August 9, 2017

A couple of weeks ago there was an incident in the education unit. A fight broke out, a staff was assaulted, the unit got locked down. They shake us down (locked in, full cell search, etc.) every six months, at least they’re supposed to, every six months anyway. So they hit those guys with their routine lockdown while they had them in already. Almost two full weeks. This past weekend those guys got into it again. This time, around seventy guys just kicked it off, right on flag.

Don’t gasp too harshly. When squad showed up most of those guys switched in quick. The riot gear wasn’t even off the shelf before the whole thing was over and done with. They locked down the whole prison for the weekend. I hear we even made the news.

Incarceration creates a subculture. We are a permanent underclass in American society. Most of you see us as a monolith. Even recent efforts in our favor to address the prison population by culling nonviolent drug and property offenders as the faceplate for a reduction in prison population misidentifies the nature of which societal problems prisons represent, house, or are meant to remedy.

It is commonplace in our culture to bemoan feeling trapped by a dead-end job, an abusive relationship, a loveless marriage, a mortgage, or an economic class. We say these things because our default psychological condition is the presumption of our freedom. This is so ingrained that even the perception of our freedom being infringed upon raises our hackles to rally and cry out.

To be imprisoned, at all, is the punishment. Incarceration is itself the lash, exile, and excommunication.

The matter is what you do with a person post-expulsion. Especially when you know this person will return. The education unit is secretly a dead end for many. There are economic, psychological, and cultural reasons a man reaches eighteen without finishing high school. Dumping them in a GED program behind bars without treating these reasons is setting many of them up to fail. To be clear, this is not an indictment of the education staff, or the GED. I want you to be able to understand what is happening in prison, why it’s wrong, and how it’s going to cost you if we can’t fix it.

You come in with nothing, assume you don’t have a rich family to support you financially. In Education you make a fixed wage. It isn’t even enough to pay for your hygiene on canteen, but it does mean that you no longer qualify for Indigent status. You won’t starve for the meals are provided, but you can’t afford to brush or bathe properly.

Most everyone in the unit faces the same plight, trying to work a hustle to get by, except the takers in the world are takers in here too. Violence is part and parcel to getting by, keeping what you have, to say nothing of your dignity. You would love to leave this unit and get a job elsewhere in the prison, but you need your GED before DOC will let you move. This seems like a logical stick to motivate offenders, but it amounts to a revolving door within the prison. The riff raff know no matter what they do, they’ll be back in this unit eventually, same pay, same racket.

If you’re young this all becomes a game to you. Why do you think they call it The Game, after all? Run in on the vulnerable because they have what I want? – part of the game. Set up an arbitrary clique to motivate territorial violence for the reward of tens of dollars? -part of the game. Send it up on flag with seventy other cats because there are no real consequences for wild’n out? -part of the game. Ignore my education because nobody gives a fuck about me so why should I? -part of the game.

The plight of young men who committed crimes and are being largely ignored for their financial distress, lack of social skills, learning impairments, and myriad mental health issues (see: reasons for committing crimes in the first place), may not immediately trigger your sense of compassion. That’s okay. Many of you have been conditioned to believe that whatever a person gets when they come to prison, they deserve. Okay. That can be your default setting. You may also be forgiven for your disregard for the millions of taxpayer dollars it costs to house these guys just to bang their heads against the wall (and each other). Accountability of government spending may not be your concern. But…

These guys are all getting out. There are a handful of brand new life sentences, literally, less than five in a unit of almost three hundred; the rest are all coming right back into your community. That revolving door of justice is kicking these guys out with the benefit of the above instruction in how to live and operate in this world. In your world. In our world.

I don’t write this to scare you. These are true things that happen to be scary. People see a riot or a lockdown on TV and think it happened in here, but that’s not entirely accurate. My house is your house too. All of these guys are coming home to live in your streets.

I happened to arrive in a place where I believe these lives have value for the sake of themselves. Not everyone believes what I believe, but then my beliefs do not require them to. At the very least I hope to encourage the skeptical minds to embrace the reality that improving conditions for the worst off actually improves the probability of success for everyone. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.



There is Always a Next Time

July 21, 2017

I am bent over at the waist, undoing the tight laces of the grubby-white New Balance trainers I wear to work out. The sweat gathered at the hair of my temples escapes in rivulets through the scrub of my unshaven face. The door to my cell is three quarters open. I am too exhausted to secure my padlock after an aggressive morning workout.

A shadow flutters in the sunlight where I am standing. My right foot shoots out behind me, into my cell, ripping the laces away from my fingers and planting my balance to shift away from the impending contact.

I feel the wind of the makeshift cudgel passing my face before it smashes into the concrete floor inside my cell. Thirteen inches of broken broom handle, half a dozen rusted D-Cell batteries, strips of state-issue sheets and brown packing tape, scatter into the space behind me, shattered by the force of the intended blow. Where did they find D-Cells?

The world slows.

I look up to see my assailant bathed in light. His own shadow obscures his face, but not his fear. I do not fight unless I need to. This man has made violence necessary. I am not angry for his assault. I am angry for what I now must do to protect myself. Not from this attack, from the next.

He is off balance from the miss. I grab the wrist of his open hand and twist back toward the bars. He cries out and falls into the door, sliding open until it bangs into the frame, breaking the relative silence of the unit. I grab the front of his shirt and pull him off the galley and into my cell.

My bed is a steel frame jutting from the wall. He hits his head before squirming loose, trying to scramble under and away from me. The squeak of sneakers on the painted floor sound like sports in a gym to anyone who’s never heard a fight in this prison. I’m on my knees, alternating punches and clutches, trying to drag the animal from under my bed so I can hurt it.

He’s wiry, with a long reach, holding me at bay. When he spins his legs to kick at me I catch him by the front of his jeans. Once his body slides it’s over with. There’s nothing but floor to hold on to. I get him out far enough to kneel him in place and stun him. I hit him hard, twice before he goes fuzzy and stops struggling. I pull him out and go to work.

For a moment I stop to think. I’ve worked hard to get myself to a good place. I’ve got some things going for me. People don’t see me the way they saw me after I came in. I think about the good job and the easy mornings. The man beneath me sputters and I remember he would not have stopped. And I might not be so lucky next time. Unless there is no next time.

I pick up the ancient batteries rolled against the wall, one for each hand. I measure out the rhythm in my head and start a slow count. I hear the heavy slap of my weighted hands keeping time, well before my eyes register what I’m doing. Left. Right. Left. Right. One. Two. Three. Four. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

My guys do not penetrate the fugue when they rush me to pull me off him. One of them drags the unconscious body back to his cell. Another collects the batteries and wood from the floor. Another stands me at my sink and washes my hands. My fingers hurt from clenching D-Cells. My shoulders cramp. I stare at a basin filled with cloudy pink water because the drain is bad. I wonder how long his blood will be in my sink.

They take my shirt and walk me down to the showers so they can mop up my floor without having four guys at my cell. About halfway down the stairs I snap out of it and ask them is he dead. Nobody talks. We just shuffle down the tier.