In the Prison Yard

June 18, 2017

Where I live we have one yard. It looks like a prison yard. Basketball courts with uneven asphalt. Softball diamond with a rickety scorekeeper’s box behind the backstop. A couple of standalone brick walls mark the handball courts. There is a strip of grass that runs along the main exterior wall. Inside of that is the blacktop running track that encircles the football/soccer/kickball field, in the corner of which the aforementioned softball diamond is situated.

The running track isn’t quite a quarter mile. The avid runners know how to mark their distances. They’ve told me how it breaks down, and I’ve run 5K’s here before, but my brain has decided not to retain that information. What I usually do when I’m working out in the yard is a combination of jogging, sprints, and calisthenics. I’ll run a lap, sprint the last fifty yards, and do a set of pull ups. Repeat that four times. Do the same with dips and crunches. I end up with just under three miles and a decent resistance workout.

The other day, after warming up my ailing mess of a body, I started off my first lap. In front of me were these two kids…people in here would call them “gumps”, as in Forrest Gump. It’s a generic term for any weirdo or misfit in this place. I didn’t invent it. I don’t use it. It’s a designation for use by bullies. It describes the social order.

If you were looking for the best allegory for our social structure here, start by imagining all the worst parts of junior high. Now multiply them by five, and make it an “Alternative Learning Center”. Now subtract all of the girls except the teachers and the lunch ladies. Now lower the mean intellect by twenty percent. Now make it a boarding school. Got the picture?

I never speak for all prisons, not even the prisons in my state. A couple quick notions to dispel. The rape thing hasn’t been an issue in this state for some time. It wasn’t an issue in the late 90’s when I was younger and might have been a target. It hasn’t been a problem in the few years since I’ve been back either. Men who like other men find each other. Though, I wouldn’t exactly consider this a place to find your soul mate.

Second, the idea that sex offenders get the worst of it is kind of a misnomer. The people in here who extort and exploit other people might use someone’s case as an excuse to target them, but the fact is bullies in here are just like bullies out there. Bullies victimize the weak and the outsiders, the odd ducks. The gumps.

So these two kids in front of me are racing each other to a table on the other side of the yard. A cell key, belonging to one of them, went flying out of a pocket and into the grass on the interior field. After I passed it, I looked around and saw that no one else had seen where the key landed, or even noticed its flight to begin with. Having kept running while considering all of this, I had to backtrack a little bit, against traffic, to pick up the key and go return it. The kid thanked me and I went on my way.

They say character is who you are when no one else is looking. And it occurs to me that writing all of this down for you kind of blows up the ‘nobody’s looking’ part of the maxim. But I’m not telling you about the good deed I did so you’ll confuse me for a good guy.

There are a growing number of men in this place who have decided that if we invest in the notion of our prison as a community, others will see our example and follow suit. The idea being that we can change the experience of prison from one of mere suffering to an opportunity for transformation. That means engaging in and paying attention to all manner of details that push the needle on that idea in the direction we want it to go.

The kids racing reminded me of an argument I had with the warden of the last facility I was in. He and his associate warden mistakenly believed that their social and administrative position meant that I should accept their opinion and treatment of me as a given of their authority. In my eventual letter to the commissioner, describing their unprofessional behavior, I wrote:

“I learn almost all I need to know about a person in this place when I see how they treat someone they think they don’t have to respect.”

I don’t know what either of those kids did to get here and I don’t care. I don’t care if they’re gay. I don’t care if they’re slow. I don’t care if they’re just different because they haven’t figured out how to belong in a place where nobody should have to. It was enough for me to have noticed that they felt safe enough to be running around outside on a summer day, and feel like that was a good thing. And the guy who saw the yard swallow up their house key was juuust decent enough to go after it, and treat them like human beings. For whatever that’s worth….



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