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Fixing a broken prison system

An inside perspective…
Part 9 – For all the murders, rapes, untreated mental illness, rampant drug abuse and historically inhumane treatment of human beings over its 150 year history, one problem the Florida Department of Corrections hasn’t shared with other bloated prison systems across the U.S. is gang activity. Aside from the obligatory hate groups masquerading as religions, the Sunshine State’s inmate population has always divided itself along county lines as opposed to America’s more color coordinated criminal empires. Dade rolled with Dade, Broward with Broward, Duval with Duval. That’s about as organized as things got. For all their notoriety, the gangs of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles could never seem to gain a toe-hold in Florida. All that has changed over the last ten years.

When I look around my dorm, I count members of six different gangs. I would name them by organization but I prefer not to be jumped, stabbed, or “buck-fiftied” (the facial slash that is growing in popularity in Florida’s correctional facilities). And since I’m a neutron – meaning neutral, non-affiliated – this could happen without repercussion. Maybe I should join a gang. I’m being sarcastic, of course, but for the hundreds of young men being bussed from county jails into Florida’s four reception centers every day, this is a very real dilemma.

Prisons make for fertile recruiting grounds. Every yard is full of inexperienced twenty-somethings with time to do. Many are hundreds of miles from home, broke, scared, surrounded by strangers in a hostile environment. This year, at the facility where I’m housed there have been more than 20 stabbings. Gangs offer safety in numbers, provide brotherhood, demand respect, and give an identity to those struggling to find themselves. Many have prominent rap stars as the faces of their respective franchises. Plus, gangs control the flow of dope into most institutions. For the average street kid coming into the system, the decision to bang can be a lucrative one.

This is a dangerous situation. Dangerous to the non-affiliated inmate population who want to better themselves or just serve their time – even their life sentences – in relative peace, dangerous to the already outnumbered guards who work in Florida prisons, and dangerous to the society that is sending away these uneducated young dope dealers, drug addicts and small-time criminals, only to have them return to their neighborhoods a few years later as focused and fully indoctrinated organized crime members.

This recent rise of gang activity is a complex problem with no easy fix. One solution may be segregation, designate a few prisons for known gang members and give the most gung-ho guards in the state hazard pay to work there. This would at least slow down recruitment. Maybe have mandatory classes that show the catastrophic consequences of gang violence, i.e. children caught in drive-bys at school bus stops, illiterate teens in bandanas with AR-15s, reformed OGs with redemptive messages. Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries has done groundbreaking work in this field, the department could seek his wise counsel. Maybe men could earn their way out of a “gang camp” through good behavior, renunciation, and a commitment to speak out against gang violence.

As with any bold move, I’m sure there would be logistics to explore and legal ramifications to consider. But if the Florida Department of Corrections does not address this dire situation now, by the year 2025, Florida won’t have a gang problem, it will have a gang crisis.

[This is Part 9 of an ongoing series, Fixing A Broken Prison System, which has its own tab on this website, where you can read Parts 1 – 8.] 

The universe has a sense of humor

Besides my books, the crowning achievement of my middle-age years is the fact that I haven’t received a disciplinary report (DR) since 2009. A major feat, considering that my prison history is littered with rule infractions: contraband, fighting, multiple positive drug urinalyses, disrespect. I’ve probably been to the hole 50 times (my last stay was for eight-and-a-half months). I’ve lost all my gain time, been sprayed with gas, roughed up, cased up, stripped, shipped, and most painfully, had my visitation privileges yanked. It’s been a long journey.

And even when I started focusing on changing my thought patterns and behaviors, even when I committed to reinventing myself, there was still no guarantee that I could remain DR-free. The wrong guard in the wrong mood on the wrong day could result in a 30-day trip to the hole. There’s no such thing as innocence here. Every inmate is guilty “based on an officer’s statement.” This is not some injustice I’m lamenting. This is just part of the prison experience. This is life.

So it was a minor miracle that I made it seven years without incident. Unfortunately, that streak came to an end last month.

There’s this new rule designating the showers “off limits” from 7:45 to 8:00 p.m. for everyone except transgender inmates. Whether enacted from genuine kindness or some future lawsuit paranoia, I’m not sure. But even if it is a heavy-handed reaction to what’s going on out there in the real world, it’s probably a good rule. I mean, if it stops even one person from being assaulted or gives them a few minutes of peace and security in this hostile and violent place, it’s a good rule, right?

The reason I violated it is simple: I forgot. As I said, the rule is brand new and anyway, there were no transgender inmates living in the dorm. So at 7:55, fully soaped and mentally entrenched in the epilogue of my latest novel, I was confronted by a guard and informed that I was being written a DR for entering the shower during the transgender-specified time frame. How did he know I didn’t identify as transgender? Training? Expert analysis? He had a lip full of tobacco and a Confederate flag tat. I’m pretty sure he’s no expert on the subject.

But that’s not the story. Neither is the story my historic run of years coming to an end. The interesting thing about all of this is that the DR raised my custody level, which changed my housing level, which means I am now in a new dorm. My neighbors went from those with release dates within the next 15 to 20 years to mostly lifers. There’s an amputee to my left doing a mandatory 40, a blind man to my right who’s been in since 1986, and the dude across the aisle is fresh off death row. Ironic because the book I just finished writing includes an amputee, a blind man, and a death row subplot. Either the universe has a sense of humor, or its satellites are delayed. Where were these guys while I was researching On the Shoulders of Giants?

[This post originally appeared on http://www.malcolmivey.com in May 2016.]