You don’t have to go to jail to know how awful it is. The U.S. prison system is notoriously racist, overcrowded, violent, corrupt and inhumane. The horrors of the carceral state, and the sheer number of American locked up (around 2 million), have prompted widespread calls for serious reform or total abolition. Truly, it is difficult to imagine a worse-kept secret than the physical and mental anguish that come with being an inmate for any reason, for any duration of time.
So it’s interesting to see far-right, pro-Trump, QAnon-influenced figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene express disbelief at the general misery in the D.C. jail where rioters who overran the Capitol on January 6th are being held. Almost as if she thought it would be nice in there?
Understandably, some have voiced their satisfied amusement at the rude awakening for insurrectionists — it seems to be a reliable bit for late-night TV hosts, anyway. But within this jeering lies an odd complacency with the nature of justice in this country. Participants in the mob that tried to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory don’t deserve prolonged solitary confinement, delayed or withheld medical attention, inedible food, dehydration and exposure to raw sewage any more than a person jailed for selling drugs does.
While it’s laughable that 1/6ers would claim they’re being “force-fed” Critical Race Theory inside, reports of non-access to reading materials and bans on religious observations register as all too familiar and disturbing. What really ought to shock us is how some people currently behind bars have convinced themselves they’d be happier in the military prison at Guantánamo Bay.
Wonder where they got that idea?
Just as many Capitol rioters couldn’t imagine they’d face charges for trespassing on a national monument while declaring their intent to harm lawmakers inside, they seem unable to comprehend regular indiginites like being denied bail while awaiting trial or a grimy cell with a toilet that doesn’t work. In their lives as middle-class white civilians, they were so far removed from this dehumanizing experience as to be surprised by it. Jacob Chansley, known as the “QAnon Shaman,” successfully petitioned to receive a diet of organic food instead of the meals his fellow inmates received. Meanwhile, Jenna Ryan, the Texas realtor now famous for receiving a 60-day prison sentence for her role in the insurrection after tweeting in March that she “definitely” wasn’t going to jail, said she has been watching YouTube videos to prepare for her stint.
Those serving time in D.C. have, with help from sympathizers in Congress, adopted the narrative that their mistreatment is unusual and specific to the case of self-styled “patriots” — they are political prisoners suffering from extreme, directed abuse rather than the systemic ills of a broken institution. We can count on this mythmaking to crescendo as former Trump strategist Steve Bannon is prosecuted for contempt of Congress for disregarding a subpoena from the House committee investigating the events of January 6th, which may earn him a year in jail.
An upside of this ongoing outrage is that, given the incarcerated MAGA troops’ loud complaints and well-placed connections on the outside (a form of privilege the average prisoner sorely lacks), the rioters may affect long-term change: The federal government has finally taken notice of the issues plaguing detention facilities in the capital. Of course, this raises the question of why nobody with oversight cared about this in the years when Black and Hispanic detainees were protesting the many safety hazards and civil rights violations at the jail — and the answer is glaringly evident. Police departments throughout the U.S. used excessive force against peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations; the Trump loyalists were all but invited to sack the Capitol. One group of inmates pleads for the bare minimum of accountability only to be ignored; another demands special dispensation and becomes a cause célèbre for right-wing ideologues.
If the chaos of January 6th proved that the individuals responsible had little grasp of the democratic process or rule of law, their astonishment at the cruelty inflicted upon people not yet convicted of a crime tells us they misunderstand America at its most fundamental level. Here, it’s not enough for some to be at the bottom of society — they must also be humiliated and tormented for it. These days in cages could have presented the cultists an opportunity to rethink their vicious attitude toward refugees and immigrants, the poor and the unhoused, or even others in jail.
Alas, it looks as if they’ve learned nothing but a new kind of victimhood.