If we don’t resist the manner in which we’ve been trained to recognize incarceration and the incarcerated, offenders will only continue to be recycled through the system rather than redirected.
Americans need to unlearn prison and relearn life behind bars, but not because prison reform is a growing national dialogue: bandwagons produce hot exhaust already. We need to be reeducated because our understanding of the poor coping skills, pressure, and PTSD faced by those emerging from detention has been the stuff of movie jokes for as long as any of us can remember. Mutated by Hollywood and put off by unpleasantness, most Americans can’t get past convict caricatures to see key subtleties that must become part of our awareness. And I do mean ours: taxpayers, you, me, and Law-abiding Larry — not just the social workers we usually leave to resolve issues of recycling vs. redirecting.
Following my own successful parole, I never expected to become a prison commentator or a conveyor belt of questions about confinement, but I can never seem to escape the little strings in life that lead back to my experiences behind bars. Each one returns me to lessons learned “inside” that now take civilian form on a daily basis. In fact, those lessons accompany me so doggedly, I’m constantly comparing in-custody versions to civilian values and principles. Witnessing inmates upholding the same rules they utterly failed to live by “outside” was and remains fascinating. At the same time, it makes sense that a closed culture like the one behind bars would enforce a rapid and uncompromising assimilation process.
Some of this is based on genuine similarities in life circumstances. Consider the absolute hatred convicts have for anyone accused of harming a child: it’s the single deadliest collective aptitude I have ever known. And it stems, in part, from the reservoirs of familial damage behind prison walls, child abuse chief among them. The white noise of prison isn’t limited to justifications and excuses; much of it includes unsolicited tales of neglect and abuse.
When some poor bastard is mistakenly (or not) housed in the general population wearing a molestation jacket, the mere suspicion of having been convicted of rape or kid touching causes the tension to palpably rise. And every guy in the room knows it’s not gonna stop there. Not once did I see such a scenario “end well.”
But even among your average taxpayers and Bingo players, common courtesies and rules of politeness tend to be relied upon in prison. These include everything from opening the door for someone carrying something, to personal hygiene, and even to reaching over and handing some big tough guy a Kleenex.
Don’t get me wrong; prison is seize and shank you, not please and thank you, but knuckleheads outnumber actual psychopaths 100-to-1. You’ll find heightened manners, is all I’m saying, among arsonists, murderers and self proclaimed profits.
Inmates formerly unable to live by basic civilities in the outside world not only face more immediate consequences inside, they are often better able to process the value of socially conscious behavior absent the pressure of society at large: there aren’t nine or ten other things they also have to get right, avoid, or live up to in that same moment.
Most folks I speak with can’t imagine any other reason for inmates to treat each other politely than the fear of being raped. This is what TV and movies teach us, and where’s the entertainment in drawing psychological distinctions?
Yet this is precisely the stuff we need to unlearn before we can understand what second chances really mean to offenders who deserve them. Somebody, somewhere, said of those behind bars that “we are more than our worst mistake,” and it’s true. I’m a living, walking, mostly redeemed example of this, and during my incarceration I was not alone. Like many of the guys I met, I thought I was smarter than the average Joe and needed a serious wake-up call, which of course we all got.
The violence that occurs behind bars is unavoidable — another aspect of this unique environment that can’t be ignored if reentry is to be successful. I was able to leave prison proud that I’d never started a fight or bullied anyone, but I had been forced to defend myself several times. All these years later, I have to admit that took a toll.
Besides, it’s not so much what you participate in as what you’re surrounded by day and night. I once saw a guy get slugged in the face so hard that an entire shower room tile floor was rendered invisible by blood. Sure the guy was a bit of a bleeder, but he was also a big dude. When the fellas got to mopping, it took a good 40 minutes to clean up (and these were pro- blood moppers, all).
I couldn’t look away, and I don’t really know why. A couple of guys next to me got grossed out and left, but I froze at the sink when two guys entered the room looking to settle a score. The blood I saw in the mirror’s reflection made me think of Folsom, from which I’d recently been transferred. I thought of the acres of concrete flooring in Folsom’s cell houses, and the fact that every square millimeter of that concrete has been doused in tears and blood over the prison’s long history. You can feel that sort of atmosphere in the hairs on your arms: it’s everywhere. And watching the blood being mopped up in the shower room that day, I realized that was the sort of thing that would affect me later no matter what.
Americans have been taught to see prison and prisoners very narrowly, and the result has been that, without blinking a collective eye, we’ve thrown away the key on many who could otherwise have a different sort of life on the outside.
It’s my mission to get people to understand that there’s so much more to life behind bars than what is taught in movies and on TV. There’s so much more to the psychological patterns of detention. If we’d just recognize that, there could also be so much more than just going to prison and “coming out worse.”
These are the things we need to consider when we talk about prisoner reentry. The issues are as old as punishment itself, and it’s about time for an update.