I organize formerly incarcerated people in New York State. I have heard many stories and talked to many people. From those wrongfully imprisoned for minor infractions to those who confessed to murder one, when Auburn prison comes up the conversation always shifts to the conditions at the facility. They are so deplorable, degrading and dangerous that incarcerated people have come to call Auburn “the place where Jason lives.” They equate being sent to Auburn with facing down one of America’s most frightening horror movie monsters, Jason of Friday the 13th.
Tamika, whose brother was recently transferred to Auburn, wants the world to know why the prisoners say that Auburn is like living in a horror movie, and to join the struggle to do something about it. Her brother, call him Q to protect his identity from repression, has communicated to her examples of systemic neglect and abuse.
There’s the crumbling infrastructure of the prison. Auburn is one the oldest operating prisons in the country, and it shows in wear and tear. The entire infrastructure of the prison is decrepit and the buildings riddled with cracks and drafts. There are so many gaps between parts of the windows, and cracks in walls, that the prison is filled with roaches and rats that easily go in and out at will.
This not only makes the prisoners vulnerable to all kinds of critters, it also means in the cold upstate New York winter months the entire prison is freezing. This threatens the actual survival of vulnerable inmates—the elderly and prisoners with chronic illnesses.
Auburn is a maximum-security facility, which means that 23 hours a day the 1,500 prisoners are locked in cold cells with the rats and roaches, with one hour of time in the prison yard. Q says he regularly loses feeling in both of his feet from the cold and doesn’t regain feeling for some time. The prison provides some clothing, but Q says it is entirely inadequate to protect people from the elements.
Three days a week, people are allowed to shower at units across the yard from the main cell blocks. Q informs us that prisoners put off showering as long as possible, since they risk get dirtier in the shower than before they went in. The prison showers are absolutely disgusting with muck and grime, Q says.
The food, Q tells us, is practically inedible. On one occasion, the prison served sausages that were so rubbery and solid that no one felt safe putting them down. Some inmates took the sausages into the yard for their regular recess and saw how high they could bounce them off the ground. In a macabre game, the people incarcerated at Auburn found that the food served to be better as a bouncing ball than nourishment.
Because the prison food is so awful, people rely more heavily on what is in the commissary vending machines to satisfy hunger. But this is almost exclusively candy, with the cost inflated to extortionate prices. Current inmates are going broke to survive on the candy, and simultaneously see their physical and dental health deteriorate rapidly.
Regardless of whether prisoners rely more on the commissary or the prison food trays, most prisoners become sickly. Families say they witness over time how their loved ones’ health and spirit are eroded: developing cists, rashes, oral health problems, migraines, and even becoming pre-diabetic.
Guards are vicious and brutal
Q’s most consistent complaint, however, is that the correctional officers that police the prison are vicious and brutal.
In February, the media reported that at Auburn a correctional officer was suspended and being investigated for allegations of using waterboarding and beating in the genitals of shackled prisoners as punitive measures and for alleged insubordination. Other guards were involved as well.
Because of so many reports of guard violence, the guards have taken to beating the men on their penises with the belief that there would be no apparent bruising that would get them caught. It is both regular and well known, according to Q, that guards will punish even minor infractions with baton blows to the groin.
Gangs an outgrowth of sadistic conditions
Like most prisons in the U.S., , Auburn’s brutal conditions have spawned prison gangs who vie with each other to offer protection. The starving and freezing of prisoners, their systematic neglect, and the brutality of prison guards has pushed the inmates into the survival tactics of gang organizations. The systemic neglect has lead people to secure their survival in more and more brutal ways, with trauma pushing them to violent confrontation over petty possessions, and a tragic willingness to kill or be killed. Among upstate facilities, Auburn is known as the “slaughter house,” because of how frequent the stabbings are.
Jason is a national phenomenon
Auburn is one among more than 5,000 prisons in the country, not including immigrant detainment camps. While each prison, jail, or juvenile facility is slightly different, inmates all face correctional officer abuse, terrible food quality, systemic neglect, collapsing infrastructure, and extortionate labor practices.
Jason and the whole horror movie is manifestly a national phenomenon. Auburn is more of an exemplar than an exception.
From Auburn and Attica in New York, to San Quentin in California and Huntsville in Texas, the U.S. government is disappearing working-class and oppressed people into facilities with the worst possible conditions. The inmate population nationally is mostly young Black, Latinos/Latina and Native American. An overwhelming number are poor working-class people of all nationalities and ethnic groups convicted of property and “survival crimes.”
Across the country, the prison population is still steadily increasing while the crime rate steadily declines. Incarceration is an eliminative tool used by the capitalist system as a form of social control at a time when basic rights like jobs, medical coverage, and affordable housing are being taken away from working-class people.
There is no excuse for subjecting anyone to the conditions that exist at Auburn. The fight to expose and end these conditions must not be left solely to individuals like Tamika who come to visit, are grieved, and enraged at what their loved ones describe.
Mass incarceration is everyone’s issue. The prisons are the crime!