Eddie Conway and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges continue their discussion about the forms of slavery and exploitation thriving in today’s U.S. prison system
EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. BLACK PANTHER, BALTIMORE CHAPTER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway from Baltimore. Thanks for joining us again for this second part with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges, author of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.
The last time we were talking, we decided we was going to look at, this segment, the treatment of family life in prisons.
Chris, you were saying that the members of people’s families suffer as a result of visiting their loved ones in prisons.
CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST, SENIOR FELLOW AT THE NATION INSTITUTE: Well, because they’re treated as if they’re prisoners, and there oftentimes the corrections officers can be quite brusque and rude, expelling people capriciously for an item of clothing, demeanor.
But I think what’s most disturbing is watching little kids come in, because they’re terrified. And they’re clinging to their mothers. They’re often crying. And so visiting their father, their brother, and, of course, at times their mother becomes traumatic.
And I’m interested–I’ll ask you, but, I mean, within the prisons that I teach, it’s not uncommon, especially when I have lifers, where they’ve told their families just not to come anymore, it’s too–the cost, the emotional cost for them and for the family is so much.
And I think one of the things that often occurs for people who have extremely long sentences is that they will turn to a girlfriend, to a spouse, and they’ll just say, forget about me, I’m kind of dead, you have to go on with your life. And the wear and tear, I mean, the way that relationships will disintegrate under that kind of pressure, not only between partners, but between parents and children. And I think that that’s for me one of the kind of cruelest aspects of the whole process, because in many ways it seems to be designed in such a way as to discourage the maintenance of any kind of familial ties at all. I don’t know what your thoughts are on it.
CONWAY: I actually have–and I’m still suffering pain from an experience like that. I mean, initially when I was locked up, my father came to visit me. And I loved to my father, and my father loved me for my whole entire life. And he–basically, he came and he said, look, if you need anything, just tell somebody or send for it, or whatever you need, I’ll give it to you, but I cannot come in this prison and have those doors slammed on me and then walk out this prison and know that you’re still in here. It’s too painful. And 20 years later, before I saw my father again. And when I saw the next time, he was getting ready to pass away, and I could tell when he came to visit me that it was something really serious, because I hadn’t seen him in 20 years. And that loss of that love was there. And prisons are designed to do it.
And I’ve had a number of cases where prisoners have said, I don’t want you to be treated like a prisoner. They say that to their mother or to their loved one or to their sister or their brother or their child, or they won’t even let the children come in because they don’t want their child, the children, to be dehumanized. And that’s part of that process that happens. And it’s probably one of the most destructive things of the entire prison slavery/industry is to dehumanize people and separate them from their family while at the same time claiming to be a correctional institution and claiming to rehabilitate or make people whole. It actually destroys families. It’s designed to destroy families.
HEDGES: It is designed. And, you know, I remember I was teaching a class once and I had an older student, just as an offhand comment, not even something that he particularly thought about, say, just because your family doesn’t visit you doesn’t mean they don’t loved you. And for me that captured a kind of ocean of pain that so many of those who are incarcerated have to cope with.
And I think that, you know, because it is destructive, I mean, you will watch the kind of pressure that it puts on relationships over the years. And those relationships often, because of that pressure, are extinguished.
So I had a student who–his wife came to visit him with their six-year-old son, and the six-year-old son starts talking about Uncle Jimmy. Well, it becomes pretty clear who Uncle Jimmy is. And as his wife gets up to leave, he said, I don’t care, I understand, but just don’t stop bringing my son. He never saw his son again. His son’s in his 20s.
And that kind of–the one thing they want is–especially since so many of them are fathers, is to maintain some kind of a relationship. And the way the system itself is built, the kind of physical and emotional gauntlet that families, and in particular children, have to run in order to even connect with their parent or their brother or their sister or whatever is not so excruciating that finally, as you said, they can’t do it. And those who are incarcerated don’t want to see them go through it. So that experience that you had with your father is actually not uncommon.
And I think in some ways they want it like that, because there is such an overt hostility to those who visit, because it’s a headache for the guards. And they want to make it, I think, intentionally. I mean, for instance, people will have to, in some of these older prisons–I don’t know how it was in Maryland, but we have prisons in New Jersey where people have to wait out in the snow and the rain–elderly, parents–for hours, and there isn’t even a bathroom facility for them. And by the time they get in the prison, they’re shivering, they’re wet. They could have sat out there for three, four hours.
CONWAY: No, that’s true here in Maryland. But, you know, one of the things, even as we were talking, I was thinking about, one of the things, one of the reasons I think they do this is because they don’t want families to organize, they don’t want families to come in a regular, consistent way and meet other families that have those same kind of problems and to maybe talk and say, well, look, let’s get together and figure out how we can address this. That’s their greatest fear in prisons is prisoners organizing and families organizing. And that’s also the solution to changing.
HEDGES: I think it’s the only solution now. I don’t think that because the prison-industrial complex, which is making money hand over fist–I mean, you look at the website of Corrections Corp. of America–I mean, you should pull it up. It’s pretty amazing, because they say, you should invest in our company because recidivism rates are over 60 percent. I think they’re 64 percent. So it’s guaranteed that this is a good business. And because these moneyed interests now, these phone companies, these commissary companies, all of these suppliers are profiting and making tremendous profits off of mass incarceration because their lobbyists are paying off politicians, writing legislation, and in essence writing laws, you know, authoring laws that are embraced by the judiciary–and we’ve seen over the last–we were talking in the first segment that the economic situation for both prisoners and their families is deteriorating as these for-profit corporations prey more and more and more, exploit them to take money from them. I think organization is the only hope we have left. And I think what you said makes a great deal of sense.
Now, in Florida there is an organization of families of incarcerated which has been able, through protests and organizing, to ameliorate some of the conditions in the prison. I mean, we’ve still not dealt with neo-slavery and the very existence of mass incarceration, but around issues such as visitation. And we have had states now–I think New York State has banned this. They’ve reduced the phone rates (I think it’s New York) to about $0.05 a minute, which is what it should be, instead of $0.15 a minute.
But, yes, I think that that’s a really interesting point that you make, and I think it’s correct, because that is the only mechanism. I don’t know what you think, but I think that’s the only mechanism we have left by which we can begin to hold this increasingly rapacious assault against the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak.
CONWAY: Well, one of the things is that to prove what you’re saying in terms of organizing is–it’s something I did some years ago: I organized in the prison system. And initially, when I got in the prison system, I was thinking, like, okay, we’re being treated like animals, we need to probably rebel, we need to stand up for our rights, we need to figure out how to fight back, to resist this kind of dehumanization.
And then, somewhere along the line it dawned on me and some of the people that I was working with organizing that while we’re being treated like this because we’re not organized, we’re not unionized, we’re not in the position to ask for minimum wage. So we organized a united prisoners labor union and we plugged into 1199E, the organization that Martin Luther King was working with when he got assassinated, and we started organizing in the population, and we signed up enough people in the population to actually have a union. And of all the things, out of all the years that we’ve done, the most terrifying thing for the officials was that prison labor union.
HEDGES: And you were asking for minimum wage?
CONWAY: We were asking for minimum wage. And they realized that if they gave us minimum wage, they would have to let us go home, because they couldn’t afford to have us working in the prison system. So they just did all kind of draconian kind of activities. And eventually the midnight raids, they snatched us up, they locked as away. But it was the actual organizing that they feared. And it’s the same thing with the families today. And today, probably more than any other time, that is needed, because the one thing that I see when you talk about the recidivism rate, in the prison system, they’re doing nothing at all to rehabilitate people. They took out the college programs, which was actually guaranteeing people staying out in the community.
HEDGES: See, we have it in New Jersey. That’s what I teach [crosstalk]
CONWAY: You do?
CONWAY: Is it accredited?
HEDGES: Yeah. It’s new, but it’s important. And we know from studies that people who get their degree in prison–I think there was a study in Massachusetts where they had a program. It was a 4 percent recidivism.
CONWAY: Yeah. I mean, if you–.
HEDGES: But say that–common people say the system doesn’t work. They’re wrong. The system works just the way it’s designed to work, because poor people of color on the streets of Baltimore or the streets of Newark or the streets of Camden or the streets of Detroit are worth nothing in the eyes of the corporate state, which has moved manufacturing overseas, where people are earning $0.22 an hour. They’re only worth something behind cages or locked in cages, where they can generate $40,000 or $50,000 a year. That’s the way the system’s designed.
CONWAY: Yeah, from the other taxpayers.
HEDGES: Yes. Well, this like so many of these corporate entities, like the defense industry, the security and surveillance industry. They prey on taxpayer money. And that’s why we’re seeing charter schools and the destruction of public education. It’s the same logic, where you have hedge funds who are funding schools in the inner city. It’s not because they want to teach poor black children how to read and write; it’s because the Department of Education spends $600 billion a year and they want it. And we see that in education. We see that with defense contractors. We see that we have 16 intelligence agencies, and 70 percent of the work is outsourced to private corporations. And we see it in the prison-industrial complex as well. It’s all part of–it’s just one more piece of the puzzle.
CONWAY: Well, thank you. This has been very enlightening, even for me. And hopefully you’ll be back again in the future. Thanks for joining us.
HEDGES: Thank you, Eddie.
CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.
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