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There’s Nothing Wrong With a Little Get-Back: Jeremy’s Stay In SHU

Jeremy was recently placed in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU), known as solitary confinement, for two weeks. This is the situation that led up to that stay in SHU, in Jeremy’s own words. There was originally a miscommunication about the situation due to how the information got to us, so this should clear up any confusion.

There is never justification for solitary confinement, and we categorically condemn its use. As many experts have observed, this treatment is psychological torture, used to try to break detainees’ spirits. We are pleased to report that Jeremy has not been broken but instead remains as strong, defiant, and inspiring as ever.

And always remember, there’s nothing wrong with a little get-back. 🙂

The most obvious form of prison exploitation in the federal system is UNICOR: Federal Prison Industries, more commonly known as the military sweatshop in nearly every institution. It’s a quasi-public corporation that produces everything from armor plating and camouflage uniforms to office supplies. Because they are not bound by pesky things like minimum wage laws, they are frequently criticized for cutting prices and outbidding other free-world competitors for government contracts. The UNICOR here at FCI Manchester employs hundreds of prisoners sewing all-purpose combat uniforms used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. UNICOR is the highest-paying job on the compound, taking home $50-$200 a month.

In addition, because the BOP does not want to pay for additional officers, prisoners maintain nearly every aspect of the institution ourselves: cooking, food, washing dishes, cutting grass, mopping floors, fixing plumbing and electricity, and so forth. This means that , fortunately, there are other jobs available if you do not want to participate in the imperialist genocidal “war on terrorism.”

In addition to garnishing our wages to pay for court fines and restitution, “maintenance” pay is $5.25 a month, barely enough for soap and deodorant. Any additional money we earn through our “jobs” is given right back to them at the company store where you can purchase Ramen noodles and terrible instant coffee at 30% markup from street prices. What kind of life is this where we are forced to choose between hygiene or a 15-minute phone call?

It’s bad enough they rob us of years of our lives behind razor-wire fences, they then make us work in their facilities for pennies an hour to maintain our own imprisonment. Because of this, stealing from government becomes part of everyday prison life. There is solidarity among convicts; stealing from one another is frowned upon and can get you stabbed up, but stealing from the government is business as usual. We’re just trying to get back some get-back.

There is a thriving black market: food out of the kitchen, new clothes out of the laundry, office supplies right off the officers’ desks. Everybody has a hustle – smuggling tobacco and drugs, cooking wine, cleaning cells, selling phone calls, gambling, making custom birthday cards, etc. Necessity is the mother of innovation.

For the most part, the cops look the other way, either for laziness or sympathy. A CO [corrections officer] who goes out of their way to enforce each and every rule is universally despised by prisoners and staff alike. Balance and respect keeps tensions from resulting in fewer incidents and lockdowns.

I’ve been working in laundry services since I arrived at FCI Manchester nearly a year ago. It is an easy, sought-after job washing and folding clothes, adding prisoner ID tags to khaki uniforms, and some sewing here and there. Most of the time we sit around doing our own laundry, reading, and getting into lengthy political debates.

And stealing all the new clothes we could ever want.

Shirts sell for $1. Socks or boxers, two for $1. New institution boots, $5. For me, it’s not about the money, but making clothes available to those who need it. The prison only issues sets of clothes once a year, not nearly enough, especially if you have a particularly dirty work assignment.

For me and the other workers, all was going pretty well in laundry land except for one problem: the boss. Nobody likes the boss in prison, the streets, or anywhere, really, but this guy is the epitome of the right-wing redneck prison guard. We’d be kicking it, talking world news, the prison system, the new Nicki Minaj video, when he would jump in to share his racist rantings. Some classics include his justification for the murder of Michael Brown (“I’d blow his noodle off myself!”) or his views on young immigrants (“Shoot ’em in the back of the head!”). I guess it is not out of the ordinary in the hills of Kentucky, the land of the Ku Klux Klan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Every time the boss regurgitated some GOP-manufactured controversy like Benghazi, Obamacare, or the IRS, I’d shoot him down and make him look like a fool in front of everybody.

It was all a laughing matter until he became angry and bitter and started taking it out on us. For a while, we couldn’t wash our own clothes, until I went over his head to clarify policy. Then, he started marking my paychecks with the worst possible job performance ratings to dock my pay and set me up to be fired. “Unable to learn the skills required”? “Requires constant supervision”? I fold sheets all day! “He’s gunning for you,” everyone told me.

Enter the coffee machine.

For six months, every “town hall meeting” where we are given orders without hearing any input of our own, I had been half-jokingly complaining for a coffee machine. The commissary sells Keefe Corporation instant coffee (“that Barbara Bush”), but it’s nothing like percolated street coffee. Other jobs on the compound have coffee machines, and the head supervisor already approved it, but the boss was just not going for it.

One day, the dumpster gods smiled on us and the trash cans outside the laundry birthed an officer’s coffee machine. It was broken, but fixable. A few uncrossed wires later and it was working! Certified Hater #1 walks in and smashes it back in the trash, proclaiming, “Mark my words – you will never have a coffee machine!” At this point, the debates are over, replaced with shared fantasies of strangling.

It wasn’t just the other prisoners, other CO’s can’t stand the guy either, and out of spite, one of them brings us a brand new coffee machine. Boss is fuming mad.  Victory never tasted so sweet!

I don’t know why he chose to shake me down that same day. Maybe someone whispered something in his ear, or he was retaliating for the coffee machine, or it was just bad timing. He searches my bag and finds a whole bunch of new clothes. He’s caught people stealing before. Sometimes he lets it slide, or he asks them to quit and find another job to avoid a write-up. Boss tells me, “I’m just going to take the bag and that’s that.” I don’t believe it for a second. It’s all over. He got exactly what he was looking for.

Sure enough, by the time I head back to the unit and pack up my property, they’re calling for me. The package of Barbara Bush concealed in my boxers is discovered during the strip search entrance to the Special Housing Unit.

The BOP claims it does not practice “solitary confinement.” It’s called “Administrative Segregation,” “Disciplinary Segregation,” “SMU,” “CMU,” etc. We call it “the hole,” “el hueco,” “the box,” “the bucket.” It’s a tiny cell the size of your bathroom you share with a cell mate and don’t ever leave except for an hour a day for recreation in the “dog run” (a slightly longer caged area). You get a blanket, socks, boxers, shirt, orange jumpsuit, a bar of soap, and three meals a day. You get mail, but here, incoming books, magazines, and newspapers are considered a “fire hazard” and put in your property until release. A raggedy book cart wheels around to give you one book a week. I read a racist Tom Clancy novel, “Without Remorse.” The “hero” is a CIA agent who, when he is not murdering Vietnamese “savages,” is a serial killer vigilante who murders dozens of “degenerate scum” drug dealers. Clearly, solitary takes a strong mind to endure. No wonder every published study on solitary confinement reports negative psychological damage.

But we have no choice. Anybody doing any kind of time is inevitably going to spend some time in solitary. I’m only a few years in and I’ve been in the SHU some eight times for nearly everything they got: weed, tattoos, arguing with an officer, refusing to stand count. May as well add “226: Stealing government property” to the list.

For some reason, SHU time is easier to digest if it’s for something you know you could get locked up for and you chose to do anyway, instead of some bogus, made-up write-up (like the time I was locked up in NYC during Hurricane Sandy). So these few weeks are no big deal to me. I’m chilling, waiting to see the DHO [Discipline Hearing Officer] to get my sentence, meanwhile doing hundreds of push-ups to stay warm and active and rapping with my cellie who was locked up for hip-tossing a CO. Turns out I could have punched the boss in the face and gotten the same severity 200-series shot. Good to know. [The Bureau of Prisons places different infractions into different offense “levels.” In this case, possession of stolen government property is on the same “level” as it would punching his boss in the face, and he would receive the same punishment. You can read more about what the BOP calls their “inmate discipline system” here.]

Is it really possession of stolen property if the bag of clothes hasn’t left the laundry yet? The Disciplinary Hearing Officer thought so and convicted me via video chat despite the other errors on the shot. (The boss misspelled “socks.”) But it could have been worse. He did not put me on any additional phone, commissary, or visit restrictions. Instead, he took 27 good-time days. That’s an extra month I’ll have to stay in prison. They only award you 47 days off per year for “good behavior,” and with all the other shots I caught, I’ve already lost nearly everything. I’m still paying off the two years worth of visiting restrictions for testing positive for weed in NYC. It’s alright though. I’m back on the compound, raking leaves and mowing grass for $5.25 per month.

There was nothing extraordinary about this incident, just an amusing story of getting caught stealing. This particular shot was not in retaliation for the administrative grievances I’ve filed against the mail room, which is an ongoing situation in and of itself. Just as often as they get you for something you may have actually done, they are twice as quick to put fabricated or trumped-up charges on you. As I am writing this article, they gave me a 296 shot. As crazy as it sounds, I was written up for “Circumventing Mail Monitoring Procedures” for allegedly emailing my letter of support  of Barrett Brown to my friend with directions to forward it to his defense team. This bogus write-up probably is some sort of retaliation meant to put me on communication restriction to prevent me from posting angry, bitter rants online.

Regardless, I will continue refusing to be a “model inmate.” I am not in prison for following the rules, and I will never have any respect for their petty policies or their boot-boy enforcers.

Stay Strong, Stay Defiant, Stay Dangerous!