Prisoners speak up on conditions inside
Joe Courter
January 2000

I don't know why this article has been so hard to write. It started out easy enough, without a lot of planning. In doing the Iguana over the years, we've ended up with over a dozen incarcerated individuals from Florida on our mailing list, persons either recommended to contact us by relatives or friends, or by one prisoner seeing or hearing about the paper and requesting us to send him or her one. I remember one time having a new subscriber contact us because the guy who'd been getting the paper had gotten out of prison; and this fellow still wanted to keep it coming.

Well, last fall there was a killing in a Florida prison--not one in the electric chair, but in all probability a prisoner dying at the hands (and feet) of a group of guards who beat him. His name is Frank Valdes, and regardless of whether he was a problematic, troublesome prisoner or not, a gang beating and killing by guards drew a lot of attention in the media, and still is; the case is not yet resolved.

The publicity got me thinking about our Iguana-receiving prisoners, so on a whim I drafted a quick one page questionnaire, hand written, and enclosed it and a self-addressed stamped envelope to most of the prisoners on our list. It simply read:

1. Do you receive the Iguana regularly and unopened?

2. Do you share it with others?

3. Regarding prison violence: How much do you see? What have you heard about the Frank Valdes case?

4. Are conditions better, worse, or about the same for crowding, food, literacy education (and a couple of blank spaces for them to fill in)?

Well, within a week the responses started coming in, and the wall of separation between the prisoner and the outside world came down a bit; not for them, but for me. Most of the prisoners ended up responding, and the fact that this paper's existence and appearance in their hands regularly meant a lot to them became obvious.

The answer to the first question was fairly uniform: Yes, they receive the Iguana, but no, it is always opened, as is all their mail (we mail Iguanas first class in an envelope to prisoners). The second question on sharing it was a consistent "yes," with one prisoner mentioning that he shares it "with the men on my floor," another saying "I live on a wing with 13 other inmates on this floor and the same amount behind us and I pass the Iguana as far as it will go on both sides marked "read or pass.'" These were both death row inmates. Over half of our prison subscribers in Florida are on death row, and for them the crowding issue was minimal, since they are more isolated and highly regulated than prisoners in general population.

The couple of responses from non-death row prisoners were chilling. One with knowledge of the Frank Valdes case said there was a lot of use of "chemical spray" by guards (Seattle, anyone?), that Valdes was "sprayed for nothing," and that the guards use the example of his death as a threat to them, with officers saying "if we keep doing what we're doing we'll end up like Frank Valdes."

This inmate had himself been abused by guards one night, according to his letter, and had written up a complaint but nothing was done. The impression he got was "that the officers are always right, and inmates always wrong, so get used to it."

One prisoner sent this in his response: "Joe, after discussing in an open forum your questionnaire with the men on my floor--we touched on a host of things we feel are a result of Valdes--and some of that existed before. I would love to give you a synopsis of each point that was brought out during our forum but, I would need your assurance you would not use my name as your source of information, out of fear of retaliation. I feel I would owe you an in-depth response to any and all of your questions out of gratitude of your attention to my personal cause. Thank you for your time, concern and consideration."

I did not follow up for fear of guards reading of the outgoing mail might put that group under threat, indeed, all the responses I did get that went into detail or criticism of the guard and prison system were brave on the prisoners' part. That is why I'm using no names here. Most were cognizant of this threat too, as the following reveal, when addressing the violence question.

"Regarding prison violence--over the 34 years I have been here in prison, yes, I have witnessed prison violence as well as seen much of it and other wrongs. But I'm not going to talk about this in an open letter of this sort--that would be foolish on my part. But I will say this, I'm here on Death Row for a prison murder of an inmate--a murder I did not commit, but have been framed by prison officials on and convicted based upon two prison officials false testimony. The facts can be proven, but I don't have the means of an independent investigation to have the case investigated. That together with inadequate representation have made me a victim for the electric chair to be executed. . .

"Prison violence happens on both sides, but if investigated right you will find most of the violence is caused by bad communication. 60% is on the inmates side because of the young group that is coming to prison and being mix with convicts that have 10 to 15 years in the system. 40% is towards the officers that work here and see inmates as something real bad. I could go into it more but I have only about 13 more months like I said. Now I don't know Frank but I can say that it was very very wrong."

All say the food is bad and getting worse. Some mentioning the trend toward privatization and the incoming DOC policies under Michael Moore (another one of "their" Michael Moores) and also cite the lack of dietary options. One shared a longer view, from his 34 years in prison.

"Food is an issue. One of the major issues, and it has gotten worse. So has the inmate canteen which was supposed to have been upgraded according to institutional memos passed out around 1994 when they increased our weekly withdrawal, but it never happened. The canteen has gotten worse for Death Row prisoners."

With regard to the fill-in-the-blank categories, one added medical treatment, canteen items, recreation, mail management, property management, and money management, all bad or poor. A couple cited the lack of actual chaplain visits, instead they were limited to TV religious services, and those are only available to the prisoners who have TVs.

In a brief but thoughtful letter, one prisoner worked toward some simple, common sense solutions:

"The conditions in prisons could be better if the higher ups and the media put schools and vocational training back in here and make it mandatory that a inmate take one or the other. This will keep some violence down and again I could go into this more but I know you have other questionnaires that you need to get to.

"Now I have my opinion about overcrowding. Here is a little! You can start by releasing old convicts that are sick and use a lots of medication which will open up a few beds and save some tax payers a few bucks. For example, I know a 65-year-old convict that has more than 15 years in the system, uses crutches, and gets a bag filled with medication; he has family members that come visit him and will help him if he was released. There's about 15 of these inmates here, and they have lots of time. It is another kind of inmates that have been here 15 years or better that if let go I believe will not come back here or maybe a very small % will. You can believe it will not be the 85% return rate as the media will have society to believe. If investigated, you will come up with what I came up with which is 75% of the convicts or inmates that are released and return are those that get lest than 10 years and maybe do 5 years, but look at those who have done 15 years or more.

"Concerning the food, well if we was taught how to cook and even some kind of certificate showing that we know how to cook it will be better to the taste but most institutions use culinary for punishment so most inmates don't care so we waste a lots of food.

"I hope I have been of some help and if you want to know more please feel free to ask, and you have my permission to use anything in this letter in your news letter. Sorry it had taken me so long to respond."

But the hardest and perhaps all too on-target response was this one.

"Mr. Courter, it continues to amuse me, and is indeed quite dreadful, as to how the timing of you so-called leaders, as to how you allow yourselves to sit back until an evident problem escalates into a terrible incident, which more often than not concludes in the death or physical injury of someone; and especially so in the case of prisoners.

"Sir, as previously stated, I was very much apprehensive and undecided in returning this reply, as I deeply fear reprisal and retaliation; and whereas I, a lone individual prisoner, without the immediate assistance or family or loved ones to turn to in the event of such incidents; as such, I am not in a position to voice blatant remarks against these mine adversaries... and captors...

"Mr. Courter, in short, prisoners in general and most especially so, within the State of Florida; are a class of questionable persons; to survive as a prisoner in Florida is indeed a day to day struggle, as one's life literally hangs in the balance of a cruel oppressor, whom evidently, is without moral regard for the true definitions of equality of law, of mercy, of life, liberty and justice.

"Sir, prisoners are in very deed an oppressed class of persons; and simply because a human-being has violated a rule of society, absolutely does not justify the criminal acts of abuse, torture and murder as committed against them (us), as we are assigned under their complete and isolated care and control.

"As I have experienced, the laws of this Great State of Florida, allows and indeed permits the murder, abuse and oppression of prisoners, simply because they have violated a rule of society; whether minority or majority, by the illegal placement of prisoners under the care, custody and control of demagogue imperialist domination, contrary to Legislative intent as stated in section 944.611 of the Florida Statutes.

"Just recently, thousands of hopeful prisoners lost precious articles of their previously, legally retained personal property; at the whim of such titled prison authorities; whom evidently desired only to retaliate, extort and exploit prisoners and "our" families based on criminal acts by repeated theft of prisoners personal property, by rogue prison guards in reprisal in response to prisoner law suits.

"Imprisonment within the State of Florida, is now become much more than the simple judicial punishment for the violation of the law; it is become the political and economic exploitation of the inferior. Florida prisons also fosters the breakup of families, family ties, community links and the disruption of cultural forms, are all oppressed into disuse, and are destroyed.

"Sir, you inquire into prison violence only because of the recent incident had between a few prisoners and prison guards here at Union C.I., and not so much as should be based on the history of murder and abuse of prisoners as experienced here from year to year.

"Your inquiry, into the conditions of food, populace and education, yet, you fail to mention or consider all those prisoners who are daily being ill treated within the confinement areas of segregation, as are likewise those who are denied adequate legal, academic, medical and mental treatment!

"I correspond this missive in reply to your inquiries out of mere self-respect; still, I am grateful in respect to your continued gratis extension of the Iguana, and not so much as simply based upon your inquiry, as I realize that my correspondence shall possibly do to me more harm than evident good; as I'm certain, that you will and shall not follow-up on the comments and statements I made herein.

"Mr. Courter, at this correctional facility I am considered a reasonably intelligent person, yet, academically, I've but accomplished an associates degree; I am recognized within the literary society as an author and a poet, yet, as so many of my similarly situated predecessors, I live and exist in poverty, 'Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, etc... However, in these modern times one would assume that through the evolution of time, a moral regard towards human life had birthed more sense of unequivocal justice, would now somehow had evolved to a point where equality within the principles of our laws outweighed the prejudices of our society."

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