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Playing the Odds Playing the Odds Las Vegas and the Modern West Hal K. Rothman “Hal Rothman is both the greatest Western historian of his generation and an H. L. Mencken in cowboy boots. Here is a magnificent collection of his opinion, wit, and wisdom.”–Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums and Buda’s Wagon L K, \(…2.1 I. 7/1 NI A Ni University of New Mexico Press UNMPRESS.COM 800.249.7737 because they are all wearing gas masks. But those in cells close to the targeted inmate are affected by the aerosol-based mist that creates a cloud of toxic fumes that quickly spread. After the high-pressure can is triggered, in seconds the gas spreads, and prisoners begin coughing, sneezing, and gasping for breath. Some react by cussing and yelling foolish encouragements to their comrade like, “Go hard homie,” or “Stay down:’ meaning don’t give up. They say, “Make ‘ern come in and get you.” All of this is insane because there is no way the prisoner is going to win. But anyone who does something that results in being treated this way is not in their right mind at the moment. They are emotionally charged because of the whole situation. Years of solitary confinement produce strange behavior that is a product of the inhumanity that prisoners are subjected to. I have read a lot of intelligent opinions by psychologists who have studied this subject. Many things that go on in these places are not always the fault of maddened, evil prisoners, as most prison officials would like people to believe. I can tell you from personal knowledge that prisoners who become combative are often pushed to do so. Guards provoke and harass individual inmates to elicit behavior that they can then react to with force, because that makes their actions legal in that context. An angry, emotional, vindictive prisoner pacing back and forth inside of a cage can be made to react in unusual ways. One thing this environment has created is “chunking:’ Chunking is a term for throwing urine or feces on someone. This has evolved in segregation as a common method of attacking a guard or another prisoner. It has happened so often that guards in Seg have lobbied the Texas Legislature to pass a law making it a felony for anyone to throw body fluids on a correctional officer. This behavior is also a product of solitary confinement. The isolation, the way prisoners are handled, has reduced them to defenseless objects harboring a deep hatred. Some guards intimidate and scare those they remove from their cages. Sometimes guards “slam” an inmate. This is a term for a guard that throws a handcuffed prisoner to the concrete floor as retaliation, not as a protective measure. Guards have also been known to use Mace without due provocation. They might tell them, “Don’t make me chunk this gas on your ass.” Some guards go into a prisoner’s cell when he is not in it and mess up his personal belongings or steal things, eat their food, or destroy something to antagonize the inmate. There is little a prisoner can do, and any attempt to lodge some form of griev An Angry, emotional, vindictive prisoner pacing back and forth inside a cage can be made to react in unusual ways. ante through a so-called internal remedy is fruitless. Many prisoners resort to doing whatever they can to right some perceived wrong on their own, and damn the consequences. The hatred and animosity that build produce powerful desires in this kind of setting. Some men have lowered themselves to the level of throwing human waste. They hear about it, and talk is going on about it, and one day they grow so mean or vengeful that they, too, do this barbaric act. Some mix urine and feces. Some add bleach or boiling water to scald their victims. Not all prisoners will do this. Those who haven’t yet chunked look down on this kind of anomic behavior. Still, it has evolved into the WMD of the segregation underworld. Prison officials in Texas have used punishment and reduced quality of life as a control measure. Yet these actions have only produced a far more dangerous and inhuman prisoner. Hopelessness, the removal of any and all forms of attainable progress, .creates a more rebellious and hardened inmate. A sense of reckless disregard and a don’t-give-a-shit mentality develops. The ability to create behavioral modifications is lost when subjects feel they are at the bottom of the barrel with no way out. Behavioral incentives are shunned by get-tough prison administrators in Texas. They refuse to attempt anything that might be considered soft, or in the recent words of a state official, viewed as “hug a thug.” But the direction they have taken has produced only more problems for the prisoner as well as the staff. If they created incentives that the most desperate prisoners could see, and know other well-behaved inmates are being afforded, then the people who run prisons would be far more effective in generating better attitudes and living conditions. Sometimes I’m convinced that that may not be what they want. That what exists is how they intend prisoners to live and be treated. They are quick to use the behavior of their captives to justify any questions about their actions, policies, or human rights violations. They have exhibited this tit-for-tat, dirt-upon-dirt rationale as justification for their own criminal behavior toward prisoners. But we all know that two wrongs do not ever make a right, no matter how you package it. Another obvious problem is that the state continues to run its prisons on the cheap. The state refuses to pay decent salaries to prison guards. So the quality of those who do apply is often low, and guards often do not intend to stay on the job long. The turnover rate is high. The Texas prison system has been understaffed for many years because it refuses to offer interested potential employees a pay scale that will draw not only a full staff, but a waiting list of recruits that can be used to replace officers who don’t maintain a professional level of job performance. Currently the warden of a Texas prison facility has little con 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 16, 2007