This week, attorneys with the CLDC successfully defended Eric King, a man whose heart is bigger than the walls it’s being kept in.
A poet, yoga instructor, boxer, Nirvana fan, and anarchist, serving a 10-year sentence for a previous conviction, King was accused of allegedly assaulting a federal officer. The details of this case reveal the harsh realities of prisoners like King, who is being held in Colorado. A prisoner who guards decide they don’t like – for whatever reason – can be targeted and conspired against so as to receive additional years of incarceration. In this case, a ten-year sentence could have increased by an additional twenty.
The incident occurred in the only surveillance blind-spot in the facility, a janitorial closet that officers claim was being used to conduct interviews. King pleaded not-guilty, arguing he used effective and limited force in self-defense. The officer in question, Lt. Wilcox, an ex-marine, claims to have never even touched King, though both walked away with injuries. There were no eye-witnesses to the fight and Lt. Wilcox wore no body-cam. Wilcox asked another officer present prior to the fight to leave the room, creating a situation where it would be one man’s word against another’s.
Whether you believe King to be innocent or not, one thing is certain – the Bureau of Prisons have been doing everything in their power to abuse their authority over him. I listened to the trial. After the first day, B.O.P. had his cell moved to an entirely different building within the same campus which is run by the adjacent Federal Detention Center and not FCI Englewood itself. For two and a half hours the morning of his second day of trial, he did not have access to his court documents – a clear violation of his privacy and attorney-client privilege as officers were in a position to make copies of the documents to learn defense strategy. Officials claimed he was deprived of his possessions for a mere 15 minutes- and claimed there was a security threat which required his sudden movement. No specific threat could ever be named or substantiated.
After the third day of trial, Eric’s new cell was flooded, and coffee was spilled on his court documents. An official claimed a bird flew in his cell and knocked the coffee over onto the documents. Upon learning of this, Judge Martinez stated that “the BOP is setting itself up for a civil suit.” The lies they tell sound like the sort of mafia-metaphor you’re told and aren’t supposed to ask more questions about. It’s as if they imagine everyone goes home to sleep behind bars to which they alone hold the keys. Their delusion of power beyond those walls is as revealing as it is incriminating.
It is my belief that the assault accusation was itself a retaliation against King for having effectively defended himself as a boxer against a larger foe. Had he simply gotten beaten and never defended himself, he might not be charged with this crime. BOP officials hope to use this as an example to any other inmates who would think to defend themselves in that janitor’s closet.
King’s experience isn’t a rare exception. Prison is a place where the officials responsible for the care of inmates are unaccountable as they are in control of all means of holding them accountable. Cameras of the public areas are useless if staff know where they can be avoided. Documentation and procedures that could supposedly catch abuse are missing, destroyed, and manipulated – because there is no difference between the people who have access to those records and the people those methods are meant to keep in line. Power corrupts, and it corrupts even more absolutely when it is so concentrated and out of view. Any society seeking to reform individuals must do so in a manner that doesn’t facilitate corruption and abuse, to say nothing of prison’s inability to reform people. “America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, accompanied by the world’s highest recidivism rate, suggesting that such hard-line stances may make for bad public policy…” (Santos, 9)
The very existence of a hierarchy of power creates the potential for abuse. If violence-inclined individuals seek positions of power, they can permanently use their rank and title to cover for their misdeeds. It doesn’t take an anarchist to think this – the much-lauded economist F.A. Hayek believed power attracts would-be abusers. Why would an individual so inclined hold back if they knew they could simply use their position as leverage over their victims? Being a prisoner is by definition a powerless position in comparison to the guards responsible for their housing, their food, their medical access – prisoners have no such power over guards. Thus there can never be accountability between prisoners and guards. Guards will always have the ability to make prisoners do what they want or face the consequences of the entire system which stands behind their abuse.
As King’s attorney stated in closing remarks, “there is no cell-phone recording culture in prison like outside, prison is a decade behind in civil rights.” She also stated “Without visibility, there can be no accountability.” She’s right, but I would go further, that without equality there can be no accountability.
The contradiction of incarceration is that people are punished for hurting others by being put in an environment where other people have the power to hurt them without also being incarcerated. One group is approved and paid by the State to be the abusers while the other is contained and subjugated by the State to be the abused. There is an apt comparison to be found in a 2014 anime titled “Psycho-Pass” about a legal system where violence-prone people are used to kill others labeled as such, in a way that was self-aware of society’s violent nature and seeking an outlet for that violence. Of course, as the long held-refrain of murderers and dictators goes, “if we weren’t keeping the other violent people in line it would be even worse than it is now.” Surely, by opposing prisons, we aren’t suggesting that we let everyone go free?
During King’s trial, prosecutors argued that the idea of a conspiracy among prison staff would be somehow out of the question. However, this is not unusual, and is a product of the very lack of accountability prison creates by erecting walls between the public and the inmates. “A group of correctional officers formed their own prison gang. The officers called their gang the Cowboys, and the prisoners with whom I serve told me how the Cowboys would inflict pain on prisoners whom they deemed a problem.” (Santos, 42) When institutions have a tendency to foster organized abuse, they must be destroyed. This organized abuse is the product of the combination of hierarchy and lack of accountability. Individuals benefiting from being on the superior side of the hierarchy simply need to stick together to avoid accountability from each other, as they are the only threat to their own abuse. There is no incentive for it to end based on the inherent nature of the structure.
As we see in Eric King’s case, while not judge and jury, the prison staff are both accuser and supplier of evidence. They can levy charges and then manipulate evidence to suit their accusations. They are in a position to make justice nearly impossible if they are in the wrong. If people are to be reformed, prison must be done away with in search of a human approach capable of positive change.
Once you understand prisons to be institutions that spread violence like cancer through society, the healing cannot be done until we stop the source. We don’t need hierarchy to reform people, or walls, rationed food, guards, and more violence. Without equality, justice gives way to abuse. Without visibility, we push injustice out of sight. We need equality and visibility.
Inside: Life Behind Bars In America
Santos, Michael G.
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006.