This interview was conducted after an April 15 rebellion at Lee Correctional Institution, a South Carolina maximum security prison. It was the deadliest prison uprising since the Lucasville Uprising on April 11-21, 1993. (Lucasville prison uprising 25th anniversary, Workers World) Jared Ware spoke with individuals inside Lee, one of whom identified as a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of imprisoned human rights advocates who have called for a National Prison Strike from Aug. 21 to Sept. 9.
The demands and support actions are at incarceratedworkers.org. The following is Part 2 of the interview. Part 1 is available at “South Carolina prison conditions breed hopelessness.”
Bishopville, S.C. — The individuals, identified here as D and S to protect their identities and prevent retaliation by prison officials, point to the dehumanization of prisoners and challenge our conception of “gangs” — which do not take into account the ways in which incarcerated people are forced to create their own collective means for safety, survival and camaraderie in a situation where hope is the scarcest commodity. They urge the public to reconsider the nature and source of violence in prisons and the absence of human dignity and a rehabilitative environment. They present actionable solutions to mitigate some of the harm caused by prisons on our ultimate path toward shedding carceral responses to societal needs.
Jared Ware: Can you talk me through some of what happened in South Carolina prisons over the years [since Bill Clinton’s 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act and Antiterrorism Act]?
S: Prisoners got a lot of time to serve, but actually with nothing to do. When [prisons] took away all the privileges, they took away a lot of the programs. Stuff like that. It leads to just standing around with nothing to do, except to indulge in negative behavior and reactionary behavior, and just all different forms of escapism — whatever [prisoners] can do to pass the time.
[Prisons] drug test you so they can take away your privileges. Why do they need drug testing inside the prisons? People are already in here doing time. It’s irrelevant. I can see if somebody’s getting ready to go home for parole or something like that and you’re going to test them. But just to constantly test them, that’s kind of like a waste of money. They always waste their funds on things they don’t need to waste their funds on.
We have no means of supporting ourselves because there’s no state pay. Because we have no state pay [now], we have no way to eat. Even though [state pay] was just a little bit of money, it still was something. You could buy some hygiene [products].
When they do lockdown, they’re supposed to give you showers Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, whatever the lockdown be for. But they don’t ever honor it. They want to do one cell at a time, and it’ll take you a whole week before you get a shower.
You have some prisons where the water system is messed up. Particularly at Lieber [Correctional Institute], their water system has been messed up forever. When you flush the toilet or pour your water, it smells like rotten eggs. They say it has sulfur in it or whatever, but it eats up the actual metal and causes mold and stuff to be all over the prison.
If they were to go do a tour through that prison right now, and they go all the way from the lock-up to the yard, the ceiling is falling in, metal hanging down. [Water is] dripping all over the place. Mold is all over the place. People who are in prison for 15 to 20 years are dying from cancer. But they don’t have no cigarettes inside, you feel me?
We’re confined to a cell a lot. They do a lot of counts and the counts always last for a long period of time. The purpose of counting is to make sure that we’re here. In all reality, they should just count us and then let us back out for recreation. If you [are on] count from the time you eat dinner on a Friday night to your next meal on a Saturday, it’s 17 or 18 hours before you get your next meal. And on the daily basis, you’re talking about 12 to 13 hours from when you get your first meal to your next meal. That’s almost like a half a day. That’s a long time.
So you eat up all your [food purchased from the] canteen, which forces you to go the canteen and spend a lot of money on a bunch of junk that they price gouge. But this money is coming from family members who are out there working hard to help support you as well.
D: One of the things that has not fully been addressed in South Carolina is the nature and culture of disrespect from the officers inside the South Carolina Department of Corrections, as well. They have completely, in my eyes, mastered the art of dehumanizing prisoners. They intentionally went into an overdrive of taking the prisoners’ clothes. Not only taking the prisoners’ clothes, cutting the prisoners’ hair the same way, had it to where you can’t have your money in your pocket.
Just a number of things to take away your individuality. And in the process of taking away your individuality, they begin to treat you as if you were garbage. What I mean by treat you as garbage, just by dehumanizing us, it makes it easier for them to abuse us, and this abuse a lot of times takes place as physical abuse.
We had in the super max units out in Columbia, S.C., maybe about a year or two ago, guards bumrush a prisoner inside his cell, stab him up. We’ve always had a number of incidents with regards to them cuffing prisoners, then cutting prisoners up, slamming prisoners on their heads. In some cases we’ve had mysterious deaths in these maximum security prisons, some hangings that prisoners are clearly not comfortable with labeling as [suicide] hangings.
We’ve also had incidents where prisoners are no longer getting [recreation] at all. It’s like every blue moon before we even see any sunlight or daylight to be able to get rec. That itself is causing a lot of attitude problems. A lot of aggressiveness.
When we talk about the food, we don’t get any fruit, no real fruit anyway. At one time they actually had salad bars. They removed all of that over two decades ago. Now you get nothing. Some of the food is labeled “not for human consumption.” So these are normal things that we are actually dealing with inside the prison system.
For visitation, there’s no contact with your visitor, with your loved ones. One kiss in, one kiss out. Rather than a hug, sit down, embrace each other. Be in the comfort of each other’s company. We’re finding that is moving further and further away, and I’m very fearful that we’re moving to the stage of video visits very soon, in the very near future.
Ware: Talk a bit about technology. Bryan Stirling [director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections] has, for at least a year now, been on this kick about getting cell phones out. There was this fairly high profile escape less than a year ago, and they blamed cell phones for that. And they’re also blaming this riot on cell phones. They’re talking about phone jammers. Talk a little bit about cell phones in relation to the prisons and what they mean or provide to prisoners and how realistic some of these narratives or fears being stated by SCDC are.
S: SCDC’s main reason for not wanting the [cell] phones inside the prison system is because the phones got camera access, video access, and the phones can expose the things that they do when they’re using extreme force. The same way people are using cell phones out on the street when they’re catching certain things that cops aren’t supposed to be doing. They can be exposed. They can’t hide when we’ve got the phones.
The prisoners utilize the [cell] phones to communicate with their family members. Because of the phone system that [SCDC has], the phone prices are entirely too high. Nobody would use that. They get money off it, too, and everybody knows that. Prisoners use the phone as a means of staying connected to their families, fathers staying connected to their children. Some fathers back here are raising their children from prison by staying in contact with them.
So SCDC just wants the phones out of the prisons because they don’t want to be exposed. They don’t want the videos of the fights and stabbings to be shown. There’s other things prisoners are shooting videos of. They’re showing videos of the brown water. They show videos of the mold inside the buildings. They show videos of the prisoner who’s been dead in the bed for two hours and the guard ain’t come and check on the man yet. So it’s a fly on the wall [watching] them. That’s why they don’t want the [phones] in here.