Articles Posted in Protests

Since this post, I have received feedback suggesting that the announced policy indispute at FCI Fairton was/is a new rule that (a) if contraband is found in common areas and (b) if the “responsible” party fails to come forward, then all the prisoners on a particular block and/or unit may be subject to successively harsher sanctions, including loss of television, loss of telephone and loss of visitation. For anyone familiar with the dynamics of institutional life, this rule, if accurately conveyed, puts prisoners in an untenable situation: either they inform on a fellow prisoner(s) and are potentially labeled a “snitch” or “rat” — a label that can carry serious risks generally but especially in a prison setting — or they face institutional reprisal(s) for essentially refusing to put themselves in harm’s way.

Also reported is that what began as a relatively benign protest to the announced policy, involving successive units of prisoners walking past the chow call when called out for a meal (i.e., denying food), resulted almost immediately in the institution locking down the entire facility for ten days. As reflected in the memorandum, the lockdown occurred just before the holidays, meaning it seems that Fairton prisoners were denied communication and/or contact with their families and loved ones during what is, for most, an important time of the year. Of course, when an institution is on lockdown (and prisoners are confined to their cells), the need for staff presence is lessened. In other words, the situation appears to have afforded an opportunity for staff to make use of unused leave time if they were so inclined.

The feedback received also confirms an encouraging aspect of the incident, namely that medium-security prisoners did apparently elect to pursue a constructive protest when faced with what they viewed as an objectionable policy and maintained a degree of solidarity after what can be fairly characterized as institutional overreaction. Less reassuring is word that the lockdown presented particular difficulties for prisoners suffering from mental health issues. Also, there is word that prisoners involved with organizing the nonviolent action may have been transferred from the facility.

Over the holidays a colleague forwarded the memorandum below, which, if authentic*, indicates that FCI Fairton was (and possibly still is) on lockdown due a prisoner food strike over “dissatisfaction with the new procedures related to contraband found in common areas,” that is, “the new accountability procedures and sanctions [that] have been implemented.”
Fairton Lockdown

Given how frequently prison disturbances that arise from questionable institutional management practices are associated with physical confrontations and violence (i.e., riots — see here, as an example) the idea that a medium-security population would attempt to effect change of a disputed institutional policy through nonviolence is both refreshing and encouraging. As Mahatma Gandhi poignantly observed: “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” While it is not surprising that an institution would respond to a nonviolent protest by locking down the population, as opposed to engaging in constructive dialogue that might produce a mutually agreeable resolution, it is nonetheless disappointing.
Perhaps the action at Fairton population foreshadows a trend, however. The Bureau of Prisons abounds with problems and deficiencies ripe for attention: chronic overcrowding, over-/misuse of isolation housing units, prisoner displacement from loved ones and their communities, insufficient programming opportunities, poor medical and mental health care, systemic refusal to permit “compassionate release,” incidents of violence, indefensible telephone rates and unpalatable food, just to name a few. Unfortunately, where states have been actively in engaging in sentencing and prison reform in an effort to get “smart on crime,” the federal government talks about change but its prison population continues to grow unabated, as it has since the 1980s. The question is begged whether those most directly impacted by draconian federal sentencing laws and practices might ever seek to have their voices heard through widespread, organized nonviolence. In the words of Martin Luther King: “This is the unusual thing about nonviolence — nobody is defeated, everybody shares in the victory.”

*In over 15 years working with federal prisoners, I’ve seen various “official” documents that, upon closer inspection, prove not to be genuine. In view of the source here, however, I do not seriously question the document’s authenticity.

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