by Benjamin Tschirhart
As of mid-January 2023, almost 100 minimum-security prisoners from the Federal Prison Camp (FPC) in Tucson were still being held in segregation at the nearby U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Tucson, six weeks after a fellow prisoner somehow got a gun and attempted to shoot his wife when she visited him.
The shooting attempt unfolded on November 12, 2022, in the visiting area at FPC-Tucson. Despite a guard pat-down before entering, a prisoner identified only as “Jaime” produced a gun and aimed it at his wife, pulling the trigger. The gun jammed four times. The prisoner dropped it and fled the building. Guards cornered and captured him in a maintenance shed a short time later. He was taken to the nearby USP-Tucson and placed in isolation.
Amid the many BOP lockups notorious for violence, camps like FPC-Tucson seem like peaceful oases. They were originally established near penitentiaries – like this one near USP-Tucson – to ease the comings and goings of low-security prisoners assigned to work details in the higher-security lockups nearby. With few fences and plentiful work-release programming, the worst problem is contraband, prisoners say. Not gunfire.
But if the incident left the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) with a black eye, its apparent over-reaction has bruised the other one. In the aftermath of the shooting, the other 95 prisoners at FPC-Tucson were zip-tied at their wrists and left sitting outdoors in the sun for hours with no food, water, medication or access to toilets. Some of the older ones passed out. They were all interrogated – without legal counsel – to uncover any knowledge they might have of the attempted shooting, and to find out whether any of them helped Jamie in the attempt.
They were then moved USP-Tucson, where they were placed in tiny segregation cells normally reserved for disciplinary problems. There they remained locked inside for 23 hours a day or more, with a cold shower three times a week. There were no reading materials, no letters or phones, and no contact with friends or family.
While minimum security prisoners were unfamiliar with this treatment, it’s just normal daily life for over 50,000 prisoners nationwide. [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.42.]. The United Nations has declared these conditions violate human rights, but the U.S. continues to distinguishes itself among developed nations with its persistent use of isolation and segregation, both as punishment for rule violations as well as a place to wait out an investigation – often, as in this case, with no proof of wrongdoing required.
The episode also illustrates another pernicious aspect of U.S. carceral culture: Mistakes by staff – like the guard who botched Jaime’s pat-down – are followed by savage retaliatory punishment of prisoners.
Since then, USP-Tucson lost a prisoner in a fight with another on May 13, 2023. Ruben Valle, 51, died from injuries sustained in the altercation with the unnamed other prisoner. Valle had arrived at the prison on February 17, 2023, to serve 33 years and five months for convictions on drug and murder charges.
On August 24, 2022, the penitentiary also become home to Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis cop convicted of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd that touched off nationwide protests against police brutality.
Sources: AP News, Arizona Daily Star, Arizona Republic, Forbes, KGUN, KVOA
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