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In the Belly of the Beast

By Gary Callahan, Prisoner of the Drug War

I have just suffered a transfer to what is referred by the Bureau of Prisons as a "low security" institution. I ponder my surroundings, and ask myself, is this particular hellhole the new design? Is this currently the rage­­and rage should be the operative word­­in the federal system?

It is warehousing people, literally, in long open dormitories separated into the minimal sized space for two men, about 82 square feet to be exact. These are called cubicles and one has to see it to believe it. Our living space is similar to cattle stalls, with five foot walls on three sides that slope down on the open, fourth side. Four long rows of these cubicles fill the warehouse and if you sleep on a top bunk you look over lines of huddle forms, like casualties in a military hospital. If one could lift the roof, the comparison to sardines would be inevitable.

Is it the economy scheme, an experiment to see if the U.S. Bureau of Prisons can compete with the threat of privatization? A privatized prison built on this same scheme­­the word scheme is significant­­is now operating in Taft, California and consistently beats the government in its minimal expenditures. The guards at Taft must be selling toilet paper by the sheet to do this, and it is putting the Bureau of Prisons on notice. Can it mean the death knell of BOP expansion?

There is a quality of cynicism in this overly eager competition between the government, the same government that passes its massive volumes of overly punitive statues, and commercial enterprise panting hotly to capitalize on this exploding industry. It is the warehousing of humanity on an unprecedented scale.

The nickname of this particular facility, located on an abandoned bean farm in one of the poorest corners of the South, is "The Slave Ship." One walks into the central compound and looks across at three vast, square, gray, human warehouses. On the far side is the ubiquitous UNICOR factory, of course, and endless amounts of humans hustling out to work for the Man.

About 520 men exist in each of these warehouses and each building has two stories, divided into four wings, each wing separated by offices which employ a large number of minor bureaucrats who each make around $50,000 per year. A college degree is not required, nor skills of any kind . . . It's a gravy train­­a trough­­and buckets of taxpayer's money is sloshed into it. You can hear the slurping miles away.

Tension is high, there is very little to do and the food is consistently poor. It is mass economizing, mass imprisonment, more-for-less economy. The next step down is the simple concentration camp along the lines of Stalag 17 and doubtless, as the drug war grinds on, stalags and gulags will replace the more expensive, traditional prison and the more expensive concept of enlightened and humane treatment.

Each stalag will have a UNICOR factory firmly attached, to keep that certain kind of stockholder fat and sleek. Where else can men and women be worked for high profit by paying them a quarter and some change an hour, sans benefits and obligations of any kind?

Perhaps it is the time of year, the cold, iron gray sky. Maybe it is the general rudeness of many of the staff here, the uneasy feeling that were they issued .22 caliber pistols and the proper instructions, they would begin systematic purges of this despondent, teeming population.

I suppose it could be the dreary fact that I have already been locked up for nearly a decade, and as far as I am concerned, the government has gotten its godforsaken pound of flesh. And yet I have twice that long to do before my "debt", for a nonviolent and comparatively minor drug offense, is paid. The years stretch out ahead of me and threaten in a real sense to change the essential being that I am, something I have tried very hard to hang on to.

I once marveled at how Germany could have produced the kind of mindset which sent so many millions of people into the camps and the ovens, but now I know. With an acute sense of loss and horror I realize that this is not a phenomenon peculiar to that time and place. It is rather a recurring human theme, and one that is alive and well in the USA at the end of this shameful century.

Come one, come all and welcome to the gulag, welcome to the Land of the Free. Least you feel safe, or read this with a sense of self-righteousness, think long and hard about your children and of the slave ships being built to house them not long from now.

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