience I've met some counselors who actually put forth an effort to help prisoners. But I've met more counselors who do just the opposite of what is required of them from state rules and regulations. Frankly, many counselors are breaking the law because their performance is not consistent with the standard they're held to. 99% of the time if an inmate files a complaint on his counselors performance he will only make life difficult for himself because of the authority given to these counselors. As long as a counselor can show that there he or she has made "some" effort and done "something" to assist the prisoner, courts will usually agree if the prisoner cannot produce clear evidence of extreme or outrageous conduct that actually caused harm. This "some" effort can be the press of a few keys on a computer or the stroke of an ink pen. 4) Ineffective Grievance Systems In my particular region it is very difficult for a prisoner to get remedy for grievances. If the complaint is not extreme or outrageous to the point to where it creates an "atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life," more than likely it will be deemed "unfounded." Since prison officials are given such a wide discretion and flexibility to bend the rules, grievances are often belittled and the problems persist often getting worse. Some grievances, especially those that involve officers and staff, often get lost in the shuffle never to be heard of. Informal complaints and grievances have time limits for when they must be submitted, responded to, and appealed. Response times are often delayed at the very latest to thwart prisoners from appealing. Responses to theses complaints rarely address the problem, especially when the responding is the name in the complaint. 5) Mail and Mailbox Procedure At this prison the latest you can mail a letter out before the weekend is Thursday during dinner. So if you receive an important letter at mail call on Thursday night, the earliest you'll be able to respond to that letter is on Sunday during dinner. The latest any letter can be mailed is during dinner, Sunday thru Thursday. Inmates should be allowed to send mail out on Friday morning because most inmates write at night when there's less activity. At one point, inmates were allowed to mail out letters on Friday morning. The prison changed this to accommodate lack of staff and to assist officers in doing as less work as possible. This is just another example of how prisons do not encourage family interaction, but actually hinders it. Prisoners who don't have the family support or financial resources or the convenience of communication are usually the first to lose family ties and friendships. To make matters worse, this facility places strict censorship on incoming and outgoing mail of all inmates. For incoming mail, they read every letter in detail as if they were expecting a terrorist threat. Remember, this is a security level 1-2 facility. Mail is denied for simple bookmarks of a "Christian" nature. Mail is denied if your loved ones place a dime size sticker of a cartoon character on the letter. Mail is denied if there is a "lipstick kiss." It is denied if it has a perfume scent. Pictures are denied for reasons outside of the realms of the Operating Procedures and for reasons too insignificant to constitute a legitimate penological interest. Anytime a prison goes out of its way to open a prisoners "outgoing" mail, without notifying the prisoner, constitutional violations must be considered. 6) Practice of Religion The first Amendment protects a prisoners religious beliefs- even if that belief is unsupported or unaccepted by the masses, such as Satanism. Christianity is the most recognized and accommodated religion in all prisons in the U.S. Oftentimes, other religions, especially Islamic, face all kinds of problems. These problems can range from job discrimination to harsh restrictions on religious practices, meetings, and material. Religion places a major role in the reform and rehabilitation of a prisoners life. Some prisoners find their "Higher Power" in prison. "Some" is better than none. Prison officials can and do make it difficult for some prisoners in some religions. This kind of hinderance is unconstitutional, but often very difficult for prisoners to prove in court. Prison officials and administrators are very good at covering up the truth and they often get away with wrong. Not only does this impede on ones constitutionally protected right to practice their religion, but it causes a lot of unnecessary emotional distress and mental anguish. 7) Mass/Corporal Punishment The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for a group of prisoners to be punished for the wrongful action of 1 or 2 inmates who have been identified as the culprits. One example of how this prison disregards this ruling is when 1 or 2 inmates are caught on camera smoking a cigarette (or fight, etc.), the entire dorm is punished by the removal of microwaves, television, rec, etc. These things are often taken for an indefinite time period. As simple as these restrictions may seem, most prisoners live a systematic life. The slightest deprivation is crucial. 8)lack of Security Personnel If you work for a prison you can expect a good benefits package. But not everyone "wants" to work at a prison. People often take the "good benefits" job because: - thats the only good job in the area. - there aren't many requirements needed. - family members work for the prison and can get them in quite easily. - some have a chip on their shoulder and get the job to get back at criminals. - And some thrive off of the power-trip. There are some who take the job with good intentions. But these are few. Prison staff and security are often lacking, which creates a major threat to the safety and security of any facility. New officers are rushed into training, barely receiving the experience they need to deal with prisoners without violating their rights. Prisons are given a wide range of discretion. If they can demonstrate that they can manage without the proper staff, without the proper security, or without attracting attention to themselves the department heads will often allow them to operate like so, regardless of rules and regulations. When faced with civil actions, its the prisoner who has to prove the merits of his claim. Normally, these claims are dismissed if the prisoner does not prove the action was so extreme or outrageous, that is impeded on his constitutional rights. 9) Indoor Air Quality In an open dorm environment everyone is responsible for cleanliness. Here, "housemen" are paid .27c/hour to sweep, mop, empty trashcans and perform general janitorial duties. Not every inmate cleans or respects cleanliness. And not every houseman is dedicated to the job. At times, the dust is so abundant in the air you can see it floating, you can feel it in your throat, and see it in your mucus. Inadequate ventilation is part of the problem. We are given a limited amount of cleaning solutions and supplies. But the stale smells still permit the air- dust, dirty clothes and shoes, bodily odors. Although smoking has been banned in prisons, the air is sometimes filled with second-hand smoke. This particular prison is about 70 years old and is not equipped with central heat and air, in the prisoners' living quarters. These efficiencies are found only where prison officials work, e.g., the medical department, school, master control, etc. Dorms are equipped with 24" to 30" industrial fans that sound like helicopters in the building. Radiant heat and hot water are produced from a coal-burning system. This place burns coal all year round. The Clean Air Act prohibits government facilities from burning coal for this purpose- so I thought. There's a rumor that this particular facility pays a pretty hefty fine each year because of the coal burning system. This would explain the recent pipelines being installed for propane usage. As it stands, the debris from the current method of heat and hot water is ever so abundant in the air. Inmates are forced to inhale these chemicals daily. Where it is not so potent to cause an immediate health risk, health problems for the future are unavoidable as long as inmates are made to inhale the coal debris in the air here. This brings about a question of an Eight Amendment violation. 10) Prohibited from producing Legal Documents in type or by word-processor- Handwritten only Although this facility has the capability and equipment readily available to allow prisoners to address the courts in a type or print fashion, we are forced to handwrite all legal documents. The privilege to use Microsoft Word to produce legal documents in the law library was recently taken away when administrators discovered I was in the process of producing a 1983 civil lawsuit against the facility. Microsoft Word was immediately removed from the computers in the law library and my files were deleted. I am currently grieving the issue and my hope is that the warden here is a just man. Forcing inmates to handwrite pages upon pages of legal files demonstrates this facility's malicious intent to hinder and discourage the use of the legal system. With the advent of technology and the age of information, and the fact that the equipment is readily available, sitting around collecting dust, no prisoner should have to handwrite legal documents. Even the courts would prefer type or printed material, and often give them more attention. 11) Job Discrimination There are many forms of job discrimination in prison. Racism, favoritism, gender discrimination, and religion reasons are the most common. Prison officials have learned over the years what the courts will and will not tolerate. And they always push it to the limit. they know exactly how to come borderline close to violating the Fourteenth Amendment and preventing themselves from being liable of a lawsuit. Although the courts may disagree with the practices of the prison, unless the prisoner can prove the discriminatory effect and intent of his or her claim, the claim is often struck down. With that said, exactly how does a prisoner go about brining a claim of job (or program) discrimination without the means of gathering statistical data or compelling evidence to support the claim? Repeated exhaustion of the grievance system on the same issue can lead to disciplinary action. Prison's are required to give you some kind of notice as to why you did or did not get the job. But applications are rarely returned and job positions are often passed from one "friend" to the other by way of the buddy system. But trying to grieve the fact that "prisons don't follow their own rules and procedures" can, and most often does, have an adverse effect. Ultimately, without extreme and outrageous evidence, the grieve for job discrimination will be "unfounded." 12) Insufficiency of Medical Departments The quality of medical care in prisons vary throughout the country. From my own experience, I can only testify to more bad than good. I've witnessed death on two occasions where the medical staff should have acted much sooner. I witnessed and experienced the negligence that leads to greater problems. I've seen prisoner's permanently damaged from improper dosing and being given the wrong meds. Failure to follow-up on surgery, failure to follow doctors orders, and failure to properly diagnose are also common in prison medical systems. They get away with murder and duck lawsuit all the time. But truthfully, what takes place inside the prison is enough to constitute medical malpractice and 8th Amendment violations. But again, this is very difficult for a prisoner to challenge without skill, money, or substantial proof. 13) Retaliation by Prison Officials When inmates use the grievance system to address a prison officials misconduct, they are often subjected to retaliation in a number of ways. The officer or staff member may or may not receive a slap on the wrist, but the inmate may face problems like: -having contraband placed in his property by officers and then being charged with that contraband -having his legal work destroyed or confiscated -being blackballed from jobs and program participation -being set up by officers to get beat up by other inmates -being lied on by officers -being harassed and antagonized by officers Many of times, especially on smaller spreads where a lot of employees are related, when you write one officer up you pretty much paint a target on yourself. An inmate who has never been in any trouble at all might write an officer up for his misconduct and consequently lose good time, have his/her security level increased, be transferred away from family and re-entry sites, have bogus information put in his institutional record that prevents him from getting jobs and programming, and so on. There is an emotional and psychological effect that takes place as well. This alone is detrimental to all efforts made by a prisoner to try to better himself. For weaker-minded inmates suicide is not uncommon due to these events. The #1 rot of the cause of suicides in prison is the fact that prison officials failed to pay attention to an inmate complaint or plea for help.

Author: Armstrong-El, Lennox K.

Author Location: Virginia

Date: March 1, 2016

Genre: Essay

Extent: 20 pages

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