Thursday, May 19, 2011

IMF guy should suffer in the cellblocks like everyone else

    For 18 months, I  served as the Inmate Advocate at the notorious House of Detention for Men on Rikers Island in New York. If I were still there, I would vehemently object to putting former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in protective custody. He is being given outrageously special consideration because he is a rich white guy.
    The rationale for shielding "the world's top banker" from the realities of prison life, according to corrections officials, is that he might be harmed if he is placed in general population.
    Everybody in general population "might be harmed." They’re all being harmed! Why should he be any different?  Here is a man who has been graced with extreme wealth and privilege since he was born. So what do we do with him? We give him more privilege.
     He is just too debonair to be thrown in with the unwashed masses, many of whom are in jail on drug and other nonviolent charges, while he is accused of a brutal and sordid sex crime. Why should he have it better than they do? His whole life has been about having it better than they do, and officials are perpetuating that inequity.
 IMF Managing Director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn

    Those who assert that he would be a “special target” if he were in general population have it right, but not in the way they intend. He would be a target of attention and interest because he is famous and powerful, and the other inmates would be falling all over themselves, not to harm him, but to befriend him. They are as star-struck as the rest of us. They would be thrilled to know him. Bragging rights are a vital currency within those walls. They would protect him. They would tell him their stories. They would seek his advice. They would probably be attracted to him all the more for being known as “The Great Seducer.”
    I expect that he would be the chief beneficiary of this interaction. He is a man whose job it has been to manage global aid funds in a way that would alleviate poverty. One wonders if he has ever been anywhere near the welter of poverty and its consequences that he would be in the Day Room or the Yard at Rikers.
    The maid he is alleged to have assaulted is a 32-year-old widow from the West African nation of Guinea, the very type of developing country the IMF was set up to help. Apparently she wasn’t a person to him. Maybe if he’d spent time at Rikers before his night in the luxury hotel suite, he would have seen her differently.
    It wouldn’t surprise me if it changed his perspective entirely to “mingle“ with his fellow detainees. I think he would soon be more inclined to regard the poor as real, flesh-and-blood people rather than as reams of data piled upon his grand desk in his magnificent office. Maybe he would be less inclined to accept his $325,000 "golden parachute" for resigning at the IMF, and maybe he would have the grace to decline his six-figure pension, which he will get every year for the rest of his life. He has always been a multimillionaire, and he always will be, with or without the IMF money.
    Maybe there are some poor people somewhere on Earth who need that money more than he and his fabulously wealthy wife do.
    And I feel quite sure that his concept of an inmate, a poor person and a racial minority would be dramatically revised.

    What surprised me in my work with those poor, minority inmates was that despite their lowly place on the Great American Totem Pole, most of them were intelligent, articulate, enterprising young men who did have dreams and ethics but who had faced one obstacle after another in what they referred to as “getting over,” or making it. They didn’t absolve themselves entirely of responsibility, but they wanted me to know -- and I believed them -- that they were not intrinsically bad people. They’d had a lot of bad luck. They had grown up amid violence, dysfunction and hopelessness.
    What astonished me was how intact most of them were as human beings, in spite of having been deprived of the supports that most of us regard as central to our development as productive, principled people.
    There have been a number of other privileged, high-profile white guys who have wound up in the general population of various prisons. Many of them have written movingly about what they learned. Many of them were able to provide valuable mentoring to their fellow prisoners. Many were inspired to become advocates for reform once they left.
        DSK as he is commonly known, has his own cell in his own wing of a smaller, “special” facility, apart from the ominous House of Detention for Men. He is allowed to wear his own clothes, rather than the orange jumpsuits other detainees are required to wear. He has a TV in his room, access to his usual reading materials, including his books and daily papers, and an hour of solitary outdoor exercise each day.
    Other inmates, of course, go out to “the Yard,” which can be treacherous territory, where much of the gang plotting and physical assaults are carried out. 
    Any inmate will tell you that the worst part of being locked up is being locked up. But that misery is compounded horrifically by the conditions under which prisoners -- except for the very select few -- are confined.
    It is a nightmare in there. It is harsh, loud and dangerous. The screeching and clanging of the gates and cell doors; the screaming, shrieking, swearing, sobbing and pleading of inmates (often well into the night); the smell of sweat and overcrowding that no amount of pine cleaner can wash away -- all of these are aspects of daily life on Rikers, which is the largest prison complex in the world. These men are desperate, terrified, enraged. Many of them have serious untreated mental illness. Others are addicts who are undergoing an excruciating withdrawal, without medical intervention. These "presumed innocent" detainees are all being put through hell because they can't afford bail.
    If they have to live through it, why shouldn’t DSK?

Jail Cell Block

I remember well my first walk through the cellblocks. Although all the prisoners were in lockdown -- purportedly for my safety -- I was flanked by the deputy warden and the captain, and two corrections officers followed behind. I was pretty well-informed about prisons, but the shock of seeing hundreds of men, three tiers high, their hands reaching out of the bars, each of them yelling at me about his innocence, his intercepted mail, his denial of family visits, his need for medical care, his lack of access to a lawyer…I began to wonder if I had accepted the wrong job. As it turned out, men -- like dogs -- are much better behaved when they are not in cages, and my interactions with inmates after that initial Grand Tour were, without exception, respectful and rewarding. I had unsupervised meetings with as many as 20 of them at a time, without incident.
    Everybody’s goal is to stay alive long enough to get out of there, which is exactly what our soldiers overseas say. Most of the 14,000 men at Rikers are stuck here for an average of three months before they can get a court date.  Even though their innocence is legally ‘presumed,’ they are subject to daily humiliation and violence. As the rapper Kool G. recently wrote:

" might have been robbin', you might have been whylin'/ But you won't be smilin' on Rikers island. / Just to hear the name it makes your spine tingle/ This is a jungle where the murderers mingle/ This ain't a place that's crowded but there's room for you/ Whether you're white or you're black, you'll be black and blue..."
    The French economist and politician, DSK, though -- who is white, with an air of cultivation and gravitas, who wears custom-made suits, stays in $3,000 per night hotel rooms and has homes on three continents --  is also a pretrial detainee and also presumed innocent, but he is spared the sweaty, paranoid, sick-to-your-stomach terror that other defendants are required to endure.
    I think a lot of us would be made uncomfortable thinking of that handsome, gray-haired connoisseur of wine and women thrust into the midst of thousands of big black guys, and tattooed, skinhead white guys, and glaring hispanic guys.
    We might even think, “Poor thing!”
    But if he is a poor thing, they all are.  They are being held within a 430-acre complex that is characterized all over the world as "notorious.”
    A priest who ministered at Rikers characterized the atmosphere as “strange, excessive, irrational and illogical, of absurdity raised to the ultimate degree in every situation.”
    Strauss-Kahn’s splendid isolation from all of this makes the priest's description ring all the more true.


THE WARDENS OF RIKERS ISLAND: What it's like to be "absolute rulers of society's garbage can."