Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Anatomy of a Whitewash

"Authority is never without hate" --Euripides

In a decision that was as remarkable as it was predictable, the Greene County DA, David Pollock, announced his office would take no criminal action against prison guards who were viewed on videotape, "roughing up" men in the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) of the State Correctional Institution located in Pennsylvania's Southwest. He reportedly uttered a sentence that was to the effect that his office "would not tolerate" violence against prisoners.

Yeah right.

For several years now, men imprisoned at SCI Greene have written to the local DA's office, charging any number of violent acts against them, to no avail. Most have received no answer at all. Some were told to file institutional grievances. Others had their letters Xeroxed and forwarded to Greene prison officers, virtually insuring a negative, and vengeful retaliation for daring to seek "legal redress". And still others had their letters intercepted, opened, read, crumbled, and undelivered (in which case, of course, retaliation, for trying would ensue.)

It has been noted several times in this column that judges are political
officers, but if that be so, how much more so are DA's?

This DA initially announced his "probe" after a series of articles came out in Pittsburgh and regional newspapers detailing violence against prisoners and threats of violence against staffers at the prison who questioned, or reported on, the violence. It was a politically savvy thing to do, as it obtained broad coverage. Several tapes were turned over, and some (limited) interviews were taken.

As politics dictated the probe, so too did it dictate that no prosecution
results, for to do so would be an act of political suicide.

Let us look at the matter clearly: The DA found, in his politically-influenced opinion, that the "shoves", "pushes" and intentionally violent physical contact against naked men (some of whom may have been handcuffed!) does not constitute a crime. In the "common" law, for one to threaten to do another bodily harm constitutes an assault; to touch another in an offensive way constitutes a battery. These same acts, taken up a few degrees, could cross the line to terroristic threats, or official oppression, both statutory crimes.

Critical legal scholar, David Kairys put it aptly when he wrote, "Law is simply politics by other means."

Essentially then, the DA did what politicians do every day; he counted votes.

Prisoners don't vote. Guards do.

The nice speech about "not tolerating" violence against prisoners obscures the grim and bitter truth. It has been tolerated; it is tolerated; it will be in the future.

Business as usual. The status quo is still the status.

Law, in its very heart, is profoundly conservative, and as applied to men's lives works to restrain and restrict. Over a century ago, American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote disparagingly of the pro-slavery "courts of justice - so called" that sided with the slave owners and were "merely the inspectors of a pick-lock and murderer's tools, to tell him whether they are in working order or not...."

In his Civil Disobedience he wrote, "The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free"

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login