Early Saturday morning, only a few hours before Kalief Browder, a young black man who had spent years in a New York City jail without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack, including 400 days in solitary confinement, hung himself from his bedroom window in the Bronx, two convicted murderers in an upstate prison commonly known as “Little Siberia” attempted an escape of their own: somehow they managed to come into possession of some power tools, which they used to drill through a metal wall and into a pipe they then crawled through for 400 feet before busting open a sewer cover and emerging into freedom. Like certain fugitives of old, they may have had some assistance along the way, and they may have fled to Canada.
Except for the fact that a link at the bottom of the New York Times article on the escape beckons readers to an article on the suicide, it would never, ever have occurred to me that these represented two very different forms of liberation from the same broken and oppressive system if I had not been more or less absent-mindedly flipping through pieces in The Nation’s archives associated with the keyword “prison” and thusly came across an interesting column from 1941. It was written by Jonathan Daniels, the son of Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who in 1941 was just finishing an eight-year stint as FDR’s Ambassador to Mexico. The younger Daniels served for a year and a half as The Nation’s free-wheeling roving columnist under the heading, “A Native at Large.”
Daniels’ column for September 27, 1941, was headlined “Prison Horrors in America.” It told the story of a man named Raymond Harris, who escaped from a chain gang in Virginia and made it 200 miles to Pennsylvania before being apprehended. According to Daniels, Harris claimed that at the quarry where he had been forced to work “the men are chained in bunks above their own excreta.”
Abusive, murderous prison conditions were rife all over the United States, Daniels reported. He wondered why he and most Americans had heard so little about it:
The truth is that everywhere in America…we have been hearing a great deal more about concentration camps in Germany than about conditions in jails in America. We have been listening with horror, as if horror were invented by the thick-necked torturers of Mr. Hitler. I certainly am not trying to minimize repulsion for these political and racial prisons of the Nazis. In the governmental order of even the most backward states in the United States there is no official insistence on sadism. But we have been contemplating cruelty as if it were altogether distant and totalitarian. My bet is that wherever in America anybody reads this piece cruelty in institutional secrecy may exist right now.
That remains at least as true as it was when the column was first published, three-quarters of a century ago. The same media that has for years reflexively applied the epithet “notorious” to Iran’s Evin Prison has only in the past year or so begun to seriously examine what Daniels, in 1941, called the “truth about prisons.” In a New York Times article about the upstate prison from which Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped, Jack Beck of the Prison Visiting Project called it “one of the last places you’d want to be in the state system.” Then, almost inevitably: “Among incarcerated people it is notorious.”