Racism is alive, well, and blatant in Washington state prisons.
Staff culture in prisons is toxic, and breeds a dehumanization of prisoners that contributes to recidivism, rather than actually lowering societal crime.
Due to no effective oversight, Washington prison guards—a demographic made up of mostly White conservatives—are provided impunity in acting out antisocial worldviews at work. Washington prisons are often referred to as “progressive.” Though they might appear better than carceral facilities in the Deep South, few minority prisoners in the Evergreen State would ever describe them as such.
• Support the protests and hunger strikes of the incarcerated folks at Granville Correctional in North Carolina in honor of George Floyd Day and Juneteenth. On June 30, they are holding a phone zap to pressure the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to address the long-term sentencing structure. You can find more details on how to help here.
• Consider: how can you center people who are incarcerated in your politics and your life? What are we called to do by living under a regime of mass incarceration? What kind of support do you want to be in place if you’re incarcerated yourself?
Incarcerated individuals in the U.S. naturally segregate by race. A peek at any prison yard in the country would reveal a similar scene: whites in one corner, Blacks in another; Asians and Native Americans here, Latinos there. This dynamic actually has little to do with racism from within the incarcerated community. Like people in the free world, we gravitate toward people with whom we share similar interests, culture, and backgrounds. Unlike in the free world, prison officials and explicit institutional policies as well as prison gangs also enforce racial segregation (Christian Science Monitor). In the Washington prison where I’m incarcerated, guards don’t have an issue with groups of white prisoners associating with each other unless they deliberately organize into gangs. When non-whites congregate, merely as friends, we’re instantly labeled as members of a gang or “Security Threat Group” (STG) (National Institute of Correction).
As a white-passing Latino, I’ve had a unique experience in regard to racial profiling in prison. My mother is Mexican American. My father was white. My last name is Moore, and I have dishwater-blond hair and light skin. When guards first meet me, I’m presumed to be white and I’m clearly not a member of any skinhead organization. Yet without fail, the second I’m seen befriending my Latino neighbors, I’m approached and asked my name so it can be added to the STG file.
Once a prisoner has been labeled a member of an STG, their life changes. They’re now subject to punishment under the “Forbidden Three.” If a fellow STG member commits any violent act involving more than two people, a weapon, or against a staffer, every member is punished. Punishments include loss of property, loss of phone privileges, and time in segregation. The only way to have one’s name removed from an STG file is to work as an informant.
Because this supposed security device has been weaponized against minority prisoners, time has taught us that the only coping mechanism we have is to wear the title with pride. Those tagged with an STG become leaders in our circles, and those not yet recognized by the prison power structure go out of their way to make themselves known. Loyalty to one’s own group becomes top priority, and those who look and speak differently are seen as outsiders.
Older cons remember a time before this blatant and extreme tribalism thrived, when prisoners band together in opposition to our oppressors. Most have died off, or been relocated to elderly wards, but a few still remain on the yard, where they sit at concrete tables, playing chess and resisting the culture of segregation created by the people who loom over us with guns. Every now and then, one of them will explain how our mostly white, mostly conservative captors have strategically employed racism to turn us on one-another, rather than them. Their words almost always fall on deaf ears.
This toxicity manifests on many different levels. Days after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, a Black guard came to work wearing a COVID mask with the letters “BLM” stitched across it, and was immediately instructed to remove it or be sent home. Books referencing Black Lives Matter or Antifa (antifascist, anti-racist ideology) were dubbed STG material and banned.
Less than two weeks ago, myself and about seven other Latinos were standing outside enjoying the weather, when a guard approached and told us he was going to search our unit, find our drugs, and bust every one of us. We were all confused, as none of us use or sell drugs. He told us our reign was coming to an end, and then asked for one good reason why he shouldn’t write us all major infractions (which would keep us in prison past our release dates). I thought about responding, “because we haven’t broken any rules,” but bit my tongue, as experience has taught me that being Mexican in prison is viewed as transgression enough. Groups of unharried whites stood by and watched as the guard ordered us to go inside and sit on our bunks before strolling past them as if they weren’t there.
This isn’t an isolated incident, just the most recent example in my own life. For minorities in Washington state prisons, occurrences like this are a part of daily life we must learn to navigate. And while journalists on both ends of the political spectrum tell taxpayers how progressive these places are, those of us in them continue to live in a reality akin to America before the civil rights movement, where racism not only thrives, but is enabled and supported by the readers they deceive.
• Prison officials and institutional policies enforce racial segregation.
• Guards and white incarcerated people weaponize racism as a means to turn incarcerated people of color against one another.
• Books referencing Black Lives Matter or antifascist and anti-racist ideologies are often banned or labeled as a security threat group.