“Inside” the US prison system

“Inside” – prisoner Michael Santo’s book about his 18 years in the US Federal prison system is staggering. Terrible stories and jokes about life behind bars in the US system have crept out over the years, while Amnesty International, amongst others, has condemned the abuse. But what Santos does is personalize it – through stories of his time ranging from hard-core federal pens – where the gangs rule, through to the softer white collar ‘camps’. Nothing makes sense. Despair prevails.

Almost in passing Santos tells of killings, rape and ultraviolence, all in an environment that rewards the supercriminals and crushes the rest. To survive in the system it seems you have be part of a gang, make yourself useful to inmates (Santos’ strategy) or gain general respect through acts of ultraviolence.  If word gets out that you are a snitch or sex offender, then expect to be killed.

Along the way there are a very few people that turn their lives around in spite of the system, but most appear to be crushed and turn to the gangs for socialisation and criminal training.

What is maddening is that Santos initially describes his time in Kent City Jail, where prisoners are rewarded for good behavior by an upgrades in facilities, and punished by downgrading. Surveillance is total and inter-prisoner crime minimal. The system works to move inmates to more self-responsibility, and eventually release. Rehabilitation can be done, it seems.

But not at any of the other prisons we hear of – the Federal penitentiaries are, it seems, out of control, with the best facilities awarded to the gang bosses, and drugs, violence and sex ever-present.

The white collar camps are removed from the violence – but only non-violent and shorter term prisoners get sent there. The dehumanization persists throughout the system.

Santos writes well, and I read the book in one sitting. Worth a read, but chilling.

Published by Lance Wiggs