When I was incarcerated on an LSD Kingpin conviction for over two decades starting in 1993, I did not tend to think or talk politics all that often. The powerful people running for Congress or being confirmed to the Supreme Court were of almost no concern to people like me. The War on Drugs seemed unstoppable, the prison population was exploding, and for many of us, at least, the primary goal was survival.
But even if Donald Trump represents a turn back toward “law and order” politics, those inside the federal prison system have more hope for the future then I did in the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key 90s. Trends toward sentencing reform in recent years have made a return to the outside more plausible than it once was, at least for some inmates. And thanks to the prevalence of contraband phones and social media, federal prisoners are better able than ever to participate in or at least keep tabs on the national conversation.
So maybe it was inevitable that inmates would pay close attention to the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court earlier this month despite credible allegations of sexual violence against him. But when canvassing men across the federal prison system in recent weeks, I was struck by how many—even those clearly guilty of violent crimes—saw the saga as a sort of dystopian parable for their own experiences in a deeply dysfunctional criminal justice system where elites win and regular people (like Christine Blasey Ford) lose.
In other words, to see a powerful white guy credibly accused of crimes promoted to the top of the pyramid of justice in America was extremely depressing—and less than shocking.
“It was just another example of the white-privileged society that we live in,” Andre Cooper, a man serving three life sentences in Maryland for racketeering, drug dealing, and homicide, told VICE in an email. “Kavanaugh clearly presented perjured testimony under oath in front of millions of Americans,” he added. “The Powers didn't blink or flinch.”
“They did what occurs in courtrooms around America on a daily basis when the Government is in the wrong or knowingly presents perjured testimony that contributes to wrongfully convicting a person—they turn a blind eye to the truth and justice and back perjury,” he said.
Even as some prisoners tend to be politically conservative or at least less-than-left-wing—and some embraced the reactionary idea that it was a "scary time for men"—the sense that this guy cheated his way to the top was a bipartisan one.
“Brett Kanavanugh lied, period,” Nicholas McDougal, who's doing 12 years for armed robbery in Indiana, told VICE. “Personally, I want to see a conservative judge on the high court who admits to being a party animal, but to deny that he blacked out is absurd.”
Donald Green, who's serving life in North Carolina for a drug conspiracy that included murder and other crimes, put it most succinctly: “I see him just like President Trump. Both of them are cut from the same cloth."
At first, Jeremy Fontanez—facing life for robberies and murder and currently at USP Hazelton in West Virginia—said he was impressed by Kavanuagh's record of hiring women and stated commitment to diversity. But the spectacle the judge put on at the hearings, lashing out at US senators and descending into unhinged conspiracy theory chatter, gave him pause.
“Truth is, I think that they’re all liars and cheats," Fontanez explained. “The hypocrisy in this country, and in our leaders, is astounding. As cynical as it may sound, I don't believe anything that comes from any of them. I watch the world descend into chaos and infamy and fear what the future may hold.”
Despite all of that, some inmates insisted Kavanaugh represented a potential ally to criminal defendants—perhaps in part, they suggested, because he knew what it meant to be accused.
“You are not going to believe this, but I have Kavanaugh doing more for the people who are incarcerated after this ordeal," Walter Johnson, who's doing a life sentence for a federal three-strikes offense in New York, told VICE.
Still, the overwhelming conclusion many inmates couldn't help reaching was that the deck remained stacked in favor of a special few—and that the system wasn't going to change any time soon.
"How can you try to get justice when you’re an average citizen, with no political ties, no celebrity help, and no money?" Cooper, the inmate in Maryland, wondered. "There's no meaningful justice for a person or a people like that. Fake justice is all that exists.”
Robert Rosso contributed reporting to this story.
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