Environmental Violence: On Air Conditioning and Corporeal Confinement

 - Old Essex County Prison
photo of the Old Essex County Prison by Matthew Christopher via ABANDONED AMERICA. Was built in 1837 and closed in 1970 due to deteriorating structural conditions.

I was outside smoking and talking shit with this dude this morning, and we got into talking about the Essex County Jail being deemed inhumane recently. He showed me the screenshot, and I was immediately taken back to the time my son’s dad spend there not too long ago.

He was in that jail for nine months, most of which were spent in solitary confinement–all just waiting for a bail hearing. Not even convicted of a crime. Just there. And during that time, he didn’t step outside once. None of them were allowed to go outside at all. It’s kinda surprising. On one hand, the air in that section of the city is so polluted that you almost don’t want to breathe it. But it’s also cruel as hell to not let people breathe non-air-conditioned air for weeks, months, years at a time.

That’s something the dude from this morning brought up too–the fact that they have the AC blasting all the time for the same reason hospitals do: to kill germs.

When I went inside, I looked up some articles about the jail getting outed for their conditions. A lot of the emphasis on the articles and reports on the jail was about the food. No dates on stuff, open packages of raw meat, moldy bread, etc. I know someone who said that they bled when they went to the bathroom for the first couple weeks of being there until their body got used to it. Gross and sad how your physical body has to adapt to their conditions. Reminds me of that Nas line, “you are what you eat. You eat what you can.”

It was a surprise visit from homeland security that exposed the food and health issues (which included leaking ceilings and mold). To me, that’s proof that the entire management staff doesn’t see incarcerated people as people. There’s no value for human life or dignity. The jail claims on their website that, “we set an unparalleled standard of professionalism and correctional excellence through our operation of a safe, secure and humane correctional facility.” But if no one is watching, they will be as wicked as humanly possible.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 312x336_copy_be1f1dc1-9b68-4920-a11b-3eedfc62d23a.jpeg
image from rlsmedia.com

I was also reminded of 17 Stratford Place being shut down because of inhumane living conditions. Actually, the phrasing is “unfit for human habitation.” There were issues like rodents, missing smoke detectors, broken/missing steps, etc. And they only gave people a few days to get out (from the 14th to the 21st). So, yea, it’s good that there is a standard being imposed, but so many people have already lived through the conditions. What does it mean that they were living there–in a place not fit for human life? What does that say about the humans who literally lived there up until yesterday?

With this topic, it’s important to point out that it’s not just excessive violence that’s the problem. Any violence is a problem. The reason changing standards matters is because those policies that influence people more than we think. That’s something Ibram X. Kendi writes about in Stamped from the Beginning–that racist ideas aren’t born out of ignorance but rather policy. Policies and laws directly teach us how to view certain populations of people. So if they suggested that incarcerated people and poor people deserve dignity, then we’d learn to believe it.

And the real goal is to eradicate prisons, jails, and police via eradicating poverty. So it wouldn’t be enough to shut down the Essex County Jail if that meant simply sending those incarcerated people to another jail. It’s also not enough to shut down Stratford Place and have everyone just move somewhere else. That is dismissive and unproductive. The people deserve human rights beyond relocation. Their presence in either the jail or in a ran down building is proof enough that they are in need of humanity via financial and social prosperity.

I just got off the phone with my babydad (who is at a different NJ jail now), and when I mentioned that the Essex County Jail failed a surprise inspection, the first thing he said was, “They need to do that shit over here.”

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