This morning’s New York Times carries the kind of story which fills the nightmares of all prisoners’ families. 350 (or 355 according to the Associated Press) prisoners died when the building which confined them caught on fire. Official reports say that the fire was started by a prisoner burning his mattress, but the Associated Press casts some doubt on that inciting incident. What is clear is that only six guards were responsible for over 800 prisoners on ten cell blocks and that they shared only one set of keys among them. Regardless of the cause of the fire and the intentions of the guards in this moment of crisis, no one could have successfully evacuated even a significant percentage of the prisoners from the inferno that consumed hundreds of them.
This blatant disregard for the safety and human rights of hundreds of people speaks volumes about cultural attitudes about incarcerated people. In so many places and cultures, the lives of prisoners are not worth protecting–at least to those in power. Both of the news articles I reference above include observations about the families of these burned men trying to identify the often unrecognizable remains of their loved ones. Of course, even the families of the prisoners who survived the fire must be terrified and devastated. Their fathers, sons, and brothers will continue to be held by the government that created the circumstances of this tragedy, and it is likely that their legal battles could be indefinitely delayed while officials attempt to sort out the chaotic legal and structural aftermath of the fire.
I have several dear friends who are imprisoned inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and while Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the state, Angola prisoners were by turns used as labor to sandbag the perimeter of the prison and building tent encampments for the prisoners in other facilities who were evacuated to Angola when those prisons and jails were flooded. It was a terrifying time for a great many prisoners and their families because even those prisoners who were safe and whose families were not in the midst of the crisis in New Orleans had few avenues for communication with one another. It took many months for some of those families to receive word from one another and to find out who had survived the storm and who did not. The hurricanes also destroyed or damaged a great many legal records, and reports abounded of men and women who were due only to spend a night or two in jail enduring months of incarceration while the state attempted to sort out where everyone was physically and where their cases lay within the court system.
Many of us with loved ones on the inside fear for the safety of our family members and friends. The types of prison violence that tend to be dramatized on television and in the news are only one small piece of the known and unknown dangers our imprisoned family members face. My family spent weeks praying that my father’s prison would not be overrun with the H1N1 flu when that was a major public health concern in the U.S. Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS epidemics course through some prisons like wildfire. Large populations confined in small spaces have enormous public health concerns. In an earlier post on this blog, I asked people with loved ones in Texas to write letters to protest new measures that would further overcrowding in Texas prisons without expanding the restroom facilities that my father already shares with more men than were intended to inhabit his dormitory. (For now at least, that threat has abated, and plans to add more prisoners to that wing have been withdrawn.) The public health threat that this posed cannot be accurately measured, but it could be disastrous. Prisoners’ families also fear that those we hold dear might be allowed to die or become incapacitated before the prison system would offer them adequate health care. My father has personally known three men died of treatable health conditions because prison officials refused to provide them with the health care they actively and repeatedly requested.
My heart and mind today are with the surviving prisoners in Honduras and the families of those who lived and those who died. Let us learn from this tragedy and not forget about the millions of people all over the world who live in locked cells, their safety in the hands of those who confine them. May those who are charged with being captors and guards, prison administrators and lawmakers see fit to protect the safety of those whose lives they hold in their hands. We, the families, stand vigilant and hope you will protect the ones we love.