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Old Jim Crow Thrives Inside Oregon Prisons

In her book, The New Jim Crow[1], legal scholar Michelle Alexander did a masterful job of exposing the U.S. criminal (in)justice system for what it is: namely, an updated, more sophisticated, continuation of repression and containment, and profiting  off the misery, of New Afrikan/Black people. Her work, and that of other critical race writers like Tim Wise[2], counter the b.s. of those who pretend that Amerika is finally a race-neutral society.

In the eyes of most, and even of these writers, the overt old Jim Crow forms of racism and national oppression, e.g. government-enforced segregation such as “whites only” eating facilities, Blacks seated in the backs of buses, and so on, are practices of a bygone era. Even I thought as much. That is, until I found myself imprisoned within the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC).

The DOC with its ‘Enlightened’ Self

Even during the most blatant stages of U.S. racism, such as chattel slavery; or when lynching was the norm; or when Blacks were fleeing by the millions to cities of the North and West from the Klan, lynch mobs and desperate poverty of the old South; or when ‘zoot suits’ and Bebop jazz were the rave and symbolized our cultural resistance to the white supremacist status quo, military draft and financial exploitation of Black art and music; or when Blacks were being shot, billy-clubbed, tear-gassed, water-hosed by cops and bitten by their dogs for demanding equality; or when over 80% of urban Blacks supported the Black Panther Party, its community service programs and its resistance to police oppression, etc., whites were claiming racism didn’t exist, that racial tranquility was the order of the day, that Blacks were happy and content, and that those who said otherwise were just outside troublemakers out to upset racial ‘harmony’ or agents of enemy foreign governments.

So it was no surprise when ODOC officials assured me upon my arrival from the notoriously racist and abusive supermax prisons of Virginia (the old Confederate South) in February 2012, that theirs is a progressive prison system. They boasted that Oregon ranks in the top ten percentile of U.S. prisons for humane and enlightened treatment of its prisoners, while Virginia is in the lowest ten percentile for prison systems that abuse and mistreat prisoners.

I was of course skeptical. Twenty-two years in prison and a lifetime of living in capitalist Amerika taught me that self-promotional claims of officials work just like corporate advertising. They emphasize only the good and divert attention from the bad in their practices and products. And it’s purely opportunistic and lying advertising. Like the salesperson working for company A, so long as that company pays their bills they zealously promote its goods as superior in quality to rival Company B’s. But should they switch employers, then they will in turn promote Company B’s as the best merchandise.

So I wasn’t exactly shocked to discover in 2012, right in the ODOC and in a prison situated in Oregon’s capital city of Salem, the old Jim Crow was still being practiced almost perfectly in fact.

Back to Separate But Equal

On March 1, 2012 I was assigned to Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in Salem.

The transition from Virginia to Oregon has been interesting to say the least. And not just because I was allowed in a general prison population after 17 years of solitary confinement.

The racial demographics in Oregon prisons are basically the reverse of Virginia’s, and most everywhere else in Amerika. In Virginia about two out of every twenty prisoners are white. The vast majority of Virginia’s prisoners are Black, although Blacks make up only about 20% of Virginia’s social population. In Oregon, however, only about two or three out of every twenty prisoners are Black. And Oregon’s Black incarceration ratio is still grossly disproportionate to that of whites. Bottom line, the vast majority of Oregon prisoners are white. Seeing all these white folks in prison was the first oddity that struck me on assignment to the ODOC.

The second oddity was finding old JIm Crow alive and well at OSP. And I’m told by all that OSP is the ODOC’s most ‘liberal’ men’s prison, with the most racially ‘tolerant’ staff. Other ODOC prisons “out east,” like Snake River, where their Security Housing Units are called “Cowboy Country,” where staff with attitudes like the Klan “do things their own way.” But here’s an example of what I found in OSP: a prisoner cafeteria right out of the Old South.

The prisoner chow hall seats several hundred prisoners, four to a table. It’s one large room with an equal number of tables on either side, divided by a walking aisle down the middle. At the rear are two food service windows where trays are prepared, one on the left side of the cafeteria, one on the right. To reach the service windows prisoners enter through one or the other of two doors situated at the front on the far left and far right sides of the cafeteria. They then proceed in straight lines along the right or left wall to the rear, and collect their tray, utensils, and food at the service window.

The serving lines, service windows, and seating arrangements are divided by race. Whites use the line food service window, and sit on the right side of the cafeteria. All other races use and sit on the left side; Blacks sit in the very back. Asians, Mexicans and Latinos and Native Americans sit in the middle. And up in the front where groups of guards stand nearby, is where sex-offenders sit — this shunned group is generally white. Food service staff and guards assign only white prisoners to work the serving windows on the right or white side, all others, including white outcasts, work the left or ‘colored’ side.

An Outsider Making Waves

When I first observed this arrangement, I thought instantly of George Jackson’s description in Soledad Brother[3] of the t.v. room in 1960s California prisons, where guards enforced segregated seating with whites up front and Blacks in the rear. And how when he dared to sit up front with the whites, he was jumped and guards punished only him as the troublemaker.

I too decided to defy this OSP seating arrangement, and leading by example, sat at a table near the front on the white side. And, consistent with Comrade George’s t.v. room experience, the Black prisoners all cast me nervous or fearful sidelong glances. The guards and white prisoners looked at me like I was crazy or a confused or lost child. Whites seated at the table quickly moved, leaving me to sit alone. Everyone obviously expected me to be jumped. Although I was prepared, nothing happened.

The next day, I went around the white serving line to ‘their’ serving window, and was this time intercepted by a white guard who told me if I sat on the white side again I’d be taken as trying to incite a riot and would be thrown in the hole. So I went and sat in the Black section looking to gauge the thinking and responses of other Blacks. They literally begged me not to sit on the white side again.

For days afterward I patiently questioned and challenged their thinking, pointing out among other things: 1) They are victims of government-enforced Jim Crow eating and seating arrangements exactly like in the Old South, which Rosa Parks, student sit-ins and others had defied; 2) Their attitudes were just like those of complacent ‘broken’ Blacks who “went along to get along,” fearing white backlash to defying Jim Crow segregation; 3) That the key challenges to Jim Crow were initiated by people from other places like me, such as Northern Black college students and white supporters — ‘Freedom Riders’ — who rode buses through the South defying segregated seating laws; 4) Just like in the Old South, OSP officials justify tolerating and enforcing segregated conditions and punishing those who defy them in the name of preventing white mob violence; and 5) The entire game of racial division plays right into the hands of the administration and guards who oppress everyone — that it is an old tactic taken from the Willie Lynch playbook of Divide and Rule.

Although most of them accepted the history lesson, they all resisted following its example. And to save face, they all pretended to be satisfied with sitting on ‘their’ side in the rear of the cafeteria. “We don’t want to sit with the whites anyway,” they proclaimed, but admitted not to be speaking for everyone. I pointed out also that they didn’t seem to want to sit with each other either, since they most frequently bickered and fought each other and there was no Black unity either. And oddly, whites frequently sit in the Black area without protest. I questioned this and what it said of them that even pedophiles and rapists got more considerate front row seating than them. I haven’t gotten a satisfactory rebuttal to either of these points yet.

And no OSP administrator, including the warden/superintendent can claim ignorance or plausible denial, since they all routinely sit or stand right in the cafeteria observing the meals.

We’re Not Racists!

Prison officials love to sermonize that prisoners must learn to accept responsibility for their actions. Woe unto them but did they practice what they preach. Perhaps they could be taken more seriously if they began their sermons with a confession in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, “Hi. I’m an Oregon prison official and I’m a bigot.” But these folks aren’t interested in curing themselves or their system Hypocrites ….

In fact, I’ve seldom seen as reflexive an angry response as when calling them on their racism. Some of the more ‘professional’ ones temper their reactions with strong silence, changing several shades of red, changing the subject, or simply changing places by charging me with being the racist for noticing racial issues at all. Whether they react, evade or deny, the responses are always defensive. And one only becomes defensive when one has something to protect or hide.

In most cases, when I’ve told guards and administrators here that they practice racism and jingoism, they react negatively. From threats to throw me in the hole to actually doing so, to angry blanket denials, to locking me in the cell as a threat to staff. The truth hurts I suppose. Truth also exposes what one wishes to deny. And denying the obvious in racial matters is an old Amerikan tradition. As old as Amerika itself, actually.

As Stan Goff, the white veteran and career U.S. Special Operations soldier, who exposed blatant Special Ops racism and exclusion of Blacks from their units, once observed, “White America will kill to preserve its lies.”[4] The Old South taught us that too.

So, no, Old South Jim Crow and the South didn’t fall. They just moved out West and merged with the New Jim Crow to become what Oregon officials call an enlightened and humane approach to prison administration. They definitely have Virginia beat! I was just shipped from a plantation run by wolves, to one run by foxes. Either way, as Malcolm X observed, I’m still in the doghouse. Only this time, with back row seats.

Kevin Rashid Johnson has spent most of his adult life in prison. He spent 17 years in solitary in Virginia, and has recently been transferred to Oregon.

Notes.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, NY, 2010)

[2] Tim Wise, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (City Lights, Cal., 2009)

[3] George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago, 1970)

[4] Stan Goff, Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military In the New American Century (Soft Skull, NY, 2004)

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