A System of Snitches
Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth. June 7, 2006
One of the worst epithets that is hurled in prison is "snitch." A snitch is one who agrees to testify against another, serve as an informant, provide information to "the police," or to "cooperate" with the Justice [sic] System. Without snitches, the whole criminal justice system would collapse. At present only less than 5% (some say 2 or 3%) of criminal cases go to trial, the balance are "resolved" with plea bargains in exchange for the "promise" of a lesser sentence upon conviction.
Throughout the pre-, present, and post-incarceration periods, the Domination System (to use Walter Wink's designation) depends on turning one against the other. I'm quite sure this was the case prior to the War on Drugs but this civil war has greatly exacerbated the need for informants. The initial case begins with the police stumbling on to the discovery of the presence (or sale) of illicit drugs. (An aside--it is interesting which drugs are criminalized and which ones are prescribed rather than proscribed. Caffeine is ok but amphetamine is not. Tobacco is--or used to be--ok but not cannabis. Alcohol but not Ecstasy. One could go on and on.) The other common initiation of the case comes about via "undercover," "entrapment," or other clandestine law enforcement activity. Actively attempting to purchase illegal drugs on the street somehow is included under the rubric of "law enforcement" if initiated by a cop.
After the initial bust, the one arrested is frequently "encouraged to cooperate" with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which often comes sweeping in to make what should be local or state charges magically become a federal offense. Maybe it is because drugs often "cross state lines" or are illegal under federal statute when states can't be trusted to be serious enough for enforcement. (States might not have enough evidence to convict you--'conspiracy' puts the burden on you to prove that it is not true.) Recently, the feds have tried to supercede state laws regarding the medical use of marijuana. Like the Pentagon or military contractors hawking pet weapons systems, the DEA is a bureaucracy designed to justify its own existence--resulting in the "need" to continue to "lose" the war on drugs in order to keep the tax dollars flowing into the enforcement side of the equation.
When one is arrested for possession or attempting to sell illegal drugs, pressure is put on the captive to "disclose" or "rat out" who you got it from and/or who you normally sell it to. In the usual course of things, one would not be inclined to divulge that information, so the DEA and/or the district attorney or prosecutor gives one an incentive--if you cooperate and give us the names of others, we'll put in a good word for you when it comes time for you to be sentenced for your crime.
In the late 60s and early 70s, as illegal drugs were proliferating in [white] American culture and celebrated by rock groups and other counter-cultural heroes, the enforcement and penalties varied greatly from state to state. Being caught with only a joint of marijuana in Texas could land you behind bars for 5-15 years while in California and Oregon it was at most a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, when one was even prosecuted. That began to change when President Nixon announced a “War on Drugs” and ironically named Elvis as an honorary enforcement agent. Since that time, elected officials have tried to out-do their political opponents by showing that they were tougher on crime than the others. As a result, laws were passed to mandate tougher and longer sentences, including the notorious "mandatory minimum" laws that prevented judges from being "too lenient." Often, the new laws did not mandate a ceiling or maximum amount that could be imposed so elected District Attorneys would frequently threaten a whole range (like 10-30 years) in order to secure "cooperation" from a defendant who faced such a draconian sentence.
The more one "cooperated" (the larger the number of other "dealers," "suppliers," "customers" one turned in or the more valuable the target one disclosed--the "Kingpin" or the money launderer), the better one's bargaining power in requesting or obtaining a reduced sentence. This has led to the absurd reality found today in most Federal Woman's Prisons where the husband or boyfriend is using and dealing drugs and "turns in" his wife, or girlfriend as an accomplice to get a lesser sentence. The woman, who at best is a minor accessory or, at worst, is not even involved in the trafficking has nothing to bargain with and ironically ends up with a longer prison sentence than the original perpetrator.
Since the system is designed to benefit the turning on others to help oneself, it is open to widespread abuse. Since the word on the street is such that "so and so" deals drugs, why not add him to those names I turn in so I can get a lesser sentence? The more I turn in, or the greater amounts of illegal substances I claim they possess or sold, the more valuable my testimony will be in exchange for fewer years in prison. So, when you are arrested for possession or sale of drugs you are informed that "you are looking at 20-40 years of prison time. Are you sure you can do all that much time? Don't you want to cooperate with us and reduce the time (in prison) you are facing?" And here the cycle of snitching begins.
The names that are produced by this method become the new targets of the DEA officials, who now can spread their nets farther. However, most of these new targets aren't caught with drugs in their possession or while in the act of selling them. So a new charge has to be invented to cover these cases: conspiracy to possess (or sell or transport or distribute) illegal drugs. And they base the "amount" of these fictitious drugs on the "testimony" of the informant. Remember, the greater the amount, the more valuable the testimony and (hopefully) the greater the reward.
Never mind the Federal Criminal Code [Title 18 US Code 201(6)(3) -- whoever directly or indirectly, corruptly gives, offers, or promises anything of value to any person... With the intent to influence the testimony under oath...as a witness...before any court or officer authorized... To hear evidence or take testimony...shall be fined... Or imprisoned for not more than fifteen years, or both...] which identifies such conduct as bribery. If one is promised a reduced prison sentence in exchange for testifying against others, one has been offered a bribe according to the federal statutes. It is my estimation that more than one-half of all the convicts presently incarcerated in this federal prison camp either have received reduced sentences in exchange for agreeing to testify against others or have been charged with a crime on the basis of someone else’s threatened testimony against them. I say “threatened testimony” because, again, most cases do not go to trial but are settled by a plea bargain. The reason for this is the well-known likelihood of being assigned a longer sentence if one “wastes the court’s time” by insisting on having your “guilt” proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Prosecutors and judges prefer to not have to take the time to try cases that can be “settled out of court.”
If being a snitch is frowned upon on the outside, it is positively life-threatening on the inside of the prison walls—especially in the higher security level prisons. Even to be seen talking to a guard or staff member at a medium or high security prison could put one’s life or health in jeopardy, because the assumption is that one only talks to “the police” when you are ratting out someone else. It is safest to do one’s time with as little interaction with “the screws” or the “turnkeys” as possible. However, the prime motivation to become a snitch on the inside is fear. Higher security prisoners are always on the lookout for weakness—especially embodied in “fresh meat” or “new fish” who are thrown into these warehouses. It is well known throughout the culture that “hard core” prisons feature a lot of rape, assault, and intimidation within the inmate population.
Oftentimes a person will think that snitching to a Corrections Officer (CO) will help land you in “protective custody” (aka solitary confinement or at least out of “general population”) thus protecting one from such dangers. But there are very few places within the prison system where one can hide out free of the threats of others. Somehow, some way, “they” will get to you.
In minimum security prisons there is sometimes the naïve and mistaken impression that at least some of the COs are “fair” or might have your best interest at heart. Especially for those new to the prison system, “first-timers,” those who are in for “white collar crimes,” or young “kids” still not disabused of the proclivity to “respect those in authority” this can be a problem. The guards are not your friends, not your confidant, not there to help you be “rehabilitated.” The longer one is incarcerated, the more aware of the “selective enforcement” role the COs play within the system. Guards try to elicit information about contraband (who has what stashed where?) and to determine who-did-what-when? If there was a fight, who was involved? Who is supplying the contraband cigarettes or alcohol to others? Who is smuggling the green peppers, fried chicken, or fruit out of the kitchen?
There is even the practice of “dry snitching” when an inmate complains to a guard about something another (unnamed) inmate has done that makes your job or life inside harder. “I can’t do my job [cooking the meals] because “they” keep stealing all the onions from here.” Or, “there is so much smoke in the bathrooms before (or after) the meals that I can’t go in to wash my hands (brush my teeth...).” ”Guys keep reserving seats for others in the theater so I can’t watch the movies I want to see.” All of which will just lead to the COs taking more repressive measures or overreacting to the perceived situation.
Are there “benefits” for snitching inside? Will the guards treat you more justly? I don’t plan to find out. No one wants to be labeled a snitch, even at a minimum security level camp. And, after one is (finally) released from prison, most inmates are assigned to a halfway house for up to six months and usually several years “on paper” (reporting to a probation officer under the threat of being sent back to prison—being “revoked”). In this post-incarceration period, there are many “hoops” one has to jump through in order to not be “violated.” The halfway house personnel and the probation officer have all types of rules to follow. Often, the local police will also know who is on parole or probation and pressure or threats are brought to bear to “help” them solve “crime.” The system is set up for you to fail.
The Prison Industrial Complex is designed to be self-perpetuating—if prisons actually did try to rehabilitate convicts they would be “working themselves out of a job.” Instead, it is one of the largest growth industries in the U.S. Today. And much of the growth can be attributed to the snitch system.