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The Old-New South (1)…

Flying Con-Air in 2001 from the Lewisburg to the Atlanta Penitentiaries after 11 years in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), I was intensely curious as to how the South had changed.  Especially the prisons.

My initial serious time behind the walls was the 1964-65 period when I was sent to a Tennessee chain-gang.  While it was only a misdemeanor case, it managed to stretch into more than a year of hard time.

     I was young and full of it; fighting for civil rights, I was convinced I was going to change the world—or at least part of it.  There were those just as convinced that I wasn’t.

My education—serving in the 101st Airborne, and living and working in the South—is the usual story of ideal meets the real.  I guess I still have a large share of that…

Taking the prison bus off the sub-standard aircraft, we rolled into the Atlanta Pen, which is located smack in the middle of the black ghetto.  Houses are built practically up to the walls.

The last time I did time in the South the prisons were segregated.  Where I was at there were maybe 1000-or-so inmates, 75% were white.  All the blacks were housed in the first tier, and whites on the three above them.

     Segregation worked to the advantage of the blacks job-wise—at least where I was at.  Bearing in mind that prisons are work houses with “hard-labor” attached to one’s sentence, some jobs are a whole lot more desirable than others.

     Back in the ’60s, the South was still very much into Jim Crow.  Much of the overt defensive posture that blacks had adopted for survival included what I call the “Step ‘n Fetchit” role.  Eyes down, a shuffle and a head-scratch, and some comment playing to white stereotypes of black ignorance and subservience (at least when prison staff was in the vicinity).

     That posture later evolved into what I term the “In your face, muthafucka” role.  Actually, much the same defensive results, but playing deeper into white fear and criminality. 

     Blacks were largely excluded from the harsh chain-gangs, paradoxically, because they couldn’t be integrated with white prisoners, and they “were too stupid” to work…so white racism held.  They mostly worked in-house details, and ground’s keeping.

     After a brief stint as a cook in the kitchen (no blacks allowed) and someone had poured soap powders into the inmate’s meal, I did the remainder of my time on the rock-quarry, chain-gang, one of the most notorious in the South.

     To make a long story short, my situation attracted a lot of media attention, and the prison was eventually placed into a form of federal receivership by the courts, and the rock-quarry gang was shut down (not to resume for another 10 years).  But that all came after they extracted their share of flesh from my hide.

As I struggled off the bus in the Atlanta Pen some 36 years later, chains making it difficult to negotiate large moves, I was surprised to see not only a vast majority of black prisoners, but practically an all-black staff.

Any inkling that conditions might be different, given the history of black folks in the South, soon flew out of my thinking.  These prison guards, many female, were whiter than white—attitude-wise.  Having already served 11 years up north, I didn’t anticipate a far harsher regimen—and certainly not at the hands of blacks—in the South.

I suppose the Pens are a special case.  The prisoners there are high security and tend to have a higher ratio of predatory and violent criminals.

As a transit prisoner, I went thru the Atlanta Pen experience 3 times, and it was always the same: brutal and demeaning.  We were always kept in the “hole,” below ground, a massive complex at that prison.  Four and five men were always kept in the 2-man cells.

We were given filthy plastic pallets that we put on the floor.  There was only room to sit on them.  Freeze in the winter, boil in the summer.  To use the commode a prisoner would throw a sheet (all we had) over his head and sit on the toilet—continuously flushing it.

The “hole” complex was supervised by mostly angry and alienated staff, but pretty much run by snitch-rats who were kept there as trustees—safe from general population.  Hard to say who treated us worse.

General Sherman and his bummers should’ve stuck around…  This damn sure wasn’t what I sacrificed all those years for: There gotta be a better answer than a black version of white…

               Dr. Publico

Category: AtlantaPen, JimCrow
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