It Ain’t The Promised Land… Part Two

[Please note that this series was written while Stanley was imprisoned at Canaan, however, portions may have been expanded, added or reworked since his release. As a result, there may be some inconsistencies in tense which are, overall, minor in relating his story. ..ed]


Part 2

Designated a “Level 2” medical facility, the forced labor camp at Canaan where I serve my 18-month sentence is the prison care counterpart to “Obamacare”… long on PR and little else.

Canaan’s medical facilities, until recently headed by a chain-smoking former long-term local coroner who liked to quip “we are all going to die,” are remarkable not for the quality of their care, but rather institutional indifference and incompetence… particularly at the camp. Inmates both past and present, as well as health care professionals imprisoned there themselves with significant experience in a number of fields, describe the medical care as simply “shocking.” By all accounts medical care at the prison complex has a reputation… even in emergency situations… of being substandard and dramatically delayed with broken appointments and essential tests deferred, often for months, including necessary x-rays, blood tests, and other specialized procedures.

Medical staff are known for trivializing prisoner complaints and can often be heard belittling inmates, telling them not to be babies, to get on with it, and to stop “malingering”… a term used often by administrators and guards alike whenever prisoners complain of illness or injury. Not surprisingly, prisoners, some with serious conditions, often wait (some too late) to seek medical help rather than to be subjected to such verbal abuse. Staffed by physicians, dentists, psychologists and assistants described by other health care experts as largely lacking in the requisite knowledge and expertise to meet the current necessary standard of care, no privilege exists between medical personnel and inmates who are often reminded that as BOP service providers, the information they obtain about mental and medical health is shared with lay personnel and administrators. Lacking in sophisticated equipment and skills, and ill-prepared for specialized follow-up care and procedures for prisoners referred out to local hospitals for emergent situations, numerous are the instances where prisoners pay a terrible and inhuman price for the loss of their liberty.

Thus awakened a few days ago by the routine blare of screeching inane announcements and on my way to the filth and stench of the bathroom with 130 others, I suddenly found myself walking through puddles of fresh blood. No, not the result of a fight or stabbing, the trail of blood traced back to a prisoner’s bunk whose vein had ruptured and bled out because of raging, unchecked diabetes. Like the 2 previous occasions when the same vein had ruptured, the prisoner was eventually provided a Band-Aid to cover the seeping and told to “watch it.” A fellow prisoner, a physician on the “outside,” tried to clean up the spill with but a small bottle of sterilizing solution as blood was spread by other prisoners racing to ready for work.

Three days earlier, a prisoner waiting for count collapsed striking his head on the floor with the echo of his skull crashing against it heard throughout the barracks. Lying on the cement floor unable to respond to questions from other concerned prisoners as to where he was, or why, or what had happened, he sat dazed as the guard who responded nonchalantly called in an “incident ”over his radio, simply reporting a prisoner had “fallen out” and that someone “might want to come down and take a look at him.” For an hour, the prisoner, who had suffered his second inexplicable collapse in the last few months, waited for help to arrive… none did. Eventually, unseen by medical personnel, he was ordered to report to the medical unit in a separate building some 150 yards away. Dazed and unable to walk without assistance of fellow prisoners, he reached the unit through blizzard-like conditions. An hour later, he was removed from the prison by an outside ambulance.

How much better off was this prisoner than an earlier one who collapsed on the floor during “count” and remained there unattended to for some 3 hours by guards who marked him as a “malingerer,” ordering other inmates not to assist him.

Or the one who laid on his bunk for months complaining of severe stomach pain, receiving scant medical attention save for a diagnosis of indigestion and cramps and ordered to return to work. Not much later, he fell off a ladder. Taken to a local hospital and diagnosed with a hip fracture, it was discovered with little examination that he had colon cancer. Soon thereafter, he died.

Or the 91 year old World War II veteran, yes, 91 year old prisoner, convicted of a white collar offense almost a decade ago that has recently relapsed and faces certain death from cancer. To him, death would be a welcome companion, as his life all but ended with the passing of his wife of 60 years who languished at home alone in their bed while he underwent difficult and painful treatment for his first brush with cancer far from their home. He was not permitted to attend her funeral.

Or to the 63-year-old physician sentenced to 10 years for illegally dispensing a modest amount of painkillers who is forced to shovel snow and ice despite having suffered nine “mini” strokes while at Canaan. Often seen shuffling, occasionally stumbling, as he walks in meaningless circles, “Doc” typically forgets his train of thought mid-sentence as he rambles on.

Or the sixty-something “white collar” offender convicted of security fraud and sentenced to 15 years who lays day in and out largely immobilized or asleep on his cot with a history of multiple heart attacks and strokes within the prison system including one of each while at Canaan. On the occasion of his last stroke, the ambulance “rushing” him to the hospital stopped for some two hours while its attendant took care of a personal errand. Maintained on ten different medications daily and suffering from likely recurring and untreated cancer, his complaints about recurring urinary infections and blood in his urine have gone completely untreated, as has his need for a necessary knee replacement and treatment for a torn ACL.

Or the prisoner who suffered a heart attack and underwent triple bypass surgery who was returned to his bunk one day later and left to sit in a wheelchair oozing pungent bodily fluids onto the concrete slab floor from his surgical tubes.

Dozens of prisoners, many young, walk around the camp with gaping holes in their mouths because the resident dentist, known as Dr. Pull ‘Em, typically does only extractions, no matter what the dental problem may be, performing no alternate procedures routinely done on the outside. When I went to see the dentist and was looking at an ex-ray with her, she ordered me to return to the chair, under threat of being sent to the SHU, after I objected to her plan to do an unnecessary extraction, and because I had earlier refused to permit her 19 year old assistant to perform a dental procedure on me. The assignment of her dental tasks to him, is very much the norm.

More than a few of the prisoners in Canaan are elderly and bed-ridden. Unable to control their own bodily functions, at times they urinate or defecate on themselves or the floor, often unknowingly, as they remain heavily medicated to keep them happy and asleep throughout the day. Frequently, hours pass before the waste is discovered, let alone cleaned up. In prison its business as usual.

Indeed, highly contagious skin rashes are endemic within the close knit quarters of the camp with little in the way of “prevention” but the use of napkins on bathroom and shower stall handles and on doorknobs. Typically, the few soap dispensers in the camp remain empty and not once during my 11 months at Canaan did I see any paper towels in the bathroom. Often, the toilets back-up, leaving puddles of excrement and urine all over the floor, on occasion running out into communal sleeping areas.

Like the penal colony “up top,” the forced labor camp below is filled with mostly prisoners of color, inner-city young men (and those who once were) imprisoned for years, many serving mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent, complaint-less drug offenses, so much the victims themselves of a destructive, morality-driven economic agenda that buys cops, builds prisons, and buries our young… and little else. The remaining camp prisoners are white, most above 55 years of age, most imprisoned for many years for so-called low-level “white collar offenses” while the bankers and CEO’s cut civil deals, pay fines, and go to the club for multi-billion dollar corruption and fraud that threatens the economic and social well-being of the country.

Currently, the race and age breakdown at the camp approximates that of the federal prison system nationwide. Thus, while Black men constitute but 6.5% of the US population, they amount to 40% of the federal prison inmates nationwide, and 60% of the population at the Canaan camp. By the very nature of camp placement criteria itself, none of the prisoners pose a threat to the community at large, yet they remain isolated and separated from family and friends for no purpose but retribution, plain and simple.

Indeed, I have met no prisoner at the camp who could not otherwise and safely be at home providing for his family, raising his kids, and contributing to his community though community service and other volunteer programs.

For those at the camp fortunate enough to escape the strokes, the seizures, and the surgical mishaps, life in the Gulag remains one very much filled with isolation, despair, and futility. For our partners, children and parents, they too are imprisoned, serving sentences identical to ours until our release as they struggle to hold together healthy relationships and families while trying to stave off financial disaster at every turn. For us, life in the camp is at its absolute worst when we hang up from the brief, periodic monitored phone call or email exchanges, powerless to do anything about the fears and suffering our loved ones go through while we earn from 8 to 12 cents per hour cleaning toilets, bagging lunches, and shoveling snow.


It Ain’t the Promised Land

In compliment to Prison America Parts I & II,  this is the first installment in a new ongoing series…

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 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.