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ASK Biblitz about Prison.

'His hunch was that prisoners would gossip about the cases during card games, and somehow clues or breaks would emerge and make their way to the authorities. The plan worked.'

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Does it seem to you as if prison conditions are worsening, especially in the U.S.?

Biblitz replies:

Yes! The practice of incarceration today is as disturbing as it is expensive and, far too often, DNA and other high-tech evidence reveal either that accused was nowhere near the crime scene (see Darryl Hunt) and/or the modus operendi put forward by the prosecution was physically impossible (see Todd Willingham). These two cases are quite likely just the tip of an iceberg.

Here are a few troubling highlights of recent prison history:

Back From the Dead

One Woman's Search for the Men Who Walked Off America's Death Row

By Joan M. Cheever

More on a proposal to allow death row organ donors.

In the summer of 1972, the unthinkable happened in the United States. The death penalty was abolished. Voting five to four in a case called Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional because it was, among other things, "racist, arbitrary, unfairly applied, wanton and freakish, curel and unusual." Four years later the death penalty was reinstated, but during that interval the killing chambers across America remained empty and 589 inmates awaiting execution were given a second chance to live. 322members of that group were released when when they completed their sentences or became eligible for parole.

On witnessing the 1994 execution by lethal injection of her client of nine years, convicted killer Walter Key Williams:

"I had to see what this country does in the dark of night when it commits the most premeditated kind of murder that exists," she explains. "When I talk about the death penalty it's not theoretical." Walter's execution prompted Cheever to track down the 589 prisoners who "represent the largest unexamined social experiment in U.S. criminal history." They, she believed, had "the answer one of the most troubling and controversial questions in the debate on the death penalty. Can convicted killers be rehabilitated? Will they kill again?"

Back From the Dead: One Woman's Search for the Men who Walked Off America's Death Row answers those questions not with rhetoric but with facts. Cheever interviewed more than 125 of the approximately 250 'lottery winners' who are still alive and out of prison, and she kept track of all 589 for eight years (164 Furman prisoners were never released either because their crimes were too heinous or because they re-offended in prison). (From the story, Stay of execution, by Anna Mundow in the Irish Times July 29/06 at p. 10 of the Magazine)

A return to prison chain gangs in Alabama in 1995. Women, too, now in Arizona!

New Yorker


The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?

By Atul Gawande
March 30, 2009

... If prolonged isolation is - as research and experience have confirmed for decades - so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

.. "Prolonged isolation is not going to serve anyone's best interest," he (Keron Fletcher, a former British military psychiatrist who had been on the receiving team for Terry Anderson and many other hostages, and followed them for years afterward) told me. He still thought that prisons needed the option of isolation. "A bad violation should, I think, land you there for about ninety days, but it should not go beyond that."

He is apparently not alone among prison officials. Over the years, he has come to know commissioners in nearly every state in the country. "I believe that today you'll probably find that two-thirds or three-fourths of the heads of correctional agencies will largely share the position that I articulated with you," he said.

Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven't they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim's family and told them that he'd gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.

This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door. (-- pgs. 36-45)

If not in America, land of the free, where is prison better?

More on the new Leoben Justice Centre, model of the future?

Is there an alternative? Consider what other countries do. Britain, for example, has had its share of serial killers, homicidal rapists, and prisoners who have taken hostages and repeatedly assaulted staff. The British also fought a seemingly unending war in Northern Ireland, which brought them hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners committed to violent resistance. The authorities resorted to a harshly punitive approach to control, including, in the mid-seventies, extensive use of solitary confinement. But the violence in prisons remained unchanged, the costs were phenomenal (in the United States, they reach more than fifty thousand dollars a year per inmate), and the public outcry became intolerable. British authorities therefore looked for another approach. ...

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed "Close Supervision Centres," prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, "contact visits," and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in "extreme custody" than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome. (-- pgs. 43-44)


The Guantanamo "Suicides"

A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle

By Scott Horton
April, 2010

Nearly 200 men remain imprisoned at Guantanamo. In June 2009, six months after Barack Obama took office, one of them, a thirty-one-year-old Yemeni named Muhammed Abdallah Salih, was found dead in his cell. The exact circumstances of his death, like those of the deaths of three men from Alpha Block, remain uncertain. Those charged with accounting for what happened - the prison command, the civil and military investigative agencies, the Justice Department, and ultimately the attorney general himself - all face a choice between the rule of law and the expedience of political silence. Thus far, their choice has been unanimous. (-- p. 37)

Vanity Fair

Believe me, it's torture

What more can be added to the debate over U.S. interrogation methods, and whether waterboarding is torture? Try firsthand experience. The author undergoes the controversial drowning technique, at the hands of men who once trained American soldiers to resist - not inflict - it

By Christopher Hitchens
August, 2008

It goes without saying that I knew I could stop the process at any time, and that when it was all over I would be released into happy daylight rather than returned to a darkened cell. But it s been well said that cowards die many times before their deaths, and it was difficult for me to completely forget the clause in the contract of indemnification that I had signed. This document (written by one who knew) stated revealingly:

"Water boarding" is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.

As the agreement went on to say, there would be safeguards provided "during the water boarding process, however, these measures may fail and even if they work properly they may not prevent Hitchens from experiencing serious injury or death." (-- p. 71)

Tadeusz Borowski

Selected Poems

Translated by Tadeusz Pioro with Larry Rafferty and Meryl Natchez
Introduction by Stanislaw Baranczak

The Interrogation

for Wiket Piatkowski

They beat him all day, and the next. Nothing doing.
They beat him 'round the D, banged his head on the table.
"Say just one sentence! Just one word!"
They showed him his passport, foreign visas,
books and secret documents from the lining of his suitcase,
but then when they showed him his English tommy gun
he said, "take away the tablecloth, I'm going to throw up."
That's all he said. He was black and blue.
They took him to Majdanek, locked him behind the wire.
At night he cut the wire, escaped right under the sentries' eyes.
What use is glory if this memory dies?

(-- p. 36)


All my friends,
damn it,
knew how to live in the damp cells
of Pawiak.

All my friends,
the fools,
refused blindfolds
at the post.

All my friends,
the asses,
already have grass
on their graves.

All my friends,
all mad ...
Write the poem, hold the tears.
Nothing more.

(-- p. 52)

Koba the Dread

Laughter and the Twenty Million

By Martin Amis

It was on board the ships that the "politicals" -- a.k.a. "the 58s" (after Article 58 of the Ciminal Codex), "the counters" (counter- revolutionaries), and "the fascists" -- would usually receive their introduction to another integral feature of the archipelago: the urkas. Like so many elements in the story of the gulag, the urkas constituted a torment wthin a torment. Mrs. Ginzburg sits in the floating dungeon of the Dzhurma: "When it seemed as though there was no room left for even a kitten, down through the hatchway poured another few hundred human beings...[a] half-naked, tattoed, apelike horde..." And they were only the women. The urkas: this class, or caste, a highly developed underground culture, "had survived," writes Conquest, "with its own traditions and laws, since the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and had greatly increased in numbers by recruiting orphans and broken men of the revolutionary and collectivation periods." Individually grotesque, and, en masse, an utterly lethal force, the urkas were circus cutthroats, devoted to gambling, plunder, mulilation and rape.

In the gulag, as a matter of policy, the urkas were accorded the status of trusties, and they had complete power over the politicals, the fascists - always the most scornedand defenseless population in the camp system. The 58s were permanently exposed to the urkas on principle, to increase their pain. And one can see, also, that the policy looked good ideologically. It would be very Leninist to have one class exterminating another, higher class. How Lenin had longed for the poorer peasants to start lynching all the kulaks... Imprisoned theives were amnestied under Lenin, as part of his "loot the looters" campaign in the period of War Communism. As Solzhenitsyn says, the theft of state property became and remained a capital crime, while urka-bourgeois theft became and remained little more than a misdemeanor. Apart from the new privilegentsia and a few "hereditary proletarians," the urkas were the only class to benefit from Bolshevik policies. The urkas, who played cards for each other's eyes, who tattoed themselves with images of masturbating monkeys, who had their women assist them in their rapes of nuns and politicals. In Life and Fate Vasily Grossman writes almost casually of an urka "who had once knifed a family of six." The gulag officially designated the urkas as Socially Friendly Elements. (- p. 67)

Young Stalin

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

More of Stalin aka Koba the Dread aka the Red Tsar

When the new prisoner arrived in Baku's Bailov Prison wearing a blue-satin smock and a dashing Caucasian hood, the other political prisoners passed the word to be careful. 'This is secret,' they whispered. 'That is Koba!' They feared Stalin 'more than the police.'

The bogeyman did not disappoint. He had the 'ability quietly to incite others while he himself remained on the sidelines. The sly schemer did not spurn any means necessary but managed to avoid public responsibility.' In his seven months at the famous Bailovka, set amid the oilfields, Stalin dominated its power structures. He read, studied Esperanto, which he regarded as the language of the future,' and stirred up a series of witchhunts for traitors that often ended in death. His reign at the Bailovka was a microcosm of his dictatorship of Russia. ...

Stalin still preferred rogues to revolutionaries. He was 'always seen in the company of cutthroats, blackmailers, robbers and the gunslingers - the Mauserists.' Sometimes the criminal prisoners raided the politicals, but the Georgian criminals, probably organized by Stalin, served as their bodyguards. In power, he shocked his comrades by promoting criminals in the NKVD, but he had used criminals all his life.

These two species came together to bet on prison games such as wrestling competitions and louse-racing. Stalin did not like chess but 'He and Sergo Ordzhonikidze often played backgammon all night.' The cruellest game was 'Madness' in which a young prisoner was placed in the criminals' cell to be driven mad. Bets were taken on how long it would take for the youngster to crack up. Sometimes the victim really did go crazy. (From Louse-Racing, Murder and Madness - Prison Games, pgs. 173-175)


Tell your story/ask a question about prison/detention/custody!
A jurisdiction like British Columbia in Banana Canada with no independent police review means complainants are at the mercy of circular justice - unless one is able to submit, say, a telephone video to the media like this one described by CBC Radio's Vancouver Early Edition March 24/10:

Blast Biblitz, blast you! All replies in writing!

A Day in the Life of Australia

Photographed by 100 of the world's leading Photojournalists

March 6, 1981
Edited by Rick Smolan

Lady Gaga on telecom challenges peculiar to prison.

Almost 10,000 Australians were in prison on Friday, March 6. American photographer Arthur Grace spent the day inside the walls of the Adelaide Gaol in South Australia. He was the first foreign photojournalist ever given complete freedom to photograph inside an Australian prison. "I had a chance to speak with a number of the prisoners, many of whom asked me to photograph them. There were two basic complaints. The first was that the prison (built in 1839) was antiquated - they use buckets instead of toilets. To be locked inside a cell with that for 14 hours every night is inhuman - the cells are tiny little holes." The day began at 8 a.m. when cell doors were opened. Grace's first photographs were of waste buckets being emptied. Later in the day, in the presence of a prison officer, a new inmate took a shower as part of the admission procedure. "The prisoners' other major complaint was the snail's pace of the judicial system. The prisoners awaiting trial just never know when they are going to get to court. They sit there in those little holes waiting and waiting." (-- p. 45)

'... seven long years is your sentence / You're going to Van Dieman's Land'

Adelaide Gaol Update 2010:

Disposal of night waste was quite advanced during the Gaol's early days considering Adelaide's sewage system was introduced in 1881 (water was 1861). Prisoners dug trenches out the back among the olive groves where they buried the Gaol and Adelaide's night soil. When mains sewage was introduced it was too costly to connect each cell. The Gaol continued with the 'bucket system' and in later years each prisoner had two buckets in their cell. One for body waste and one for paper waste. In the 1970s Porta Potties were introduced for all prisoners.

Not for all prisoners, apparently.

Poetry Like Bread

Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press

Edited by Martin Espada

Who Understands Me But Me

By former U.S. maximum-security prison inmate, Jimmy Santiago Baca

They turn the water off, so I live without water,
they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,
they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,
they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,
they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,
they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future,
they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends,
they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell,
they give me pain, so I live with pain,
they give me hate, so I live with my hate,
they have changed me, and I am not the same man,
they give me no shower, so I live with my smell,
they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?
who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?

I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,
I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,
I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love,
my beauty,
I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,
I am stubborn and childish,
in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred,
I practise being myself,
and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,
they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart
when the walls were built higher,
when the water was turned off and windows painted black.
I followed these signs
like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself,
followed the blood-spotted path,
deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,
who taught me water is not everything,
and gave me new eyes to see through walls,
and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,
and I was laughing at me with them,
we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful? (-- pgs. 44-45)

Tales of Ordinary Madness

By Charles Bukowski


Most of the cells were overcrowded and there had been several race riots. But the guards were sadistic. They moved Blaine from my cell over to a cell full of blacks. When he walked in Blaine heard one black say: "There's my punk! Yes, sir, I'm gonna make that man my punk! In fact, we all might as well have a piece! You gonna strip down, baby, or are we gonna hafta help ya?"

Blaine took off his clothes and stretched down flat on the floor.

He heard them moving around him.

"God! That's one UGLY-lookin' round-eye if I ever saw one!"

"I just can't get hard, Boyer, so help me I can't!"

"Jesus, it looks like a sick doughnut!"

They all walked away and Blaine got up and put his clothes back on. He told me in the exercise yeard, "I was lucky. They would have torn me to pieces!"

"Thank your ugly asshole," I said. (From Scenes From the Big Time, p. 15)


When I get out, I thought, I am going to wait a while and then I am going to come back to this place, I am going to look at it from the outside and know exactly what's going on in there, and I'm going to stare at those walls and I'm going to make up my mind never to get on the inside of them again.

But after I got out, I never came back again. I never looked at it from the outside. It's just like a bad woman. There's no use going back. You don't even want to look at her. But you can talk about her. That's easy. And that's what I did for a bit today. Luck to you, friend, in or out. (-- p. 17)

The Irish Times

Segregation wall strangles the life out of Bethlehem

City is now Palestinian ghetto and subject to Israeli checkpoints

By John Kelly, Professor emeritus and former Registrar of University College Dublin
June 24/06

Right across the West Bank, the route of the wall deviates from the internationally accepted pre-1967 borders, known as the Green Line, in many cases cutting Palestinian farmers off from their farms so that at this moment, thousands of tonnes of citrus fruits and olives are unattended and destined to rot later this summer.

One example, out of many hundreds of similar ones, tells the sad story of an elderly farmer whose home is some 60 m across the road from his olive tree farm. But with the construction of the wall right on his doorstep, he now has to travel 22km over dirt roads to get to it. More often than not, he is not permitted to get through the Israeli checkpoint.

As always when that happens, no reason is given. It would appear that the instructions given to the Israeli guards on these checkpoints are simply to humiliate the Palestinians and make life as awkward for them as they can. Farming is the main source of income for the Palestinians along the fertile route of the wall, and separation from their farms and the lack of mobility is causing enormous hardship.

... Despite a number of UN resolutions, the Oslo 1 and 2 agreements, the Sharm-El-Sheikh agreement (see BBC News report, The Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, of Oct. 17/00), and just recently the agreement on movement and access (see the 36-page report by the World Bank Technical Team of Dec. 2/05), brokered by James Wolfensohn after the Gaza disengagement of last autumn, the Israeli government gives them all the two-finger salute, and proceeds with the building of its monstrous settlements and now this segregation wall, further and further into the Palestinian lands.

Agreed borders are totally ignored. And just recently, along with the US, and lately the EU, the Israeli government expressed its surprise and criticism at the results of the democratic elections which elected the so-called terrorist party, Hamas.

It beggars belief that prime minister Ehud Olmert, standing alongside George Bush on the steps of the White House on May 23rd, appealed to the Palestinian people to engage in peace talks while at that very moment, his troops are throwing them out of their homes, destroying their livelihood and treating them like animals.

His appeal is all the more outrageous since, despite becoming prime minister almost six months ago, Mr. Olmert has made no attempt whatsoever to engage in dialogue, or even meet, the very moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. (-- p. 15)

This Blinding Absence of Light

By Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Actually, the tomb was a cell just under ten feet long and half as wide. Most of all, it was low, only about five feet high. I could not stand up. There was a hole for pissing and crapping. A hole less than four inches in diameter. The hole was a part of our bodies. We had to forget our existence fast, stop smelling the shit and urine, stop smelling anything at all. We couldn't very well hold our noses, no, we had to keep them open without smelling a single thing. That was difficult, at first. It was an apprenticeship, a necessary madness, a test we absolutely had to pass. Being there without being there. Shutting down my five senses, directing them elsewhere, giving them another life, as though I had been thrown into that grave without them. That's what it was - acting as though I had left them at a baggage checkroom, tucked away in a small suitcase, carefully wrapped in cotton or silk, then set aside without the torturers' knowledge, without anyone's knowledge. Betting on the future. (-- p. 3)

New York Times Magazine

The 7th Annual Year in Ideas

Prison Poker

By Richard Morgan
Dec. 9/07

In April 2003 the Pentagon created decks of playing cards to be given to soldiers, all featuring wanted members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle. When he heard this, Special Agent Tommy Ray, a state law officer in Polk County, Fla., got inspired. Two years later, he made his own deck of cards, each bearing information about a different local criminal case that had gone cold. He distributed the decks in the Polk County jail. His hunch was that prisoners would gossip about the cases during card games, and somehow clues or breaks would emerge and make their way to the authorities. The plan worked. Two months in, as a result of a tip from a card-playing informant, two men were charged with a 2004 murder in a case that had gone cold.
In July of this year, the idea took off: all state inmates in Florida now have access to two different decks of cards, describing a total of 104 cold cases. In mid-October, based on a tip from an informant at the Columbia Correctional Institutional Annex in Lake City, the police arrested a man in connection with a Fort Myers murder in 2004. The informant requested no reward money. Plans are now in the works to make decks of cards for all Florida county jails. And police departments elsewhere in the country are instituting similar programs. ... (-- pgs. 90-92)