This describes Jeremy’s experience in prison as the New York area was hit by Superstorm Sandy. Sandy caused an estimated $32 billion in damages in New York state, with $19 billion in New York City alone.
While NYC urged residents to evacuate the city in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, those of us imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center were going nowhere. Without announcing any plans or preparations, they locked every floor down and we were left to weather the storm not knowing what was going to go down.
Like most of the lower east side, MCC lost power, heat and water. Naturally, some folks grew panicked and restless and used this opportunity to vent built-up frustrations: people screamed and shouted, banged on doors, and threw junk out into the dayroom, but it did not get too rowdy. Understaffed, the backup guards stayed in their offices and did not make any announcements. Eventually, the emergency generators came on to provide minimal lighting, cold water returned so we would not die of thirst, and the night died down uneventfully.
The next morning the “goon squad” rushed in armed, with a variety of weapons including beanbag guns, pepper spray bullet guns, and teargas. They stormed each tier, angrily cursing us out while taking away the TVs, microwaves and board games. No one complained or raised any objection, even as we were told we would be locked down for a week, but the guards picked out three random prisoners – including me – cuffed us, threatened to use the pepper spray on us “for fun,” and took us to the box.
A sign sits above the entrance to 9 South – “MCC Special Housing Unit – No guns just guts. Est. 1975.”
As any of the untold hundreds of thousands of prisoners who have experienced solitary confinement knows, the box is a dehumanizing, sadistic form of abuse, wisely and correctly recognized as torture by a growing number of countries, except the United States. Imagine living in a bathroom, only for a whole week. Our toilets wouldn’t flush. Eventually a guard gave me two books out of my property – a Spanish-English dictionary and, in an ironic coincidence, Zeitoun, which is about a Syrian man in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina who ends up being wrongfully arrested and abused by police.
The three of us were only in the box for a week and not given any disciplinary tickets. We were kicked back to our unit to find them still locked down and not doing much better than we were. Cold meals, toilets not flushing, no hot water, no showers, no heat, no microwaves, no roof recreation, no law library, no TVs, no boardgames, no mail, no visits, no phone calls or any way to contact friends and family to see how they were affected by the storm and let them know how we were doing. Everyone’s court dates were postponed, including several people who were being sentenced and expecting “time served.” Eventually the phones starting working, but predictably fights broke out over the long lines, so we were locked down again. Days later, they let us back out, but for only limited periods of time, still no TVs or board games. We were told “you have to learn to crawl before you can walk.”
We then learned the next week MCC was being visited by inspectors, including the director of the BOP. Every so often prison officials must scramble to look presentable and pick up to code to assure inspectors we are living humanely. Of course they use unpaid prison labor to clean this place up – and now they use the missing TVs and boardgames as leverage to assure our obedience. Obviously there is an inherent “fuck the police” mentality amongst most convicts, but there is also no shortage of suck-ups and snitches, who would gladly help the guards convince inspectors we are being treated fairly, in exchange for slightly longer leashes and larger cages. They have volunteers work all night until 3AM for days, but no amount of buffing floors and repainting walls can cover up the ugly, dehumanizing reality of mass incarceration.
The day the inspectors arrive, the officials and counselors are all dressed up and, although they remain bossy and inconsiderate as ever reminding us to clean up, you could tell they are are slightly worried, as even they have masters higher up in the food chain they must serve. They whisper amongst themselves, “When they come try to steer them away from tier 11.” And just like the inspections six months ago, they tell us to have people pretend to use each of the six showers so the inspectors will be unable to examine them. And since both the prison officials and the inspectors do not live here, they will not experience the rat and cockroach infestations that only come out at night. Obviously, we are never given an opportunity to address our grievances with the inspectors, and there is an expectation of retaliation if one attempts to do so.
As it turns out, the inspectors never visit our unit – all our work for nothing. Days later, still no TVs or boardgames. The one washing machine, broken weeks before the storm hit, has still not been fixed, but at least hot water has returned so we can do our laundry by hand. Life here has more or less returned to “normal” – as normal as locking up millions of people can be.
In the end MCC was not the hit by Hurricane Sandy any worse that other folks on the east coast. The BOP had just one more opportunity to demonstrate their disrespect and lack of concern for our well-being. As the climate continues to change due to capitalism’s rampant destruction of the environment, we can expect more frequent and devastating natural disasters on the way. Like New Orleans, New Yorkers are experiencing that often the most effective relief does not come from the City, police, or FEMA, but from grassroots community groups (such as Occupy Sandy,) working together in solidarity with those most affected (especially those who cannot afford expensive professional cleanup services). Very frightening to consider what would happen to us prisoners – already disenfranchised, silenced, marginalized, and forgotten – in the event of a more devastating natural disaster.
There’s a universal consensus here – “they’d probably leave us to die.”