In Washington State Reformatory, televisions are often referred to as babysitters because of the docility they tend to induce in incarcerated individuals. We’re otherwise bored out of our minds as we sit atop metal bunks all day with our eyes glued to illuminated screens.
The one in my own 6-by-9 cell is usually dark because I spend most of my time writing. However, at the end of May, just about everyone in my living unit was following a breaking story. I brought my “babysitter” to life to watch the footage of a Black man lying face down in a Minneapolis street, crying for his mother while three cops knelt on top of him—one on his neck. One other stood by, apparently making sure nobody intervened.
I found myself thinking of what happened here a few months ago when a corrections officer stepped up behind a seated prisoner in our dining hall and began speaking aggressively to him. I was too far away to hear what he said and I later heard that nobody in the vicinity could pinpoint what upset the C.O. Even the incarcerated man he approached seemed genuinely caught off guard, asking calmly at first what he had done wrong.
However, before the man could back away, the corrections officer grabbed him and threw him to the floor. In seconds other guards had him surrounded. They pinned and handcuffed his hands behind his back while his aggressor had a knee pressed into his neck. My fellow prisoner begged them to stop because he couldn’t breathe, only to be told to “shut the fuck up.”
As I watched a scene that was nearly identical on my television, I couldn’t help but relive my anger. Although more than 100 people (including other guards) watched what took place in our dining hall that afternoon, the C.O. still had his job, freedom and continued license to commit violent and potentially deadly assaults at will.
I flipped channels, and found the same video of Floyd playing on another station without any commentary in the background. This time, the sound of Floyd crying out to his mother—whom I would later learn had been dead for two years—caused something to stir in my chest and find its way out through my eyes in the form of tears.
All of us on the inside have cried out like that in one way or another. We are all George Floyd.
I thought too about the evening when a Black man housed on the tier below me got into an argument with a White guard. The man was dealing with a family emergency and needed to get to the phone, but the guard was keeping the door locked.
The officer then radioed for the prisoner’s door to be opened. When my neighbor stepped out from his cell, he and the officer began to exchange words. The officer then pounced on him and took him to the floor. Nearly half a dozen others rushed in to assist the uniformed aggressor. Many of us watched as our friend was put in a chokehold despite the fact that he wasn't resisting. He cried out that they were hurting his ankle.
Once the confrontation ended, a sergeant got into the guard’s face and yelled, “Get the fuck out of here, right now!”
I somehow believed the guard would be fired and possibly prosecuted because the incident occurred right under a surveillance camera. Yet despite the fact that I—along with others—wrote a witness statement describing in detail what had happened, he was back at work the next day. The prisoner was in solitary confinement, charged with staff assault.
Though these are only two incidents, they’re far from isolated as is to be expected in any environment where protest is forbidden. They took place in a small prison with a population of roughly 800.
It seems that if we are going to begin having real discussions centered around police accountability, especially as it pertains to their often violent dealings with marginalized communities, it would be irresponsible to not include the most marginalized community there is: prisoners. As a member of the incarcerated Latinx community, I’m confident that the voice of the unheard has finally rung out loud enough in our streets to effect real change in the way we think about law enforcement.
But I can’t but help wonder if such change will trickle down into our prisons as well.
The Washington Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Michael J. Moore, 34, is the author of three novels. His work has also appeared in various anthologies, journals and magazines and has been adapted for theater. He is incarcerated in Washington state, where he is serving 12 years for robbery.