If you thought you could change the asinine, dehumanizing, woefully inefficient US “justice” system from the inside, think again. The game is rigged, and the red tape is impenetrable. The walls were built upon the same morals of infinite growth that the rest of society was philosophically predicated upon and until those fall, nothing else will fall with it, not least of which the barbed wire of mass incarceration. For most of 2022, I spent my days inside Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional facility as a case manager for HIV-positive inmates in need of re-entry help.
The position was created in the 80s after a white child contracted AIDS from medical treatment for his hemophilia. Finally, the ruling class had to pretend to give a shit about the victims of HIV/AIDS and put some public health money into its prevention. As one might have reasoned, every infectious disease is far more prevalent in the insular, contained environment of incarceration. In addition to these maladies, drugs also run rampant on the inside, mostly through the hands of correctional officers and custody assistants making side money.
Twin Towers is the world’s largest jail and the world’s largest mental health facility. Vast labyrinths shoot into the sky with endless locked corridors housing those deemed detached enough from reality to be considered a danger to themselves or others in cramped, sterile rooms lined with glass and concrete illuminated by blinding fluorescent lights that never seem to go out. If you didn’t feel mentally well before you were dragged in, you certainly wouldn’t now.
Most of my clients were addicted to meth or fentanyl. None of them had jobs and very few had any sort of housing. They were perpetually indigent and nobody, not themselves or the state ever really thought they wouldn’t be. That said, most made their routine appointments for HIV meds and many also made it to therapy despite years of crippling addiction, poor health, abject poverty, discrimination, and neglect.
Perhaps a tenth of them were white, but mostly they were from informally red-lined neighborhoods rife with crack, H, gang violence, and the failing welfare state. About a quarter of them were transwomen housed on the gay men’s floor of a men’s only jail. While the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has stated that they will house inmates with their stated gender identity, the fine print also states that the board of whichever given jail will make the final determination. They presented as women, they took their daily state-sponsored estrogen, but they still didn’t pass the test.
I was mostly tasked with connecting clients to HIV care, rehab, and mental healthcare. This sounds simple enough until you consider the travesty of the modern American healthcare system and its endless barriers mired in for-profit insurance companies, big pharma, and their respective congressional lobbies that are simply corruption by a different name. Most rehabs don’t take state health insurance. Most inmates didn’t even have state health insurance; they only qualified for enrollment after ninety days of continuous incarceration and even then, the nonprofit that was tasked with enrolling never once emailed me back after sending them referrals.
The public health complex is underfunded to such an embarrassing low that any social worker without a master’s degree or a decade of promotional climbing at one agency can’t survive in an HCOL city without a second job. I’ve worked at homeless shelters where my coworkers are homeless for instance. My office at this most recent gig routinely ran out of water, toilet paper, and office supplies; not to mention the blazing indoor temperatures in the summer for lack of a climate control budget. The perpetual battle to win more grants is a direct testament to the microcosm of an overly competitive economy where those born into wealth tend to hold onto it with a 90-odd percent chance of determining mobility in either direction.
In addition to this, my coworkers and I were made to sit through weekly hours-long lectures on subjects ranging from attachment styles to office etiquette to delusional shamanic grifters touting past-life regression as a healing opportunity for homeless jailbirds with AIDS. Furthermore, the ridiculous strategic habit of meaningless liberal linguistic gymnastics reached a fever pitch as we were told not to refer to our clients as inmates but as “justice-involved individuals.” Sex workers were no longer sex workers but “people involved with sex work.” Mind you, the state itself still calls these people inmates, convicts, and prostitutes on their paperwork. The mirage of actually giving a shit about downtrodden or factually marginalized people has been recuperated by the ruling class with wordplay, pop psychology pseudoscience, and a surface-level monolithic understanding of extremely nuanced and historied identities.
If all this sounds bleak and hopeless, that’s because I believe it to be so under the current mechanisms in place to address the aforementioned issues. I’ve spent more than a decade researching, working, and organizing around mass incarceration and its many-fanged maw to see what works. Experts have guided me and elders from decades of solitary confinement have pointed my associates and me toward a more refined approach. But I will tell you first-hand from the belly of the beast, no incremental legislation is going to curb the explosion in criminalization. “Crime” is often double-speak for poverty. “Criminal” is mostly a smoke screen for “poor person.” Until the US and elsewhere commit to massive wealth redistribution and an overhaul of all the economic narratives that will keep leading us to bigger and bigger market crashes, mass incarceration ain’t goin nowhere and precious few will be pulled out of the river.