Filed under: Incarceration, Interviews, Midwest, Radio/Podcast
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Stories from the Inside is produced by the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). It features stories from people inside Minnesota’s prisons about what it’s like to be there, how they’re working to build power, and how prisons keep our whole society chained up.
Click here to listen to our latest podcast, “Because They Have the Badge.” It’s about guard abuse – primarily inside Stillwater Prison in Bayport, Minnesota – and how prisoners are resisting.
Please listen and let us know what you think at facebook.com/tciwoc.
Testimony 1: They got the badge and they don’t understand our situation. They know there’s no accountability, they know if one of us reacts to their negativity or their attitude, they probably get a vacation, paid leave or something, and we get charged.
Testimony 2: El uniforme tiene que ver mucho de eso, el uniforme los protege mucho.
[Voiceover translation: The uniform, it has a lot to do with it, the uniform protects them a lot.]
Testimony 3: I’d rather be treated like a man even though I am an inmate, incarcerated at the same time but I’m still a man – I am still a human being and I’m all for defiance towards anyone who treats people less than human.
Sophia: Welcome to “Stories From the Inside” produced by the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. Today you will hear our second podcast on guard abuse: Abuse on and off the books, guard training, prison admin culture, and push back and resistance inside. We collected these testimonies through phone call and folks inside spread the word.
Joanna: In weekly letter writing with prisoners and in phone calls we kept hearing prisoners speak about the grievances they had about guard abuse. For that reason, this became our next topic. My name is Joanna.
Sophia: My name is Sophia.
Irina: And I’m Irina. And we’re going to be starting off with talking about arbitrary rule making.
Testimony 1: When they make up petty rules: Stay behind the black line. If they’re not feeling good that day, they bring their attitude to work and they try to somewhat take it out on us and make petty rules and make these things up that they want us to abide by but it isn’t necessarily in the rulebook. Y’all job s to pretty much protect us and make sure nobody else is getting hurt. But if you had to go all out and start making guidelines and what not that we need to follow and y’all putting it under direct order — you all making up rules and putting that under direct order? That’s what to me is looking like abuse of your power. Like this one guy got almost he got sent to seg cause he was saggin’ or his pants were not pulled high enough for their standards. So that right there is a petty incident right there. You know like, aight, he’s saggin’, he pulled them up — and you are going to trip about that? Just cause you don’t like how I looks don’t mean necessarily he has to do so — that’s not in the rulebook.
Testimony 2: See it’s the hole for disobeying a direct order — what they think is disobeying a direct order. They make up their own rules. They want to let me know that we’re inferior and that they’re in control. It’s just any rule. I think the latest one was, I got out of the hole, and they put me in a unit that didn’t have any hot water. So we took cold showers — I took cold showers for forty days. I think that was the most abusive physical and mental torment that I went through. And mind you were still in the midst of winter.
Testimony 3: They can walk inmates out like butt naked. Like let’s say a fight breaks out in the shower, they can walk them unclothed out of the shower like no cover up or nothing – all the way out of the unit. So I don’t know if that is looking the other way but that’s messed up and that happened a few times.
Joanna: What is the impact of being treated in this way by correctional officers?
Testimony 3: It’s self explanatory: humiliation. You’re being humiliated. Okay you are in the wrong, you are in the wrong for fighting or if you had to defend yourself. But the simple fact of the matter is that they didn’t have time to dress you up and what not. You are being walked out in front of men and then not only that but female staff. And everybody here, you exposed. That’s like you being here in front of your school and everybody in the stadium is looking at you butt naked. That’s humiliating. You got to come back to that unit and people laughing and cracking jokes. That can ultimately lead to somebody you know suicide or anything.
Irina: So it’s not only violence that’s enacted on an individual basis, you know, prisoner for prisoner, inmate to inmate, but it’s also structural violence in the sense of the way that they organize prisoners.
Testimony 4: Tienen un programa que se llama PREA, como si te molestan o te violan, pues tienen ese programa pero este cuando estamos haciendo del baño ellos no nos dejan este poner cortinas para que nadie nos mire que estamos haciendo del baño. No les dan privacy.
[Voiceover translation: They have a program called PRIA, like if someone is harassing you or were raped, well they have this program. But when you’re using the restroom they don’t let us put up a curtain so people can see us going to the restroom. We’re not given privacy.]
Testimony 5: I have been incarcerated since I was sixteen and I am about to be 21 soon so therefore if you’re 16 you are youthful offender – you’re a YO. And I got certified so I went to St. Cloud prison. Within that prison they keep all the YO’s – the youthful offenders – in a certain unit. And ironically the unit that they have us in is in the sex offender unit. So youth offenders and sex offenders in the same unit. There was no differences as far as how the programs operated. We take the same showers, you know, we’re youthful offenders – we can’t bunk up with them until we turn eighteen but we can take showers with them we can have rec with them and stuff like that. So if you just do that it’s like putting us at risk in a sense. You know, you are giving us this title “youthful offender” and putting us in this area, but you putting us in the area with child molesters or people who have sex cases against minors. So you are going to put more minors around them? And how is that supposed to be rehabilitation for those offenders?
Joanna: So what we just heard were really awful instances and we know that these are repeated instances that happen but that they’re also built into the system and prisoners then have to face uneven consequences when they try to resist what is happening.
Testimony 1: El sistema como juega es psicológicamente, como si le haces algo a un guardia sabes que te van a dar cargos en la calle. Como va ha ser muy diferente como a un reo y otro reo se peleen. Aquí está un ejemplo, hace poquito este al warden lo acaban de despedir porque hizo unos comentarios sexualmente a una enfermera. A él nomas lo despidieron. Si hubiera sido un reo, a él lo hubieran castigado en el pozo y le hubieron quitado tiempo de buen comportamiento. Y le extienden su tiempo a plazo más largo de su salida.
Una vez me toco mirar a dos guardias peleándose aquí dentro de la prisión. No me acuerdo ningún nombre de esos guardias. Pero no les paso nada. Solamente él castigo de ellos fue que los suspendieron, los suspendieron de sus trabajos y eso fue todo lo que pasó. No los corrieron, o no les dieron de baja, nada de eso.
[Voiceover translation: The system plays with us psychologically. If you do something to a guard you know there will be consequences in the streets. It would be different from one inmate fighting another inmate. Here’s an example, a little bit ago the warden was fired because he made sexually harassing comments towards a nurse, they only fired him. If he had been an inmate he would have gone to the hole and would have had time taken away from his good behavior time. And they would have pushed his release date further back.
One time I also saw two guards fighting each other inside the prison. And nothing happened to them. Their only punishment was getting suspended. They got suspended from their jobs and that is all that happened. They didn’t fire them, they didn’t demote them – nothing like that.]
Sophia: This is a common thing, sometimes there’s consequences for staff or COs who break rules. But more often than not, there are no consequences like there would be for prisoners.
Testimony 1: You got staff in positions of power. From the associate commissioner who has multiple times had sexual contact, physical contact, with other staff under him. He got demoted from associate commissioner of corrections to warden in another facility. Had an issue there with another staff. Then came over to this prison as a warden. I don’t see how that’s possible because any type of sexual harassment with anybody is against the law. And nothing happens to him within the DOC except for demotions.
Testimony 2: I’ve seen COs cuss another inmate out. Yeah I’ve seen that numerous times where a CO just talk crazy to anybody. They mainly like target the young group. Cause I guess they feel that they got to show them when they come from the door right away like who’s boss or whatever. There’s been times when a CO has been written up for racial slurs.
Irina: While there are prison staff knowing there are no consequences and all the forces at play, abuse of prisoners goes way beyond what’s officially endorsed by the system.
Testimony 1: The first incident happened a few years ago. An inmate got maced to death and he died under the CO’s care. He was taking some pills or what not and he was real hyped up and you know wilin’ out, acting crazy so they had to come in and sedate him and grab him up, snatch him up. They were holding him down in the chair and they were pressing up on his back and he couldn’t breathe and he actually died because he couldn’t breathe. They used the cover up and said it was the medicine that actually killed him or what not but all in all it was the fact that he couldn’t breath. And the nurse actually said like “He can’t breath, he can’t breath!”
The staff member that was involved with it is no longer in that unit anymore. But he still works here that’s the ironic part. And I guess it’s under investigation but nobody has heard about situation in years so.
Testimony 2: A St. Cloud, me pusieron en el pozo que se llama segregation, y este salí de problemas con una guardia, y este término donde me terminamos peleando físicamente y cuando me iban a llevar a la caja, a la box, así la conocemos aquí en la prisión, ellos este voltearon la cámara y este me comenzaron a decir ya cuando estaba esposado con mis manos atrás me decían “stop resisting” pero me seguían pegando este por las costillas. Pero antes de que me pegaron uno de los guardias me dijo “así que no quieres seguir las reglas de nosotros.” Y fue cuando me comenzaron a golpear. Eso es uno de los momentos que he pasado.
Este es abuso de poder porque yo estaba esposado con las manos atrás y ya no estaba peleando yo. Y han ávido casos cuando las personas han terminado muriéndose por el exceso del abuso de ellos en como ponen las rodillas.
[Voiceover translation: In St. Cloud, I was put in el pozo, which is segregation, and I had issues with one of the guards. And it ended with us fighting physically, and when they were going to take me to the box – that’s what we know it as inside – they turned the camera around and they started telling me, when I was already in handcuffs with my hands behind me, they would say “stop resisting” but they kept hitting me in like the ribs. But before they hit me one of the guards told me, “so you don’t want to follow our rules?” And that is when they started beating me. That is one of the moments that I lived.
This is abuse of power because I was already handcuffed with my hands behind me and I was not fighting anymore. There have been cases of people who have ended up dead because of the excessiveness of their abuse.]
Testimony 3: I’ve seen COs put their knees in the back of somebody’s head when they are already on the ground, when they already got a fight broken up or when they put handcuffs on a person and they bend their arms backwards and try to bend them even more after they are already in the handcuffs.
Sophia: The abuse goes as far as even releasing dogs on people.
Testimony 1: I was actually bitten by one of their dogs while I was already on the ground. You know what I’m saying, the videotape shows that as well. I was actually in an altercation, I was in a fight and once the fight was already broken up, you know what I am saying I was already on the ground and I was actually bit in the foot by the dog. Which was by the CO’s command. The dogs ain’t gonna attack if it isn’t commanded by the CO.
Testimony 2: They tackle him down and then let the dog loose on him and bit his calf and somewhere behind his leg or his foot or something like that.
Testimony 1: I started screaming immediately of the pressure of the dog biting my foot. It bruised my foot, it punctured through my shoe, through my sneaker or whatever. It bruised my foot. I ended up screaming telling them to get the fucking dog off of me and you know going crazy. I cussed the COs out, you know, out of pain and agony.
Testimony 3: The dog wasn’t suppose to, you know, be biting nobody but they actually let him bite. It’s supposed to be more for intimidation tactic type deal but they let it actually bite somebody.
Testimony 1: Still to this day I still have, I can tell, I can tell it hasn’t been the same really. It bit my foot. I can just tell it ain’t been the same. They came to see me afterwards and I tried to do a follow up a week later, tell them like my foot is not, still hurts it’s the same day I got bit. They just ignored me.
Testimony 4: They do use the dogs inappropriately a lot.
Joanna: How many times have you heard about this.
Testimony 4: Probably around three times within four or five years.
Joanna: So the abuse we see inside it not evenly doled out. White supremacy informs the way people are collectively punished along racial lines.
Testimony 1: A los latinos han hecho algo que no han hecho con otras razas, como en a veces hay malos entendimientos con la misma raza que hemos peleándonos. Esto nos pasó a los latinos que en todas la prisiones, nos llevaron al pozo, y antes que nos llevaran al pozo nos desvistieron y luego llegando al pozo nos desvistieron otra vez como en un solo día fueron tres veces que nos desvistieron y a otras razas no le han hecho eso. Como si pasa algo con los latinos en una prisión a las otras prisiones como Oak Park y Stillwater o Rush City van y chequean a la raza. Le hacen search a la celdas de ellos sin tener que ver las otras personas. Que no tengan nada que ver con problemas que están pasando en otra prisión.
[Voiceover translation: To us Latinos, they have done something that they do not do with other races. Sometimes there are disagreements among our own people. We have ended up fighting each other. This happened to us, the latinos, that in all the prisons they take us to the hole. They undress us again and again. And one day we were strip searched three times. And to other races, they have not done this. Like If something happens with the Latinos like in other prisons – like in Oak Park or Stillwater or Rush City – they go and check raza. They’ll do searches in all our cells without them being involved. They have nothing to do with the problems in another prison.]
Joanna: So do you think guards see all Latinos as gang members?
Testimony 1: Ellos saben quienes son los pandilleros y quienes no. Y eso es lo que no puedo entender, o me puedo explicar.
[Voiceover translation: They know who is and who is not a gang member and that is what I cannot understand or what I cannot explain to myself.]
Joanna: Why do you think you are treated this way?
Testimony 1: De la raza, no tenemos gente que nos ayude a ya afuera. Que alce la voz para nos otros.
[Voiceover translation: Raza, we do not have people outside who raise their voice for us.]
Joanna: Do you think as someone who speaks Spanish as your primary language – do you think that has impacted the way you are treated inside by guards?
Testimony 1: Pues respecta psicológicamente.
[Voiceover translation: Yes, it affects me psychologically.]
Pre-recorded voice from prison’s phone system: You have one minute remaining.
Joanna: Another psychological stressor that people face inside is COs talking down to them.
Testimony 2: How the lieutenants spoke to me – speak to me like I’m a child, like I don’t know what I’m talking about. They try to belittle me. I’ve definitely been demeaned as a human being. It could just be a simple question that I asked and they’re quick to get smart with me. They try to undermine my intelligence.
Sophia: So where are guards from? What kinds of communities and neighborhoods do they live in? What kinds of experiences have their families had?
Testimony 1: Like I said, I went to school and grew up with a few of them that I know. So a few of them do come from the neighborhoods that we come from. But, I think that some of them come from high class, upper class neighborhoods where crimes like we do, that we have committed, don’t really happen. I don’t know them personally, where they all came from, but I feel that the way that they treat – the way they carry themselves – is like they look down on us.
Testimony 2: Some of them are from Wisconsin, some from up here, Stillwater or Bayport. They all know each other. I mean if they don’t know each other, they have a friend that knows that individual that’s gonna work here or that’s applying. So they pretty much all know each other. Those that they don’t know, someone from their own culture, when there’s people that come into here to work that they don’t really know, they kinda outcast them. And they end up quitting because they don’t feel, I don’t know, welcome.
Testimony 3: I think that if one of them or their loved ones were to end up in this type of environment I think their outlook upon us would change because they’d be able to see how their loved one is being treated. And I just think that with them having that power that they have, they don’t have no empathy, no understanding of what it’s like to be in this environment and be brutalized the way we’ve been brutalized.
Irina: Within this episode we really wanted to get a clear picture of who’s working in the prisons. We wanted to include demographics of the prison guards and we wanted to know what training they are receiving.
Joanna: What we found is that Corrections Officers are 11% of color at Stillwater and 27% female – in comparison to the State population of prisoners which is 50% people of color and 6% women. Corrections Officers make $15.40 an hour starting and can make as much as $27 an hour. Which make it’s about $32,000 to $58,000 a year in terms of their salary range.
Irina: When looking up information about training, we really came to a dead end. There’s limited information about Minnesota prisons and the training that prison guards are receiving. What we did receive was testimonies from folks on the inside and what they heard prison guards talking about and recalling how they were treated by folks who were newly hired. And even noticing that folks who are newly hired are also now training folks who are coming in.
Testimony 1: This, not too long ago, they really like, you know new staff members and what not, new COs. They have a rookie training. A rookie. Like how does that work? And it all starts with their academy and their teachings. In their academy, and other staff members told us that, told me that personally, they were like “man eighty percent of everything they teach in the academy is BS.” This is staff telling me this. Eighty percent of the you know, everything the teach them is BS stuff. It’s good in the sense of trying to protect you but the way they teach it, it will put a negative impact or a negative look on the inmate. You know they got this one image of inmates. Oh they are manipulators or anything could happen at any given moment so don’t get – you know it is little things like this it could have been trained. The administration can alter their training to not let them think like this.
Testimony 2: Like a few weeks ago there was another incident where staff actual staff right here. A sergeant was actually cursing out a female staff because she didn’t write anybody up and he put her on blast in front of everybody.
Irina: This was just an example of how Correctional Officers maintain a culture of abuse. We’re going to hear from one more prisoner about how COs use segregation to break people’s spirit.
Testimony 3: You got prison, regular prison population, then you got segregation, then got ACU where you have no human contact. You’re in there stuck by yourself 23 hours a day with a camera in your cell and basically no human interaction. I have a friend that we came in together, we came in as juveniles. He was like sixteen I believe when we came in because I was sixteen myself as well. He did time back there. He ended up losing his mind, you know. He’s no longer the same individual as when he first came in, the individual that I met when we were sixteen. Those are the effects of doing time back there in the ACU. It’s basically designed to break individuals and that’s exactly what it did to him. I believe he’s still back there as a matter of fact.
Joanna: Given the abuse that prisoners face, they are still organizing themselves and resisting abuse in both individual and collective ways.
Testimony 1: Tenemos un lieutenant in the unit that pretty much was in charge of running the unit and stuff. Basically she’s known for being kinda not so nice to people in general including her own staff. Whenever someone try to go through the process of grievance – that they call it so you can write a staff up for doing things that they’re not supposed to. We have to go up the chain of command. What she would do is as soon as she would get those grievances, she would just throw them away – just throw them in the trash. It wouldn’t get past her. And eventually it ended up this individual assaulting her because out of the blue she just decided she had authority to do whatever she wants I suppose – and it is true among, inside these walls. But she just decided take away a certain schedule that allowed kitchen workers to go back and go to recreation because otherwise they won’t get no rec. So this individual that worked out all the time, has a life sentence and that was his outlet to release stress and everything. When she did this, he tried to go about it the proper way: talking to different staff about it, trying to get them to bring that rec back, the schedule change, to change it back the way it was. Because there was no issue no problem with it. She just did it because she could. And everyone ignored him and one point when he brought that up again, she walked up to him and basically mocked him, like oh you’re still crying about that and this and that. And at that moment, point in time I guess he wasn’t in the best mood so he ended up assaulting her because of her own actions.
We can only get pushed for so long where it reaches a point where it’s like, you’re doing this constantly, like if you do it to anybody at one point they’re gonna blow, they’re going to react to that mistreatment. Sometimes people think it’s random and everything but it’s a build up of all the things that they have to tolerate when treated they’re getting treated like children, like less than a man, like inhumane.
Irina: What is your thinking on people pushing back or resisting on how COs treat people?
Testimony 1: I’ll support it 100% as long as it’s for a just cause. You know what I’m saying. I’ll stand by it 100%. I am all for the defiance of inequality that they show in here towards us. I’d rather be treated like a man even though I am an inmate, incarcerated at the same time but I’m still a man – I’m still a human being and I’m not for anyone treating people less than that. I am all for the defiance towards anyone who treats people less than human.
Testimony 2: When we come together and push back then that is when we become a threat in some way and we fight for our rights – that’s when they try to do the “divide and conquer” thing. And that leads to singling those individuals out one by one. Like not too long ago a friend of mine, I guess he been here for a while and he started figuring out things and he started getting in contact with people and talking about the actual circumstances that we was in and what they did was ship him out and sent him to a whole different prison. Just to avoid conflict within this prison. And that kind of put a quote in my head, once that happened like: once you start knowing what they know that’s when you become the enemy. So they try to settle things or you know get the leaders, the somewhat leaders, out. Or people who are trying to promote this force against them and they ship them out. “Divide and conquer” type deal.
Pre-recorded voice from prison’s phone system: You have one minute remaining.
Joanna: For this reason, we find that organizing is the best tool we have against the prison system and its abuses. We believe in direct action.
Sophia: As abolitionists, we have an orientation to people who have been directly impacted, whether that’s prisoners inside or loved ones on the outside. We mobilize outside resources to back organizing on the inside that’s initiated by people inside. We have weekly letter writing and you reach us at [email protected] or 612-405-0347.
Sophia: Thanks for joining us.