Joe R. Hopkins, who is serving a life sentence in Florida, joined the World Socialist Party of the US in 2009 after seeing one of our ads in a magazine. Despite the difficulty of communication, he has always been keen to participate in party discussions and has written many articles for our website and publications (some are listed below). Also of interest: Joe’s poems and his account of two years spent in a mental hospital as a young child.
Joe is now 67 (almost 68) and gravely sick with cirrhosis of the liver. He is stuck in a prison where he is at risk of assault and not getting the care he needs – Calhoun Correctional Institution (Blountstown, FL).
Let me explain how he has ended up in this prison. For many years he was at Union Correctional Institution (Raiford, FL). This January, following a hernia operation, he was not sent back to UCI but taken to Columbia Correctional Institution Annex (Lake City, FL). While there he applied for ‘elderly transfer’ to Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, a facility designed for elderly and sick men. The transfer was approved but has still not taken place. At the end of May he was moved instead to Calhoun. Even now no date has been set for his transfer to Zephyrhills.
I have launched an online petition addressed to Mark S. Inch, director of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), asking him to transfer Joe to Zephyrhills without further delay. Please consider signing the petition. If you follow this link, you will be able to read and sign it and also publicize it on Facebook and Twitter.
Joe was discovered to have hepatitis C in 1991, but for 27 years he received no treatment for the disease. He finally received a course of treatment in 2018 after District Judge Mark Walker ordered the Florida Department of Corrections to treat prisoners with hepatitis. The hepatitis was eliminated, but it had already caused serious damage to his liver. According reports of test results issued by BioReference Laboratories in 2018 and 2020, fibrosis of the liver had reached Stage F4, indicating the onset of cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis can cause many different physical and psychological symptoms. Let me reproduce Joe’s list of his symptoms. None of them started to occur earlier than a year ago. Joe has not been permitted to give a full description of his symptoms to prison medical staff. They refuse to accept written documents from him and tell him to shut up if he talks ‘too much.’
- I am in constant and severe pain from bursitis – inflammation of the fluid-filled sacs in my shoulder joints.
- I often feel weak, tired, drowsy, or lethargic.
- Often I cannot breathe smoothly and gasp for breath.
- I have a tremendously heightened sensitivity to high temperatures; in summer I feel as though I am experiencing transient and sequential fevers.
- My liver causes me constant discomfort.
- I have bouts of dizziness.
- I feel a constant and overwhelming urge to defecate, urinate, and pass intestinal gases while being unable to do so, leaving me feeling bloated. I lack appetite.
- My skin itches. Blood vessels make spiderlike patterns on the skin. I have redness on the palms of my hands.
- I suffer from a general loss of memory. Quite often I am unable to recognize well known faces until prompted.
- I cannot think clearly. Sequential operations confuse me.
- I am often overcome by depression, free-floating anxiety that sometimes escalates to panic, sorrow, and regret. I lack interest in my surroundings.
- My speech is slurred. I am almost completely unable to pay attention for even short periods of time, making it impossible for me to read and understand a book and difficult to watch a movie or even participate in a conversation.
Joe has asked to be admitted to the infirmary, but was told that he does not satisfy the requirements.
Joe has asked for a special medical diet but the request has been ignored. Prisoners are usually granted only five or six minutes to eat their meals in the chow hall, which is hardly long enough to get half way through. In order to satisfy his hunger and maintain his weight Joe has to supplement those part-meals with snacks bought at the commissary, but the commissary charges high prices and visits there are allowed only at irregular and unpredictable intervals. ‘If I do not eat enough of the right kind of food,’ Joe reports, ‘I get sick and my whole digestive system goes out of wack. I fart and get cramps.’
Joe may have an urgent need to go to the toilet at any time of day or night. However, prisoners are not allowed to go to the toilet during count time, which on some days occupies a considerable period. Joe was once sent to disciplinary confinement for three days merely for getting off his bed during count time and asking for permission to go to the toilet.
Joe has now been at Calhoun for over five months. It is a violent place. There are knifings and gang members make threatening remarks. Very few if any of the other prisoners at Calhoun are as old or as sick as Joe. He is too weak to stand up for himself. He has no means of protection and would not survive an assault.
To conclude, a man as old and sick as Joe should not remain any longer at a prison like Calhoun Correctional Institution. He should not have to wait an indefinitely long time for his already approved transfer to Zephyrhills Correctional Institution. I appeal to the Florida Department of Corrections to arrange the transfer without further delay.
Besides signing and publicizing the online petition, you may like to mail a polite letter to:
Mark S. Inch, Secretary
Florida Department of Corrections
501 South Calhoun Street
Articles by Joe Hopkins
How I became a socialist — https://www.wspus.org/2020/03/how-i-became-a-socialist/
http://stephenshenfield.net/archives/the-libertarian-communist (articles by Joe Hopkins in issues Nos. 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, and 28)
There is a pervasive institutional culture within the prison system that stigmatizes prisoners as inferior beings. One practice that typifies this culture is that of addressing and referring to prisoners as ‘inmates’: Joe, for instance, is always called ‘Inmate Hopkins’ – never ‘Mr. Hopkins.’ I used to assume that – as in the outside world — special consideration would be given to the sick and the elderly, and it came as something of a shock to me to discover that they are treated with the same rigor and harshness as everyone else.
The individuals who work in the system are not to be blamed overmuch. It is very difficult to defy an institutional culture. Moreover, doing so may well put a person’s job and livelihood in jeopardy. The pressure that comes from above is to prevent escapes, cut costs, and hush up any scandals. Pressure from outside the system is capable of improving the situation, but it is a very slow process.
But don’t criminals deserve to be treated harshly? Does Joe not deserve harsh treatment?
Quite apart from the scientifically proven fact that quite a few prisoners are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted, there are often mitigating circumstances that should have been taken into account but were not.
The abuse that fills some, even while still children, with bitter hatred and a thirst for revenge, like Joe after his release from the mental hospital.
The craving that drives an addict like Joe to take part in robbing a house, just to get the money for his next fix.
The ambivalence that led Joe first to tie up a victim of the robbery and then to protect him from injury at the hand of his confederate.
And it was so long ago. Over thirty years have passed. Years in which Joe has changed so deeply that he can barely recognize himself in his former self.
This all demands consideration at much greater length. But two final questions.
‘Rehabilitation’ is coming back into fashion as a goal of the prison system. Does an institutional culture of harshness and contempt assist rehabilitation or hinder it?
And what harm does such an institutional culture do to the people who operate and administer the system?