Shakedowns, PTSD, and Accountability

by Safear

What’s the worst part about prison? That’s like asking, “what’s the worst part about hell?” It’s all fucking bad. I can’t ever get comfortable in here. A formerly incarcerated comrade once told me that the worst part of prison was the shakedowns. A shakedown is a cell search. And it’s true, they are pretty horrendous.

There’s different kinds of shakedowns. Sometimes a platoon of guards will rush the block. When this happens, every prisoner is locked in their cell. Then the guards go cell to cell, multiple cells at a time, and conduct their search. The worst kind of platoon search is when guards from other prisons get bused in, usually the CERT teams. CERT stands for Corrections Emergency Response Team. They are used for “high risk operations” like cell extractions or riots. CERT guards are usually the most arrogant guards. They think they are tough and look for any opportunity to prove it. When they come from another prison they have absolutely no respect for any prisoner or their property. The last time I experienced a CERT platoon shakedown all of my property was mixed with my celly’s, even our socks. It was like a tornado landed in the middle of our cell. Later I realized they even threw out my Qur’an.

Another kind of shakedown is a security shake down. This is when two guards from the prison’s security team search cells. Once they receive some intel, or a prisoner is on their radar, they will show up at the cell and tear it apart. This can happen at any time, day or night. For me, these types of shakedowns are a common occurrence. The last time I experienced a security shakedown, I was in the middle of a deep sleep. All of sudden my cell door popped. It was so unexpected that I shot right up, heart racing, my brain trying to fight through the fog of sleep. At first I didn’t know what was going on. Then I saw the uniforms at my door. There is no relaxation in prison.

Usually when a search team comes to a cell, if there are two prisoners inside, one prisoner is immediately cuffed and made to stand outside the cell under watch. Then the prisoner in the cell is forced to strip completely naked and expose every bodily crevice. That includes the area between the penis and testicles, for those with that appendage. After that, the prisoner is allowed to put on boxers and a T-shirt only, cuffed, then taken out of the cell. The second prisoner then goes through the same process. Finally both prisoners stand out front of the cell as the search team tears through all of their property. Mail is read. Pictures are examined. Anything consider contraband is thrown out. If it is serious contraband then they will take one or both prisoners to the hole. The safety of privacy doesn’t exist in prison.

One method of counter surveillance by prisoners is verbal warnings for an impending shakedown. As soon as the security team enters the block, prisoners sound out calls of “whoop whoop.” These calls are important, as they allow anyone with contraband a moment to discard or stash it. It is prison etiquette to sound the alarm and those who do so are looked at with respect. On the other hand, if the alarm isn’t given, prisoners will criticize the inaction and urge others on the importance of giving the verbal warning. In this way the call has been passed down to new generations of prisoners.

Similar to a shakedown, when someone is taken to the hole, a group of guards and lieutenant come to the block. As soon as they enter the block, prisoners sound the alarm, “whoop whoop!” Every time I hear the calls, even if I’m doing nothing against the rules, they make my heart race. I feel sweat form under my arms and anticipate the impending attack. It’s like our village is being raided and we are at the mercy of the pillagers.

Even without hearing the “whoop whoop” I’m never comfortable. When the block door slams too hard I wonder if it’s the police. When I hear keys jingling outside of my cell I think I’m going to be raided. I go to sleep wondering if I’m going to wake up to a home invasion. Very rarely do I have to worry about a prisoner doing something violent to me. But every time I pass by a guard I feel my muscles turn to stone, anticipating some type of assault. You can’t tell me that someone rubbing their hands all over your body without consent isn’t sexual assault. You can’t tell me that facing insults from guards isn’t verbal assault. The physical assault from guards has been well documented from comrades around the country. I’ve seen them choke and beat prisoners until blood flowed and bones were broken. And yes, some of them will kill you if they think they can get away with it. How is being subjected to physical, sexual, and verbal abuse rehabilitative?

Sometimes I wonder if I have PTSD. I read through the DSM-5 definition of PTSD and felt pretty confident in a self diagnosis. And I know I’m not alone. One day the sound of “whoop whoop” made me rush to look out of my cell door. I saw my comrade across the block at his cell door. When we came out later I mentioned it to him. He told me “Every time I hear it I think they’re coming for me. Then when it’s not you, and someone else is hemmed up, you feel bad, because you were happy it wasn’t you.”

I don’t need to be a medical expert to know prison is harmful. But incarceration officials don’t recognize that prison is a cause of PTSD. Rather they justify the existence of prison with a cast of “experts,” often medical experts paid for their positions and testimony. With so many experts seeking to justify the existence of prison, is it a surprise that prisoners don’t trust the medical community? The environment of prison is unacceptable for any human. It’s time we start holding these experts accountable.

Author: Dreaming Freedom Practicing Abolition

> network of self-organized prison study groups at SCI-FAYETTE > consolidating networks of resistance across the PA DOC system

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