It’s 6:00 AM, the loudspeaker blasts out, “Main line, main line, main line,” as the huge cracked panel lights go on as so much a collective alarm clock waking all those whose blanket has slipped from their face as another day of despair begins for 130 battered men in the “House of the Dead.”
“Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease. The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man or woman to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate…the return of the human dignity, repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The House of the Dead”
In his epic, semi-autobiographical novel of life and death in an 1880’s Siberian Gulag where he was imprisoned for four years as a political dissident, Dostoyevsky wrote of despair, isolation, sickness, and death. 130 years later, what was then and there remains very much here and now.
Pennsylvania is one of many states that has profited richly from a Gulag system run by federal, state, and local governments. Home to more than 40 penitentiaries of one sort or another, within Pennsylvania sits a massive penal archipelago that employs many thousands of administrators, guards, and local service workers as beneficiaries of a nation wide “crime pays” empire that costs some 75-80 billion dollars annually to operate as it cages some 2.5 million prisoners in Federal and State Prisons and local jails (an additional 4.8 million are supervised on probation and parole plus appx. 50,000 youths held in Juvenile Detention), most for complaint-less or non-violent offenses (appx 8% incarcerated for violent offenses). Pennsylvania State Prisons, alone, account for appx. 2.1 billion dollars annually. 25 years ago, most non-violent offenders were released on their own recognizance. Today, most are given bail and will pay a bondsman if they can afford it. Roughly .5 million adults, annually, sit in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail. It costs an additional 9 billion, annually, to house them.
Located in an isolated valley surrounded by rolling hills in the Northeast corner of Pennsylvania not far from the New York border sits Canaan, one such federal prison complex. Although it plays an essential role in the economic lifeblood of a distressed rural community which provides dozens of local jailers and contractors, Canaan is, nevertheless, viewed locally, with much suspicion, as so much the odd stepchild not to be talked of, let alone seen.
Perhaps the deaths two years ago of two local residents turned guards… one at the hands of a prisoner under mysterious circumstances and the second a suicide that followed in its wake… has left Canaan very much like the haunted house on the hilltop that all know of, yet only the foolhardy dare to visit. Or, perhaps, like all prisons in this country, Canaan, by design, remains ever foreboding, out-of-sight, out of mind to all but its caged and their gatekeepers.
Anything but a Biblical place of promise, hope, and redemption, Canaan is a cold, vicious, and isolated outpost of psychic and occasional corporal punishment which exudes desperation and despair from every wall, cell, and bunk whether from its maximum security prison or companion “camp.”
Seemingly quarantined, like most prison outposts that dot this country from coast to coast, Canaan and its host community are always on edge. Taut with the tension born of ignorance and fear, racked with suspicion, both are hostile to “those” people. Whether it’s the town’s one pub which, almost proudly, suggests to the few Black customers passing through the exclusively White community that they move on before sunset, or the stuffed monkey hanging from a small noose posted outside the office of a Black (now former) prison administrator, or the constant call of “boy” that rings throughout the prison, or the admonition that prisoners stop acting like “angry Black men,” ugly, pervasive racism is a constant companion to those who live and work voluntarily or otherwise in the very much gated community. For Jews, life is no more comfortable. More than a few report outbursts of anti-Semitism from guards ranging from “I thought Jews didn’t eat Hershey’s” to “You eat all of them, you will be a fat Jew boy” to “You’re a malingering Jew.” In one sudden outburst at a forced labor assignment, a guard screamed at a Jewish prisoner that he was the “SS commandant”, this [was] his camp, and [that] “you are all my campers.”
Six months a year, Canaan gives meaning to Dostoyevsky’s Siberian nightmare as very much a barren, frozen wasteland buried in mounds of snow swept by frequent blasts of gale-force winds with subzero Arctic wind-chill factors the norm.
The maximum-security prison rated both on and off the mythical inmate.com grid as among the most repressive and violent federal prison tombs in the United States is home to some 1,500 prisoners, two-thirds serving sentences of 20 years or more, the rest, life without the possibility of release. To them, some 500 men, the coroner’s wagon will at day’s end provide the only freedom they will again know. Meanwhile, day in and out can be heard the shrill screams of men buried in hopelessness and futility as they struggle to survive yet another day where stab wounds, broken bones, and burns become a rite of passage among many prisoners and guards alike.
At any given time, 15% of the prison population is segregated in the SHU, or Special Housing Units. Designed to isolate “acting out” or “violent” prisoners, the SHU at Canaan, like all federal prisons, has evolved to become the cornerstone of the BOP’s unofficial behaviour modification program. For those prisoners who refuse to be broken or silenced, or who display any open independence, a trip to the SHU is all but just a matter of time.
Buried deep in the cavernous prison, the SHU occupies three isolated and frigid floors divided into rows of dirty and dank cells each with a single window frosted over to ensure its prisoners cannot see outside the walls of their 7 by 10 foot homes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, often for many months on end.
Provided but a single sheet and blanket for their tiny 2 ½’ x 6′ cots along with a jumpsuit, a single pair of socks, and shorts, prisoners on the top two floors shiver around the clock as wind pours through missing window seals with temperatures controlled to remain at 62 degrees year-round. For the truly unbroken or unrepentant, the bottom floor of the SHU, or the “hole,” awaits prisoners provided but a single sheet, one t-shirt, and a pair of boxer shorts to insulate them from the punishing 55-degree temperature likewise maintained day in and out.
For the two men who share each cell with a combination sink and toilet, each is provided but a single towel, never laundered or replaced; one spoon and cup, not exchanged if broken; and no cleaning supplies to scour the ever-present layered filth from the purgatory they call home. During a prisoner’s stay in the SHU, there is essentially a ban on prison visits from family and friends and almost no communications permitted with others, be it by telephone, email, or letter. Likewise, no mail is received. In each cell sits a shower timed to run but for 4 minutes at a time, from which runs scalding hot water which burns the skin off as prisoners try to wash themselves… and which they use over and over again throughout the day to fill the boredom. Allowed but two books per cell every two weeks, prisoners read and re-read the same books over and over again as they desperately try to maintain their sanity in the House of the Dead.
A recent prisoner at the SHU advised he received absolutely no exercise or “rec” or time out of his cell (save for some 15 minutes) during the many weeks he was kept there, and wore the same pair of underwear, socks and t-shirt for the first 21 days of his isolation. Meanwhile “up top” in the main prison, life and death goes on very much unchanged for mostly young men of color who sit and stare at broken dreams and lost lives praying silently for that early release miracle that never comes as their 20’s give way to their 30’s and their 40’s typically for getting high, or helping others to, and so little else.