Ways Prison Life Is Even Worse Than On TV
If shows like Oz, Breaking Bad, and Prison Break are any indication, prison is an unending nightmare of shanking, corruption, and tubs of boiling sugar to the face. The weird thing, though? These shows didn't touch on the truly nasty stuff ...
The Food is So Bad, It's Almost Unconstitutional
There's a reason why "prison food" is our go-to descriptor whenever we eat something that tastes rank. There's one prison foodstuff, however, that strikes fear into the hearts of even the hardest convicts like a digestible Batman. Its name? Nutraloaf.
"With a name like that, how could it be bad?" you ask, like a damn fool. Although the recipe varies from state to state, Nutraloaf -- or simply, "the loaf" -- is a meatloaf-esque chimera made of bread and random bullshit like potatoes, oatmeal, rice, beans, potatoes, carrots, and meat (but in the loosest sense of the term). We realize that list of ingredients doesn't sound terrible, but that's only because it's hard to communicate how inedible this thing is. It's been described by people who've eaten it as "absolutely detestable" and "like chewing on chalk," and what it lacks in taste, smell, and mouthfeel, it makes up in being an effective method of torture.
Nutraloaf, you see, isn't fed to everyone. It's specially-reserved for prisoners who misbehave at mealtimes, for instance, by attacking guards and other inmates or being disruptive jerks. When this happens, the prison responds by taking away one of the few things that prisoners live for: food. Replacing it with a garbage slab gives them just enough nutrients to keep their body alive, but not their spirits. This might sound bonkers, but it works. It's seen as such a harsh punishment that when a prison wants to 'loaf an offender, they have to get sign-off from the prison governor beforehand. For the sake of comparison, that's more oversight and accountability than was ever applied to our drone warfare program.
In recent years, prisoners have even filed lawsuits arguing that being served 'loaf violated their eight amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment -- an argument that is clearly true. Yet, one prisoner's successful attempt was later overturned on the grounds that the amendment "requires only that prisoners receive food that is adequate to maintain health; it need not be tasty or aesthetically pleasing." To constitute a violation of the eighth amendment says the ACLU's David Fathi, Nutraloaf would have to be so disgusting that "no reasonable person would eat it [thereby causing them to] lose weight and have health problems."
Nevertheless, some states have started to outlaw the loaf on the grounds that while it doesn't violate the constitution, 'loafing prisoners doesn't make them less disruptive -- and can even make them worse. Because if they're stuck eating tasteless crap for 30 days, they might as well make it worth it.
You Freeze in Winter and Swelter in Summer, And No-One Gives a Damn
In ye olden days, people convicted of a crime would be locked up in a windswept, rain-soaked, freezing castle dungeon, and left to rot for all eternity. Or until the guards grew tired of hearing them singing the songs of angry men and people who will not be slaves again, and beat them to death.
It's not all Batman here, you know. We also do culture!
The thing is, though, while you're no longer liable to get sentenced to life imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, that doesn't mean prison conditions have gotten any better. When winter hits hard, prisoners across the country -- from Texas to Pennsylvania to New Jersey -- report that they're often left to freeze, due to negligence and/or cruelty on the part of their jailers. "Every year we hear the same complaints [...] people are cold, they aren't getting the required warm clothing that the [Department of Corrections] is supposed to provide for people, the sweats and blankets," says Kelsey De Avila, a project director at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). "[Our clients say] the heat hasn't been turned on, windows are broken so cold is coming into the units, and when they ask for the clothing, they have to beg or ask multiple times."
This doesn't mean that things are any easier when the sun puts his hat on. Since 1998, at least 20+ people have died in prison as a result of extreme heat, while a study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that 13 states with hot climates don't have universal air conditioning -- which you might scoff at, but you'd be an asshole for doing so. These folks are already doing hard time, so wishing nausea, hallucinations, and death on them seems a bit much.
This situation is compounded by climate change; as the world's climate gets more screwed, we'll have less cold weather, sure, but states are going to be hotter for longer. The kicker? This should've been sorted a long, long time ago, too. In 1991, the Supreme Court ruled that cold temperatures and a failure by prisons to issue blankets could be considered a violation of the eighth amendment (Hey, remember that?). '91 also saw the publication of a damning report into prison conditions by Human Rights Watch.
"In almost all institutions Human Rights Watch visited, we heard complaints about the temperature," the report described. "At Starke [in Florida], many inmates complained about heat in the summer and cold in the winter; the same concerns were voiced by prisoners at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. Most institutions we visited, including those in hot climates, were not air-conditioned."
Which is weird because the '90s, were a time when HRW reporting on human rights violations was usually followed by the military lodging a sidewinder missile inside the urethra of some repressive tinpot dictator. When the call comes from inside the house, however, not so much.
You Could Be Placed in a Prison Built on Toxic Land
After reading this article, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the system doesn't value the rights, dignity, or lives of prisoners. Well, we're here to put that misconception to bed. The system might be broken, underfunded, and severely lacking in empathy, but the people in charge aren't monsters. If they were, they'd be doing cartoonishly evil things like building prisons on toxic wastelands.
Surprise! That's totally what they're doing! Although you probably figured that out already, from the entry title.
Of the 1,800+ prisons in the U.S., 580+ are built within three miles of a Superfund site -- an area of land that, for whatever reason, is so polluted that it poses a significant danger to human health. Of those, 130+ are built within one mile or less, which is close enough for prisoners to start suffering the side-effects that come from vaping toxic chemicals all day.
That's exactly what's happening, for instance, at FCI Victorville, a correctional facility in California built on an old military facility which unknowingly -- or maybe, knowingly but they didn't give a damn -- contaminated the region's water supply with solvents, pesticides, and radioactive material. As a result, prisoners at Victorville have to deal with regular outbreaks of stomach ulcers caused by a bacterium that thrives in tainted water supplies. Perhaps that's why in 2018, ICE decided to transfer over 1,000 prisoners to Victorville. We don't know why, it seems like something they'd do.
It's not just Superfunds, though. It seems that wherever there's industrial pollution, there's a city planner just dying to stick a prison there. There's Wallace Pack Union, a prison for elderly and disabled offenders in Texas, which has a problem with arsenic-laced water. There's California State Prison, which was built on a soil-based fungus hellmouth which for several years, caused inmates to suffer respiratory infections. There's Kern Valley State Prison, a prison in California which was sued after it was found to have air quality levels so bad, they were illegal. There's SCI Fayette, a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania that suffers a high rate of cancer among inmates by virtue of being built on a coal-ash dump containing quantities of arsenic, lead, and mercury.
And then there's Riker's Island, the infamous prison in New York, which you know from shows like Law and Order and Daredevil. The thing they didn't mention, however? That the prison is on a toxic landfill site, which causes inmates and guards alike to cough blood with alarming regularity. Although, admittedly, that would've made Vincent D'Onofrio even harder to understand.
You Aren't Going to Be Rehabilitated in a Private Prison
Is prison meant to punish or rehabilitate offenders? We're not sure, but when it comes to private prisons, we already know what their purpose is: to make major bank.
As you can probably figure from the name, private prisons are prison facilities that, unlike state and federal prisons, are for-profit ventures run by private companies. They make their money by charging states for every individual offender they house. As of this writing, the billion-dollar industry houses roughly 8% of the country's offenders -- or to put it another way, 118,444 people.
Except, there's a problem with this business model. In "ordinary" prisons, education and rehabilitation programs are a thing -- an underfunded thing, but a thing nonetheless -- which over the years, have been proven to reduce recidivism rates by nearly half. As part of their agreement with states, private prisons are also meant to operate these programs. But they don't, primarily because they're expensive and the less money they spend on frivolities on education, healthcare, and um, security is more money for them and their shareholders. It's almost like they don't want people to stop being crimina-- oh, right.
Just to be clear, we're not saying that private prison operators like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (ugh) are intentionally cutting education programs -- which, again, probably cut recidivism -- because doing so would massively damage their future bottom line, but goddamn, isn't it neat how the chips fall like that? It's almost like how because private prisons underspend on security costs, inmates incur twice as many infractions as prisoners in state/federal facilities -- which because of how infractions tend to be punished with sentence increases, means states are indebted (literally) to the offender's respective private prison for even longer.
What a business model! How do we get on the ground floor of this action? Oh, right, be utter monsters. Nevermind.