Charles Platt on life in prison

In November, Charles Platt wrote a piece for Boing Boing about his zero-gravity flight experience. This month, he submitted this gripping account of his visit with his friend, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for murder. It's one of the best articles I've read this year.

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Life on the Inside

by Charles Platt

The man by the metal detector looks like somebody’s benevolent uncle. White-haired, folksy and jovial, he could be in a TV commercial selling hearing aids. You’d never guess he controls access to a concrete-walled correctional facility.

Getting into this Texas prison is turning out to be more difficult than I expected. First I had to submit a written application with a photocopy of my driver’s license, for a background check. After I was approved, I had to establish the date of my arrival, and when I drove out here this morning my car was subjected to some truly amazing security theater, as one humorless uniformed guard stared solemnly at all the stuff in the trunk while another peered under the hood at the engine.

Finally I was allowed to park in the visitor lot, after which I walked into a little fortified bunker at one corner of a huge perimeter fence topped with coils upon coils of razor wire. This is where I am now, with white-haired Mr. Friendly asking me—in the nicest possible way—to empty my pockets. Since inmates are not allowed to possess money, I’m not allowed to carry any in—with the exception of two rolls of quarters, which I was advised that I actually should bring with me, for purposes that I do not yet understand.

I’m here to visit a prisoner named Son Tran, who joined a Vietnamese gang in Houston when he was thirteen and was convicted of two gang-related homicides four years later, although he has raised some questions about the validity of his confession. After sitting in shackles on death row for several years he found himself suddenly reprieved, as the U. S. Supreme Court decided that kids who committed their crimes when they were under eighteen should not be given the death penalty.

Forced by the feds to spare a life, the Texas criminal justice system did the next-best thing: It sentenced Son to forty years before he can be eligible for parole. He now spends his days providing unpaid labor, sewing underwear for a garment manufacturer that has contracted with the prison system. Forget about third-world sweatshops; some of the most lucrative ones are staffed by felons here in America.

Probably to most people, forty years would seem a fair punishment for a former gang member convicted of homicide. Most people might also feel that keeping such an individual locked up is a sensible precaution to protect the rest of us. In this text, I will explain why I disagree with both of these propositions. As Exhibit A I’ll offer a personal statement by Son Tran, which I have formatted as a PDF file. You can view it by clicking this link. I think it’s a remarkable piece of work, especially considering that he was brought up speaking Vietnamese at home, and never finished high school.


Across the Free-Fire Zone

Today will be my first opportunity to see my inmate pen-pal face to face. I’ve never spoken to him, because at the time of my visit, Texas still doesn’t permit any of its prisoners to communicate with the outside world by telephone. I found his name on a web site dedicated to establishing communication with inmates via that most archaic system, the U. S. Postal Service, and I’ve been swapping letters with him for more than a year since then.

Mr. Friendly is now waving me through the metal detector, beaming at me and telling me to “have a nice day,” without any perceptible irony. Presumably this cheerful old geezer was chosen for his gatekeeper role to discourage any suspicion that a correctional system might have a dark side.

After I emerge from the metal detector I pick up my two rolls of quarters and proceed to a kiosk enclosed in bullet-proof plastic, which makes the woman on the inside look as if she’s peering at me from under water. I slide my driver’s license through a tiny slit, and she waves me forward, through a remote-controlled door.

I find myself in a holding area the size of an elevator. The door closes behind me, and I have some difficulty controlling my reflexive claustrophobia. But, the license checks out okay, and she returns it to me through another slit before opening a second, inner door, allowing me to proceed into the prison.

Now I walk along a section of asphalt path across a free-fire zone between the outer fence of the prison and the inner fence. Two guard towers are strategically placed to overlook this arid moat, and I have no doubt that men with loaded rifles are watching me with more than casual interest. Probably it would not be a good idea to stray from the path, here.

I pass through a gate that clangs behind me, and I continue across a grassy area toward the central building of the prison—which closely resembles a modern high school, although maybe I should say that high schools, these days, closely resemble modern prisons. Vaguely I wonder when the American school system embraced the slit-windowed concrete-box motif, and why. But then I am inside the main building and I find myself in a spacious lobby, where another official takes my driver’s license, and keeps it, giving me a slip of paper in return.

This I take with me to another armored cubicle, where I present it through another slit to another out-of-focus figure behind bulletproof plastic. I advance into another elevator-sized holding area. The door closes behind me, another door opens ahead of me—and here, finally, I am in the visitor area.


The Social Scene

Now I am seriously disoriented. After all the layers of security, this is the ultimate anticlimax. I have entered a large room like a cafeteria, where families are sitting at dining tables. Kids are running around, chasing each other and laughing. The low-security prisoners are allowed to sit alongside their estranged relatives, hanging out and eating sandwiches.

The convicts are utterly unlike the thugs you see in Hollywood prison movies. They’re everyday guys in their twenties, looking no different from people you might expect to see working at the paint counter in Home Depot or servicing cars at Jiffy Lube.

Over the years I have encountered some genuinely violent people—the kind who radiate an aura of menace which anyone with any sense will interpret as a clear warning to stay away. Those dark vibes are absent here, and after a moment’s thought, I realize why: Drive-by shooters and serial killers constitute only a small percentage of the prison population. Drug offenders, these days, are the largest subset. Thus, most of the men I am looking at probably made the mistake of trying to earn a little cash on the side by selling herbal or pharmaceutical products from which the government, in its wisdom, feels we should be protected.

Son Tran, of course, is imprisoned for a much more serious reason, and cannot mingle with visitors. There’s a long, enclosed section for such “violent” types, who have to communicate via telephone handsets from behind more panels of bulletproof plastic. To me it’s ironic that the prison has invested in such an elaborate system of protection, because I’m not sure who scares me more: The inmates, or the system that put them here. Call me paranoid (and indeed, many people have), but the many arms of law enforcement have broadened and strengthened their powers to an extent which would have seemed unbelievable just a decade ago.

The list of ominous indicators is long and getting longer, including warrantless wiretaps, innocent people killed or traumatized during no-knock drug busts based on bogus tipoffs, random traffic stops in search of drivers who have had two beers and will be hauled straight to jail, search-and-seizure of laptops by immigration officers, suspension of constitutional rights for anyone suspected of “terrorist acts,” tasering of citizens who ask why they’re being arrested, harassment of tourists taking photographs in public places, grandmothers fined tens of thousands of dollars because kids used their computers for file sharing, seventeen-year-old boys jailed for having sex with sixteen-year-old girlfriends, men stigmatized for life as “sex criminals” because they urinated in public, photo-radar systems that can track vehicle movements by using character recognition of license plates, naive wives of drug dealers imprisoned for years as “couriers,” and revival of the archaic offense of criminal libel, raising the risk of prison time if you post a little too carelessly on Craig's List. I used to view law enforcement as a source of protection; today I tend to see it more as an instrument of intimidation.

Among the adult population of the United States, 1 person out of every 100 is now behind bars. Thus the unweighted odds of going to jail are greater than the odds of being a crime victim. Of course I am aware of the counter-argument: “If you don’t break any laws, you’ll have nothing to worry about.” Tell that to Governor George Ryan of Illinois, where DNA evidence exonerated so many people who had been placed erroneously on death row, he felt obliged to commute the sentences of the remaining 163 inmates awaiting execution.

No doubt the prison that I am visiting harbors some truly unpleasant characters whom I would not want to encounter while walking alone on a dark city street. But I don’t believe that Son Tran is one of them.


Gas-Station Sandwiches

I sit on a plastic chair and wait for the prison authorities to allow Son to come here to converse with me. Finally he appears behind the bulletproof window, grinning happily, as if this is the highlight of his week—and who knows, maybe it is.

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I ask him why he wanted me to bring two rolls of quarters, and he explains that I can buy food from vending machines in the visitor area. So, I go to the machines, which dispense what I call “gas-station sandwiches”: skimpy slices of Wonder Bread containing a minimum filling of tuna salad or ham and cheese. I buy a few and surrender them to a corrections officer, who places them in a paper sack and passes them through a small hatch to the restricted area behind the bulletproof plastic. In this way, I buy lunch for my inmate friend. I’m suitably sobered by the idea that the sandwiches constitute a treat compared to the regular prison diet. For one such as myself, accustomed to whole grains, organic greens, tofu, and other health-conscious vegetarian staples, eating nothing but prison food for forty years might be the single most awful aspect of being locked up.

Son devours his rations with enthusiasm, and we chat, through the telephone handset, in the same awkward style of a visitor chatting with a patient in a hospital. How are things? How are you doing? Have you seen your family lately? All topics seem trivial compared with the big and basic fact that I am free and he is not, but I can’t think of much to say about this. When he was taken off death row, he lost his court-appointed lawyer who was managing his appeal, and he lacks the resources to get a new attorney. In any event, he can’t talk about his case with me because the connection may be monitored, and our conversation won’t be protected by attorney-client privilege.

We talk about current events, and everyday life with other prisoners (most of whom he feels are harmless), and about the pencil drawings that he has been creating. Since Texas prisoners are not permitted to earn money or possess money, donations for them are placed in an Inmate Trust Fund account, from which the balance may be applied to purchases from the prison commissary. And since #2 pencils are the only drawing implement stocked by the commissary, Son Tran’s opportunities for self expression are limited.

Still, he has been creating painstaking portraits, which he has sent to me as gifts from time to time, leaving me wondering what to do with them. If I try to sell them on his behalf I’ll place him in a risky position, since he is not allowed to indulge in anything that could be considered a business activity. If he violates this regulation, he may be punished by losing his opportunity to further his education. In other words, if a Texas prisoner tries to make himself useful by selling something that he has made, the system may respond by preventing him from educating himself.


Money, Fear, and Politics

I guess I’m beginning to sound like a bleeding heart, here; but this is not entirely accurate. Let us suppose, for a moment, that Son Tran was guilty of the crime of which he was convicted. I fully accept that homicide should entail the most serious consequences. The question is, what exactly should those consequences be? From a strictly rational point of view, does incarceration for forty years make good sense, or would something else be better?

Let’s start with the concept of deterrence. I’ll ignore the death penalty, since the Supreme Court has already eliminated it for people under 18. Thus, we are left with incarceration. Has any study ever proved that the prospect of forty years without parole is a better deterrent than, say, thirty years, or even twenty years? It seems utterly implausible to me that the actions of a teenager in an inner-city gang will be affected by such a distinction. In fact I don’t believe that deterrence is either the effect or the purpose of the long, mandatory sentences that have become endemic in the United States during the past two decades.

It’s important to understand just how extreme the situation is. We now incarcerate a larger proportion of our citizens, and a larger absolute number of them, than any other nation in the world. The United States has less than 5 percent of the global population yet has almost one-quarter of all the world’s prisoners. (Source: New York Times, April 23, 2008.) The Land of the Free has become the land of the confined.

Prison Population

Now here’s the interesting part. From 1925 through 1975, the American incarceration rate remained around 110 prisoners per 100,000 population, not far from the current world median of approximately 125. (Source: New York Times, as above.) What happened since then? How could the rate increase by a factor of 7 during just three decades?

I can suggest an answer in three words: Money, fear, and politics.

Money is an issue because the United States is one of the few nations that can afford to build enough prisons and keep millions of people locked up. Most other nations are unwilling or unable to spend so much money unproductively.

As for fear and politics:

Back when Ronald Reagan was the Governor of California, growing discontent among conservatives encouraged the state to lead a movement toward tougher sentencing. When Reagan reached the White House in 1981, with his wife promoting the “war on drugs” and chanting “Just say no!” with her vapid grin, conservatives gained the power to encourage changes on a national level.

This trend reached its culmination in 1988, as Reagan’s reign was ending and Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush was looking for an edge over Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, and his media consultant, Roger Ailes, found their opportunity in the story of a convicted murderer in Dukakis’s home state of Massachusetts who had served 12 years in jail before being released on a weekend furlough, at which point he proceeded to commit a particularly unpleasant rape and other associated crimes.

Atwater and Ailes believed that one disturbing incident of this type, involving a heavy-set black rapist, would matter far more to voters than any reasoned debate about policy issues. It would capture the imagination, regardless of statistics showing that the event was a rarity or even a singularity. They didn’t seem to care whether the furlough policy had been a good thing or a bad thing. They simply knew that Dukakis had been in favor of it while he was governor, and it could smear him as damagingly as possible.

After the story was circulated via The Reader’s Digest, Bush started hammering away relentlessly at Dukakis for being “soft on crime.” This issue became probably the biggest factor enabling him to win the election. For more information about the propagandists who facilitated the rise of the Bush dynasty (leading by extension to the rise of Bush Junior) you can check the Wikipedia page for Willie Horton, the rapist who was at the center of the controversy. It makes depressing reading.

Many other politicians were quick to notice Bush’s successful exploitation of public anxiety, and followed a similar strategy, calling for harsher penalties while denouncing their opponents for being less punitive than they were. In other words, they followed the ancient practice of whipping up fear while simultaneously promising to alleviate it.

This is a simplification of a complicated national trend, but I believe it does help to explain how the general U. S. prison population increased by a factor of 7. Many conservatives see no problem in this, since long sentences have been accompanied by a reduction in violent crime. On the other hand, in Canada, violent crime went into a similar decline without a massive increase in the prison population; and in some states (notably, New York) the crime rate didn’t go back up even after authorities relaxed their previous punitive policies.

Therefore the linkage between longer prison terms and a lessened crime rate remains a matter for debate. One conclusion, however, is indisputable: Tough sentencing does reassure anxious voters.


Adjusting the Consequence to Fit the Crime

Let’s suppose that protecting the general public is the fundamental issue. The question then becomes: How much protection is enough? Logically, to reduce the risk to zero, all violent offenders should be imprisoned for life or executed. Since this may be unethical and is certainly unaffordable, we have to find a reasonable compromise, balancing the risk that a released criminal may repeat his crime against the social advantage of enabling the majority of prisoners to resume productive lives.

Traditionally, the parole system is supposed to serve this purpose by assessing each prisoner on a case-by-case basis to determine which ones are safe for release. Parole can be especially appropriate for juvenile offenders who may have been immature or unduly influenced by their peers.

This gets me back to the case of Son Tran. Imagine yourself aged thirteen, feeling angry and estranged from your fellow students because you’re Vietnamese-American. Imagine that you are approached by some older kids who are themselves Vietnamese. They invite you to join their club, and for the first time in your short life, you are freed from your feelings of alienation. You find acceptance.

Of course, there’s a price to pay. It’s like joining the army: You go through a process of indoctrination and desensitization, during which you bond with your comrades-in-arms and learn to obey orders.

The scenario that I’m outlining does not excuse the crime. It merely suggests that someone who was not yet an adult, and became infatuated with gang culture at a very impressionable age, should not be judged as harshly as, for example, a serial killer who has committed multiple crimes over ten or fifteen years. After a decade in prison, the serial killer may still represent a severe risk to the general public while the younger man may not, and a system that refuses to take this into account wastes human potential and wastes our money. Even when the state reaps some income on the side by forcing prisoners to do menial work for no pay, incarceration remains an expensive proposition.

There is of course the point of view that punishment should be administered for its own sake; that criminals should be made to suffer. This bothers me, because aside from deterrence (already discussed above) I see no social benefit from punishment. Very often, it seems to be simply an outlet for revenge, and revenge is not a very highly evolved impulse. It receives mixed reviews in the New Testament, does not ennoble anyone, and certainly doesn’t enrich anyone. I prefer the concept of restitution, requiring the guilty party to earn money to compensate a victim or his family. That at least is useful—and, incidentally, may still serve as some deterrent.

I also refuse to give up on the idea of rehabilitation, because I know people who have successfully decided not to repeat past mistakes. Prisons are properly referred to as “correctional facilities,” implying that they should be capable of correcting bad behavior. If there’s a chance to redeem someone rather than execute him or take away his liberty for half of his life, wouldn’t that be a more constructive option?

Most of all, I am dispirited by the simple-mindedness of imprisonment as a social tool. Our remedies for most social problems have evolved over the past couple-thousand years; people who are mentally ill, for instance, receive medical treatment instead of just being shut away in lunatic asylums. But the ritual of incarcerating criminals survives basically unchanged. Really, we need a smarter and more creative alternative that doesn’t cost so much. If it can also be less destructive of human lives, so much the better.


Contact Info

One thing on which everyone can agree, regardless of their political orientation, is that prison is a depressing place. Based on my experience in Texas, merely visiting it is extremely depressing, even when the facility is modern and relatively humane.

As I leave the barbed-wire fences behind me I feel the same kind of sadness that I experience when someone dies. It’s a similar situation: A loss of human value which I am powerless to prevent. That’s why I continue to send letters to Son Tran from time to time.

Other prisoners have suffered greater injustices, other prisons impose harsher conditions, other nations subject their prisoners to crueler treatment, and millions of people—drug offenders, especially—are incarcerated for reasons that make no sense to me at all. Son Tran just happens to be the guy I know, and so, he’s the one I am telling you about. If his life story interests you, you can write to him yourself, while remembering that he has to buy postage stamps, envelopes, and paper from the commissary to reply to you, and therefore, even very small donations are appreciated. The trouble is, you cannot send money to him directly. It will be returned by the authorities, and will rouse suspicions that he is soliciting assistance, which he is not.

Here’s what you can do, if you are interested. Send me a blank email at this account that I have set up: sontranfund@gmail.com. In return I’ll tell you how to write to him and how to make a small donation if you so wish. Your email address will not be used for any other purpose.

—Charles Platt