21st century prison diaries

From one of an amazing, and funny, series of articles by Barrett Brown, an imprisoned journalist.

In fact, the gangs really don’t have control over the prison. But then neither does the administration, if by “control” we mean the ability to make uncontested decisions over what happens within a given space, in which case control is always a matter of degree. The federal and state governments of the United States, for instance, exercise some degree of overlapping control over their territory, but not to such an extent that the various law-enforcement agencies — er, law enforcement agencies — arrest any but a small minority of residents who violate the law.

This is just as well, since the law requires that the tens of millions of Americans who use drugs or gamble or involve themselves in prostitution be imprisoned — and that’s not even counting federal law, which, as convincingly estimated by civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate in his book Three Felonies a Day, the average American unwittingly violates every day. And thus it is that the U.S. can continue to exist above the level of an unprecedented gulag state only to the extent that its laws are not actually enforced — an extraordinary and fundamental fact of American life that one might hope in vain to see rise to the level of an election issue, but which is at least worth keeping in mind when it comes to the debate over whether or not we should keep granting the state ever more powerful methods of surveillance until it becomes the All-Seeing God Against Whose Laws We All Have Sinned. (Personally I’d vote “no,” but then I’m a felon and can’t vote anyway.)

…The reality is that control is shared by way of a sort of makeshift federalism that varies in particulars from prison to prison but in which real power is always divided among the various gangs, the staff, and local and regional administrators in an arrangement that’s best described as a cross between the old Swiss canton system and China during the Warring States period, which I’ll be the first to acknowledge is not especially helpful. Suffice to say that it will take me the remainder of my sentence to provide a real sense of this remarkable state-within-a-state and its inimitable politics — the politics of the literally disenfranchised, who live their lives in the very guts of government without being able to rely on its protections, and so are forced to provide their own. Really, it’s a state-within-a-state-within-a-state.

Hat tip to Patrick Ball.