Another year has come and gone; another year of writing and teaching and blogging and talking and thinking and learning about the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." One new idea that was put on my radar this year is the idea that White Supremacy is "toxic" in nature and that everything emanating from White Supremacy is, ipso facto, "toxic" as well.
It's a no-brainer, I suppose. You can't rub poison on something and not poison it, along with everything else it touches. And certainly, the word "toxic" has been used in recent years to describe all manner of physical, psychological, and social aspects of our daily lives. Yet when I heard the term applied to the so-called "correctional system," a topic I have been deeply concerned with for nearly fifty years, I found it something of a surprise. I shouldn't have. I know full well by now that oppression breeds creative responses to it. And the prison system in this country -- federal, state, and local -- takes oppression to a level more nightmarish than most of us would ever be able to imagine.
As far as I know, the folks that first connected the term "toxic" to prisons in America can be found working as a part of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons. So I jumped at the chance to help bring one of their spokespeople, Jordan Mazurek , to our campus the end of October and managed in the planning process to get to know him and their work a bit. We talked about how to organize a Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation. One of FTP's organizers Skyped into my Social Movements and Social Action course one class period. Jordan met with and inspired the members of the new Justice4All student group my department birthed last semester. And I have maintained the connection since then to the point that he dragged a group of young organizers into the small town where I live yesterday morning just so we could all have breakfast together and brainstorm social change issues face to face before they headed back to the highway on their way to their next stop eight hours away. These folks are the real deal.
In any case, as part of Jordan's presentation in October, he included tape recordings of incarcerated individuals talking about the subject they know better than anyone. One of those featured was Clinton "Nkechi" Walker* and I was so impressed with what he had to say on surviving toxic prisons that I asked about it later and Jordan told me that Nkechi's statement had been published on the Fight Toxic Prisons' website, where I could find it to re-post it here. I am delighted to do so, although I must warn you that it is a painful read. Be prepared to reach a new level of conscious awareness on the toxicity of prison life in the United States and the brilliance of some of those who make up the community of humans who must -- and do -- endure it.
"Surviving Toxic Prisons"
by Clinton "Nkechi" Walker
It’s a burdensome task surviving toxic prisons where the effect of the environment on a person’s spirit is like acid dripping on an individual’s flesh, searing the human qualities off a being. Policies and practices are constructed and saturated with inhumane substances that amplify toxicity. No inhabitant is unscathed. The result of merging toxo-ideology with prison structure inescapably manifests itself in unfair customs and exercises that take on many poisonous faces within the correctional system. These customs and exercises willingly become repeated practices that do more harm than help in the realm of rehabilitation.
Solitary confinement is representative of one of these poisonous faces where one is locked in a cell for 23 hours of a day, suffering deterioration and distortion of the mind. The grievance system, a prisoner’s main avenue of complaint within the DOC [Department of Corrections], is itself a poisonous contradiction. Instead of being a mechanism for protection and reassurance, it’s used as a tool to permeate a sense of helplessness that derives from the magnitude of complaints resulting in unfavorable outcomes. Absent of proper treatment and adequate housing, individuals who suffer mental illnesses are left to roam the careless walks of prison compounds and more often than not, are thrust into cells with untrained intolerant individuals, creating unhealthy situations that have routinely proven to end in rape, injury or death.
The fact that prison guards are instructed to immediately order prisoners to remove their hat before stepping foot into a building while proudly wearing their correctional hat in a display of superiority [and] dominance, is toxicosis. That act may seem miniscule in nature; yet, it properly weighs heavy on the antagonist scale. Behind the surface we can see how it serves as a direct catalyst to the feelings of worthlessness due to it being so minor. If one is not treated equally or fairly in terms of basic etiquette, then surely one can never be as such in the grand scheme of a thing.
The elemental conditions in prison, in their own right, are toxicogenic in producing toxic components and poisons within the atmosphere. These elements breed emotional dejection, conjuring frustration at having to breath spawns of black mold and dust-filled air. Asbestos is regularly found in the dark bowels of the most ancient of penitentiary structures, while its captives are made to drink under or over-treated water out of necessity.
The swarm of toxins allow no exception to the prison food either. It’s a kind of service where one may find rodent excretion on trays [and] utensils, roaches peppered on any given meal, and a mouth full of clotted milk if a mistake is made of not sniff testing before consumption. Those acts are hostile to the psyche and harmful to the health. This poisonous atmosphere produced by malignant activities within DOC septics is constantly introduced into the quarters of men and women, and capable of negatively inducing the psyche’s antibodies which protect the spirit of its captives. In sum, the prison system and its toxins produce depression, anxiety, dependence, destruction, hopelessness, helplessness, irritation, frustration, aggression, suicide, and many other nouns related to such.
So many imprisoned men and women are forced to combat this toxin themselves while looking out of windows, searching the clear sky for freedom, wishing they were that leaf, bird or butterfly. They are forced to battle a toxic psychosis at the risk of losing their sanity and humanity. No human being should have to endure such an onslaught, and no human being should suffer the brute fault if one is consumed by the toxic fumes of prison asphyxiation. When certain needs are not met, it’s natural to survive in any way that is optional. It’s an already dead person that will endure these elements of torture and find in themselves no form of retaliation, destructive or otherwise.
These words are written from wisdom and the courage to be free of the bondage of toxic prisons, while in the face of overwhelming odds. This requires the personality and character which hardship reveals. We must appreciate, care for, love, understand, and support the men and women who battle the toxic beast daily. We must do so, not for praise, not for reward, not to deify, but to give strength and to rejuvenate those who are being battle tested. It’s selfish to enjoy the benefits of the struggle without participating in the fight of struggle. We are a community that will return to community and it must be the goal of community to sustain our strong men and women that fight to rise from the polluted ashes.
"Any people who could endure all that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment and resuscitate itself, and endure until it could take the initiative in achieving its own freedom is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization." ~ Ralph Ellison
You can write Nkechi here:
P.O. Box 244
Collegeville, PA 19426-0244
P.O. Box 244
Collegeville, PA 19426-0244
*Note: I tried everything but magic to link to a bio of Nkechi on a website, but my computer wouldn't cooperate. So here is the link un-embedded in hopes that you can make it work: http://lifelines-project.org/nkechi-walker