A lot of my fiction ideas come from the news. A lot of it comes from sources that aren’t considered legitimate information except as inspiration for fiction. If I were writing an article or a nonfiction book about some of the abuses that go on in our prison system, anything written by prisoners would be just hearsay. I could quote them, but any arguments I based on what they have to say would be subject to challenges as to the authenticity of the details. After all, the public has been trained to believe that prisoners have every reasons to lie about the conditions they live in.
So I have mixed feelings about recent revelations about private prisoner-transport, which starred in a scene of New Serfdom, a novel I wrote a few years ago. Much of what I wrote about the suffering and near-deaths of some prisoners being transported to the property of a man who had leased their services from the prison came from prisoners themselves, in various articles and books. The rest was my imagination. I never thought that the truth could be worse than what I had imagined. I was writing about a near-future dystopia, but it could just as easily have been located in today’s United States.
“… when I showed up at some of these rural jails, the cops there looked at me with a measure of respect — Look at this glamorous Extradition Agent coming in from out of town, he must be like the U.S. Marshals!
“They didn’t know what it was really like.
“My prisoners got sick and threw up on each other all the time. They passed out from heat stroke — the windows barely opened, for security reasons, and the air conditioning was always broken. It got so hot that they would strip down to their underwear, and I would have to buy them buckets of ice and water.
“They were car sick, dizzy, panicked, and claustrophobic.
“Only one of our vans had cushions on the seats. In the rest of the vehicles, they were just sitting upright on a metal bench, squeezed in tight next to each other, with no way to lie down to sleep — for up to seven days in a row. Usually they’d just take off their shoes and sit on those.
“Imagine having convicted murderers next to you when you’re a first-time DUI offender. There were guys who were past due on child support sitting next to a murderer. That’s crazy — speeding-ticket people next to three-time felons.
“Meanwhile, your hands are bound but there ain’t no seatbelts, so if I put on the brakes or swerve, you get thrown like a pinball across the van and slammed against the wall, with no way to brace yourself. I would hear them slamming around back there.
“One night I was driving down the road, and I heard some chains shaking all the way in the back. Rattling, shaking — like a seizure of chains, and now the prisoners were all yelling up to me that this girl needed help.
“This woman had recently been in a car accident. She had metal headgear on, like a head brace, which I think was to keep her from banging her head on anything — and she was also five months pregnant. They actually let us transport individuals like that.
“So we pulled over, I jumped out of the passenger seat, and tried to go back and hold her. I fed her a soda, and she calmed down slightly. Then it was just back to business.
“Sometimes the inmates were 400 pounds and couldn’t even fit back there. I once transported a guy who couldn’t hold his bowels — he was taking a dump on himself and throwing up on himself the entire time. Others were constantly urinating in bottles.
“When we got to the next jail, “inmate cleaning teams” would clean the shit and vomit out of the vans, although sometimes I had to do so myself.”
It gets worse, believe it or not.
Both articles are part of a Marshall Project series: Life on the Inside