The marginalized and imprisoned here in Iowa have no voice. Whether you are Black or a member of another minority group, or if you are mentally ill, poor or all the above, the silence is deafening.
For starters, there is no Black Lives Matter movement in the Iowa prisons. I placed a “Black Lives Matter” sign on my desk in the Clarinda Correctional Facility where I am incarcerated. I was promptly told to take it down or I would be written up for inciting a riot. I have seen no other advocacy for this movement.
My mother was involved with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 70s. She married a Black man, when it was not popular for a White woman to marry a Black man, and they stayed married until the day he died. Compared to the things they did to try to change the world, my own effort feels pale in comparison. Moreover, the prison reform efforts in the 1960s and 70s had more solidarity among prisoners than we have today.
Though there is no movement in the Iowa prison system, there is one across the world. I can see on the news and in the newspapers the movement across the world concerning police brutality and Black Lives Matter since a man named George Floyd was murdered by Minnesota police.
Sadly, most men here in this prison spend more time talking about things they did, or did not do, and trying to manipulate each other or the state in whatever way, shape, or form they can. The closest thing to a movement is the beating of my own heart and the firing of the synapses in my brain taking any direct or oblique action (or inaction and noncooperation) that I can to promote change and awareness.
I was pleased to see that Iowa took some swift measures toward reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Iowa’s legislature unanimously enacted a law that banned police chokeholds, makes it easier to prosecute cops who kill people, prevents the hiring of cops who commit misconduct, and provides training about bias and de-escalation. Kudos to Gov. Kim Reynolds for signing the law. But it’s not enough.
In the 1990s, then-Sen. Joe Biden helped pen the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act which, in stark contrast to today’s calls to de-fund the police, helped create the system that over-funded the police. Now that he is the Democratic nominee for president, he has made no mention of trying to repeal this law. (In case you’re wondering: while I relate to my mother’s bleeding heart liberalism, I consider myself nonpartisan.) Michelle Alexander, in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” explains how this law and other Draconian actions in the 90s helped spark mass incarceration and the rise of the prison industrial complex.
Now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, things are getting no better. Even before the coronavirus, Iowa was a terrible place for a Black person to be incarcerated. Since the pandemic began, Iowa prisons have cracked down on our ability to communicate with the outside world, have limited our access to mental health services, and have added to overcrowded conditions, at least at my prison. I would love to see more activism to assert prisoners’ rights.
I have written and witnessed the writing of hundreds of letters to the press and other organizations about the corruption and conditions of confinement in the Iowa Department of Corrections. We get no response from the press and they do not print our letters nor do they investigate our claims, no matter how legitimate. However, there is a great deal of villainizing.
It is easy to villainize people who are incarcerated for various crimes, whether they are innocent or not. It does not satisfy the newspapers’ and broadcast stations’ agendas to publicize the corruption, neglect, exploitation and abuse that exists in Iowa’s prisons. Men are apathetic about telling anyone about the problems in Iowa’s prisons. The ones who are not apathetic are, for the most part, scared. Retaliation is very real and as rampant as the nepotism, cronyism and corruption.
I am a 46-year-old man who is so poor that I cannot afford to make monthly calls to my 27-year-old son and my grandchildren. I cannot afford to stay in touch with the outside world. In fact, these essays are the best way I can inform the outside world about what is happening to prisoners here in Iowa. I do not know how many people ever even read the essays that I write. I do know that this is one of the few things that I can do to try to bring awareness to the evils of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex here in Iowa.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.