New Internationalist

Endpiece

Issue 260

new internationalist
issue 260 - October 1994

E N D P I E C E
Taking a photo
A simple request spirals out of control. Death row prisoner Brandon
Aston Jones
concludes his moving insight into the violence of prison.
Click here to see Last Month's: The disease of the surprise visitor - Brandon's first piece.

[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The death row cell block where Brandon Aston Jones lives and waits. His cell, No 51, is upstairs in front of the round light in the ceiling. The man who made this drawing - Christopher Burger - was executed earlier this year. Inset: Brandon Aston Jones. [image, unknown]
The death row cell block where Brandon Aston Jones lives and waits. His cell, No 51, is upstairs in front of the round light in the ceiling. The man who made this drawing - Christopher Burger - was executed earlier this year. Inset: Brandon Aston Jones. Brandon Aston Jones The death row cell block where Brandon Aston Jones lives and waits. His cell, No 51, is upstairs in front of the round light in the ceiling. The man who made this drawing - Christopher Burger - was executed earlier this year. Inset: Brandon Aston Jones. [image, unknown]

All prisons have a program whereby a prisoner can have photographs taken on request for their own personal use. The price varies from prison to prison but usually the cost for one photograph is between one and five dollars.

Several years ago my mother wrote to me. She begged me for a photograph. She knew she was near death and she had not seen me in years. I will never forget the words in that letter. She wrote: ‘It’s more than a thousand miles between us son, and I cannot travel because I’m too weak; I just want to see your face one more time before I die.’

It usually takes about three days to get a photo taken. I explained to the so-called ‘prison counsellor’ Mr Roquemore the urgency of my need and he seemed to appreciate how important it was for me. I did all the necessary paper work, filled in the ‘money withdrawal request’ for two photographs. He even said he would take the photo of me personally as soon as ‘inmate accounts’ cleared the money transfer from my account into the prisoners’ ‘Picture Project’ account.

A week went by. I watched the counsellor passing in and out of my cell block each day. During that week he often looked at me directly in the eye without so much as a vague mention of my request. His lack of action prompted me to write a letter to the warden repeating my request, outlining my conversation with Mr Roquemore and noting his lack of action.

A week went by with no response from the warden. Then I chanced upon the so-called ‘prison minister’ in the hallway and explained to him the situation. He said he would look into the matter, adding he did not understand the delay. Then I explained the sequence of events to the unit supervisor who told me he would get to the bottom of the matter and get back to me.

Nine more days went by – with no response from any of these people. All the while it was clear to me that everyone – even the cell-block officers – knew about my problem.

After 28 days with no response at all, I asked cell block officer Wicks if he would call his supervisor so I could speak to him about a personal matter. Officer Wicks just sat smugly in his booth with a contemptuous smirk on his face and flatly refused. When I asked him ‘why not?’ he became abusive.

In a fit of combined rage and despair I walked across to the table that sits in the middle of the cell block, picked up the old Underwood typewriter that sat on it and hurled it through the cell-block window. I figured that this action would bring a sergeant. Part of the typewriter bounced back inside the cell block after hitting a concrete mesh just two feet beyond the window opening. My rage was such that I picked up those pieces and threw them out as well, totally unaware that I had severely cut my hand in the process. Officer Wicks ordered all the prisoners to go to their cells. I followed his order just like everybody else, in the hope I would see the supervisor about my problem.

Moments later the supervising sergeant, the unit supervisor, the counsellor Roquemore and someone I did not know from the warden’s office, were all gathered in front of my cell. Suddenly I was getting lots of attention! Roquemore looked me in the eye with the contrived piety of a priest and said: ‘What’s the problem?’ The absurdity of that question was rivalled only by the fact that the man from the wardens’ office was standing behind the counsellor with a camera in his hand. He began talking photographs of the broken window, of what was left of the typewriter that had bounced back into the cell block in several twisted pieces.

No, he did not take a photograph of me. Yes, I did get charged with destroying state property, and yes I was punished for it. I was guilty – they had the photographs from the scene of the crime to prove it!

Shortly afterwards I learned that my mother had died four days prior to the incident.

If anyone thinks that this kind of treatment is conducive to helping a prisoner rehabilitate himself or herself they are sadly mistaken. Furthermore, the kind of thing I have described is not exceptional – it’s the rule. We should not be surprised that prisoners who have been subjected to such inhumane treatment for 10, 15, 20 years should, upon release, turn out to be walking time-bombs.

As a prisoner you live in an atmosphere of violence so pervasive that you have to be prepared to defend yourself at every moment against the assaults of fellow prisoners and equally violent ‘corrections staff’.

It occurs to me that society recognizes that a soldier needs special psychological attention when she or he returns from the battle field abroad. Yet prisons in America are little more than contained battle fields on domestic soil. Just about every prisoner in them is emotionally or psychologically a victim – of one kind or another – of ‘prison administrative shell shock’.

Brandon Aston Jones welcomes letters.
His address is GDCC, G2-51 EF 122216, PO Box 3877 Jackson, GA 30233, USA.

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