It Ain’t The Promised Land…Part Three

The camp itself is a 10-year-old military-style barracks 50 yards long by 30 yards wide with concrete block walls and floors, large fluorescent panel lights which, on occasion, are left on all night long for “security reasons,” and rectangular windows through which blasts of cold air blow as caulk has given way to age and disrepair. Lacking in any insulation, the building remains cold year-round… half the time from inconsistent heating and the rest from uncontrolled blasting air conditioning. Overcrowded with some 130 men, many suffering from skin infections, rashes, and open, oozing sores, and some from hepatitis, diabetes, STDs, and HIV, the barracks, with its communal bathrooms is a veritable incubator for disease… when one of us gets sick, fifty others are sure and soon to follow. On a recent inspection tour by a private prison accreditation group, several inspectors were heard to say that they were shocked not just by the camp’s overcrowding, but its floor plan, lack of privacy, and filth.

Almost all other camps in the BOP operate independent of maximum security prisons with administrators and guards not tempered, indeed stained, by the nightmare attendant to gun turrets, concertina wire, SHUs and prisoners, sentenced to many decades, if not life, behind bars, where violence, indeed death, is very much the norm. In most other camps within the BOP, weekend home furloughs are routinely granted to prisoners to spend alone time with their families in their communities in the last year or so leading up to their release as part of the mythical “re-entry process”. Canaan has none.

Likewise, most camps provide for elements of prisoner privacy, family visits, and meaningful programs, opportunities markedly absent from Canaan. Ranging from semi-closed, individual cubicles with modular unit showers and toilets to hands-on community-based education and employment opportunities to more frequent and relaxed family visits, these independent camps are not driven by the needs, demands, or concerns of connected maximum-security prisons.

Camp eligibility is typically scored by various criteria including an “offender’s” age, the nature of the charges for which they have been convicted, their criminal history, whether they pose a threat to the community, and prior imprisonment, if any. Nevertheless, its naive to believe that such placements are removed from outside politics or political influence. Thus the camp at Otisville, New York, long a much sought after placement because of all its perks, has a population riveted with ultra-Orthodox Hasidim Jews and opportunities driven by their significant political clout in Washington. While camps like Canaan enjoy no furloughs, rare is the prisoner at Otisville who has not been released on a Friday afternoon to return on Sunday to ensure time with their family and friends on their Sabbath. Likewise, numerous prisoners have community-based jobs which permit them to spend a day away from the prison-camp wages working in local jobs… most owned and operated by members of the local Hasidim community. Several nights a week, family members of prisoners provide home-cooked meals to the inmates and are permitted to participate in religious holidays and ceremonies at the camp. None of these activities are permitted at Canaan. Although Otisville is closer to my home and the New York region from where my conviction was obtained, placement for me at the Otisville camp was vetoed on a national BOP level lest my “controversial” views on Zionism and Israel offend the Hasidim power base at Otisville and elsewhere. Indeed, not long after my arrival at Canaan, I learned that I had been designated to the “CIM,” or “Central Inmate Monitoring” program, by the Regional Director of the BOP. Although I was assured that this rare designation would not “affect” my life at Canaan, the designation was triggered by my “controversial public persona and numerous public appearances on television and in newsprint.” A plain read of the applicable guidelines does more than hint at a designation designed to stifle and/or silence political dissidents.

“The Bureau of Prisons monitors and controls the transfer, temporary release…and community activities of certain inmates who present special needs for management. Such inmates, knows as “Central Inmate Monitoring” (CIM) cases require a higher level review which may include central office and/or regional office clearance for transfers, temporary releases, or community activities. This monitoring is…[intended] to provide protection to all concerned and contribute to the safe and orderly operation of federal institutions.” Program Statement, US Department of Justice (BOP), number 5180.05

The camp at Canaan is not what it apparently once was. Long-term inmates report that former administrators, program directors, and guards were noted for their arbitrary and selective enforcement of policies and procedures and abusive demeanor and heavy hand. According to prisoners, the new administrators and most guards are somewhat more solicitous of inmate rights and concerns, and, to the degree “possible,” they report that the atmosphere has improved slowly but steadily. Nevertheless, it is painfully clear that politics and arbitrary BOP policy continue to guarantee that a “warmer” camp does not mean a better or a necessary one.

Although a world apart from the maximum security prison “up top,” the camp still presents its own isolation and despair, the kind that comes naturally with the constant tease of going home sooner rather than later, where collective punishment for the missteps of one can turn a brotherhood of the oppressed into, at times, so many vigilantes, where the DOJ industry of cooperation becomes the BOP industry of surrender, where some prefer to barter their integrity and independence for more halfway release and home confinement.

At day’s end, Canaan is little more than a forced labor camp where prisoners clean communal toilets and showers, mop floors, shovel snow, and service the needs and demands of the prison up top, typically for mere pennies per hour, forty hours or more each week. This is particularly true during the frequent “lock-downs” at the maximum security prison where we serve as so much scab labor, performing menial tasks that would otherwise cost the BOP hundreds of thousands of additional dollars if its own staff undertook the work instead of prisoners forced to do so at the peril of a trip to the SHU for their refusal.

On about a half dozen occasions during my 11 month stay at Canaan I was required to work during a lock-down up-top usually preparing boxed breakfasts or hot meals in a cafeteria or its filthy kitchen for all 1500 prisoners locked in their cells 24-7 throughout this period. One lock-down in particular stands out in my mind: during this almost four week period I was part of an 8 prisoner crew from the camp that was awakened each morning at around 2:30-3:00 and transported up-top to prepare meals from 4:00 am to noon six days per week, and then returned to the camp exhausted; desperate for sleep until the mindless routine began once anew. Once during this particular assignment I was also detailed to a duty lieutenant’s office where I was instructed to tape a bunch of wires and extension cords otherwise lying on the floor below his desk to the wall just above so that his feet would not come in contact with them. To perform this complex task themselves would have required of the lieutenant or any of the other five officers sitting around doing nothing but a few minutes of their own time bending over on the floor with some tape and nothing else. What’s that song ? “Old Man River . . . “

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