Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hip-hop in the holler

Super-Max Security Prisons are built to gain control of inmate violence and prison gangs, thus restricting predatory and disruptive inmates who may otherwise prey on citizens, correctional officers, and other inmates. That's the theory, anyway. But actual practices can diverge in alarming ways.

A relatively new documentary film, Up the Ridge, is not in widespread distribution yet (see below). I suggest you look for it.

Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby are volunteer DJs for the Appalachian region’s only hip-hop radio show. They received letters from inmates of a newly-opened, super-max prison (Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, VA - let me tell you, that's a pretty remote place - I've been to that town). The letters detailed prison abuses (including inmate deaths) and racial tension within the prison, primarily between ill-trained guards and contract prisoners brought in from other states (Connecticut, New Mexico, etc.) to fill available space. So what did the DJs do? They became filmmakers, documenting the prison industry in their community. Up the Ridge deals with the impact of moving large numbers of inner-city minority offenders to distant rural outposts.

The film raises many troubling issues. One is the use of prison jobs as an economic development tool for rural areas, and the potential racial and cultural conflicts created by this strategy. US prison populations grew by 1.1 million people from 1980 to 2000, disproportionately affecting minorities. African Americans have six and one-half times the lifetime risk of going to prison as compared to whites, and Hispanic risk is four times white risk. Of course, some disparity is warranted by the risk to public safety and the differential crime rates among groups. However, the film addresses the clash of cultures brought on by this prison construction boom, disproportionately incarcerating minorities, and disproportionately located in rural areas which may have overwhelmingly white populations in desperate need of jobs. Of course, these problems may remain latent, and prison management problems are surely substantially to blame in this case.

Another issue is the mix of offenders for whom super-max prisons were designed to house, and intended procedures for housing them, as compared to actual practices. Human Rights Watch issued a briefing paper here which addresses several of the issues, in what I think is a balanced manner. (Human Rights Watch is an independent, nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world, and has been critical of various aspects of US incarceration policy.)

"A human rights assessment of supermax confinement requires consideration of
three factors: eligibility criteria, specific conditions, and the duration of confinement. Each must be considered in relation to the others. For example, extreme restrictions and controls that might be considered reasonable in dealing with incorrigibly violent inmates become excessive for inmates who are not. Deprivation of sources of stimulation, human contact, and activity that may not be unbearably cruel for some inmates can become torture when imposed on mentally ill inmates. Harsh conditions that might not be unacceptable for a month or two become inhuman and degrading when imposed for years."
Many of these issues come into play in this one-hour documentary. Up the Ridge documents that Wallens Ridge prison was accepting inmates from other states that were not violent criminals, in part because super-max facilities are expensive to built and operate and need to be full. The conditions also appear unduly harsh, and many inmates had medical or mental problems for whom that treatment was unbearably cruel - in fact, lethal.

See a clip here.
Pre-purchase a DVD here.

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