“It is unusual for inmates to speak out so forcefully about allegations of brutality behind bars,” reporter Jan Ransom wrote. “Many fear retaliation by guards.”
The misgivings of the men confined in Upstate New York should be viewed not as an anomaly, but as a reflection of a grave systemic problem. Documents buried in archives shed light on a tragic reality uncovered by activists and scholars: even as legal precedents and criminal justice policies have changed, prisoners who allege abuse have been consistently and flagrantly intimidated, discredited and worse, with far-reaching consequences.
History suggests that instituting broad protections for those who speak out about “cruel and unusual” conditions is a crucial means of guaranteeing constitutional rights for the more than 2 million people who are incarcerated in the United States.
Consider the 1944 investigation of the death of James White, an inmate at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo. White’s death certificate reported that he was killed by “acute psychosis,” but several inmates said they witnessed a violent confrontation with guards that they believed was the immediate cause of death.
In response to press reports about a culture of violence at Springfield, a three-person team headed by Federal Bureau of Prisons Director James Bennett conducted interviews with staff and inmates; the Bureau investigated itself — with unsurprising results.
Johnny Wilson, a prisoner who treated White in the infirmary shortly before he died, reported that the ailing man had “long whelps across his back,” indicating that he had been whipped with a flashlight. According to the transcript of the interview in government files, one questioner wondered whether the marks may have been caused by bedsores or perhaps by “thrashing about in bed and rubbing across the sheets?”
In response to prisoner Clifford Rainey’s report that, hours before White died, he was kicked by prison attendants so forcefully and persistently in the face, ribs and testicles that he began frothing at the mouth, Bureau Director Bennett coolly remarked, “I’m convinced you haven’t been absolutely frank.”
Perhaps unwilling to subject themselves to investigators’ suspicions, some at Springfield declined to share any impressions at all. “I don’t want to talk about that,” inmate Robert Brown responded when he was questioned about White’s death.
But other factors were also likely at play. “When [the guards] beat on a guy, they would then go to the next cell and ask if they heard anything,” prisoner Sam Scribner told investigators. “If you say yes, you get a beating.”
White and some of his fellow prisoners had histories of mental illness, and their diagnoses — often assigned while they were incarcerated — were used as proof that they had, as a 1944 article in The Prison World put it, “little or no credibility.” According to the newspaper, an official publication of the American Prison Association and National Jail Association, “anybody familiar with psychopathic patients knows that they are prone to all sorts of hallucinations and delusions of persecution.” White’s death, the article said, was “the result of the patient’s own threshing about while in a state of psychotic excitement.”
The White investigation revealed how prison officials could misrepresent, ignore and undercut inmates’ claims with relative impunity, and place in peril those who were outspoken.
Despite the risks, incarcerated people raised their voices to seek more humane conditions, and — especially in the 1960s and early 1970s — won pivotal court cases establishing critical precedents, including that prisoners indeed have constitutional rights worthy of protection.
Notwithstanding these victories, in the mid-1970s, following well-publicized prison uprisings that cost inmates their lives, and as the Supreme Court proved less open to a generous conception of prisoners’ rights, the threat of retribution remained prevalent, and sometimes proved too much to bear. In 1975, within months of a group of inmates at the North Carolina Correctional Facility for Women filing a complaint in district court about various health and safety issues, some plaintiffs began backing out. One wrote a letter to lawyers explaining that she felt “forced to drop it for now.” She had been considering it, she said, for weeks. “This is no easy thing for me because I know we are right and I want to fight. I’m sorry.”
Perhaps she was moved by reports like those of a fellow inmate who told the district court that she was placed in solitary confinement for 54 days and beaten after making her dissatisfaction with prison administrators known, in part by publicly singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
Defending and ensuring access to hard-fought rights has continued to prove challenging, thanks in part to powerful political, social and legal forces of the late 20th century and beyond, which ensured that prisons would become more prevalent, more openly punitive, more privatized and more bureaucratized. Much attention has been devoted to how the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act built on bipartisan and racialized support for “tough-on-crime” measures, and contributed to an epidemic of mass incarceration, but legal scholar John Pfaff, among others, argues that a relatively little-known law from the same period was more formative in terms of limiting prisoners’ rights.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, or PLRA, placed a set of “complex restrictions” on inmates wishing to file federal lawsuits, including that they first bring grievances to what Pfaff calls “byzantine” institution-and state-based systems. By erecting barriers making it harder for inmates to bring their claims to courts, the law severely limits “the ability of people in prison to argue that their conditions of confinement violate their constitutional rights.”
In a 2009 law review article, James E. Robertson offered evidence that retaliation is still a widespread systemic problem — “one of the dirty secrets of American Corrections” — that has been exacerbated by the PLRA. More than 90 percent of prisoners believe that, if they file a grievance, “‘staff will retaliate or get back at’” them, Robertson reported. Therefore, according to many prison supervisors, “‘a substantial number of inmates’ do not file grievances despite having legitimate issues.”
As a potential solution, Robertson proposed that, “adverse changes in a grievant’s conditions of confinement within sixty days of filing a grievance ought to create a presumption of retaliation … which … would trigger administrative remedies …”
That sort of initiative seems warranted, not only because of current reports of inhumane conditions, but also because of historical evidence of injustice. Rather than accepting that prospective prison “whistleblowers” must speak out at their own risk and live in fear, society should demand that they — and their constitutional rights — are protected.