I’m often asked what prison is like. That broad question can be approached in many ways, and I rephrase it in my mind as: “What does prison feel like?”
When feelings are part of a conversation, solid connections are made. To communicate at this level, identifying a life experience equivalency with whom I’m talking helps. Using equivalency examples can bring people into a virtual prison world by tapping in to their common experiences. For example, I can describe the food, the sleep problems, and the craving for creature comforts I lived with by equating those experiences to similar common experiences. Everyone’s encountered rubber chicken or a lousy time falling asleep in a hotel when the party next door is making a racket.
A recent experience equivalency came up during a phone conversation with one of my sons. We were talking about the political atmosphere in the country. The trigger came upon our agreement that there’s a deep uneasiness across the country. I then remembered having felt this uneasiness in the past—my time in the California prison system carried feelings like those I have now. These feelings are the product of my sensitivity to the edgy social and political atmosphere related to the presidency of Donald Trump.
Feeling Prison Culture
My strongest feelings are associated with living in a constant state of hypervigilance. Prisons are stale-air dens of frustration and despair. Shock, fear, and uncertainty thrive and abound there. A chronic uneasiness persists; there are rumors (the prison version of “fake news”)—and most rumors are bad, though rumors about apple pie being served at chow were particularly good rumors. Hypervigilance is a reaction to the shock, fear, and uncertainty I mentioned.
Entering the prison system is a shock to one’s reality—the new norm is an obtuse world of contradictions. Even when asleep, there’s reason to worry, but exhaustion always pulls one toward sleep. Mornings are equally stressful. I remember waking up thinking, oh no, I’m still here.
A prison is a totalitarian police state controlled by a political police force that secretly supervises the inmates’ activities. Fear is constant for inmates and their keepers. Because in prison there are always incidents—fights, racial disputes, gang-related and other political factions—inmates learn to always be alert for potential personal and irrational harm.
James Madison warned us about factions in the Federalist Paper No. 10 (circa 1787):
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
The current social and political climate brings me back to the feelings of life in prison. The lies, cheating, and self-absorbed politicians remind me of the social dynamics of the prison yard. The bullying, threatening, misogyny, shallow thinking and paper-thin egos take me right back to the yard, and this is where my equivalency experience lives.
Another strong feeling is the realization that no one really cares about you in prison. Prison culture is an egocentric world where the most dysfunctional and frightening men rule. It is at the top of this world where bullies plan and dish out pain to others.
Factions can be egocentric groups as well as individuals. Madison’s concern was the impact on the rule of law within the Constitution that a faction of a few, including their commander in chief, could have. A president who is threatening, bullying, normalizing aggression, using ridicule, speaking in stunning non sequitors, and denying reality—especially when faced with facts—illustrates Madison’s worst nightmare about power acting adversely to the rights of others.
Feelings of Outside Culture
Madison’s words profess an understanding of mankind. His introspection and historical projections about difficult issues added backbone to the yet-to-be-ratified Constitution. Here’s an example of his forewarnings:
- “The latent causes of factions are sown in the nature of man.”
- Factions are everywhere and cause incongruence with varied circumstances of civil society.
- “An attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power . . . [has] divided mankind into parties.”
- These leaders “inflame them [the people] with mutual animosity, and [render] them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
Does the substance of Madison’s warnings sound familiar?
Mr. Trump and Prison Reform
I read and watch media measures of our national thermometer. With less than a one-third positive rating in a recent poll finding in favor of Mr. Trump, he is focusing negatively charged political energy against the peoples’ will on pithy issues such as healthcare, the environment, tax relief for the middle class, rebuilding infrastructure, and other topics. It’s time to be prepared for Mr. Trump’s attack on the prison rights movement across the country. Being prepared means expecting less. Expecting less spawns lawsuits, delays, and resistance.
Mr. Trump has a dark portrait of America in his head, but it’s our headache. Easy targets to blame for the darkness are common people who have been through the criminal justice system. As reported by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, “in his Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump pledged to address the rising specter of ‘American carnage’—‘the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.’” But, the Brennan report opines that “Trump’s dark portrait of America, however, comes at a time when the national crime rate is near historic lows—42 percent below what it was in 1997.”
The report also analyzes the key changes to federal prison policy made by the Trump administration within Mr. Trump’s first one hundred days. I suggest reading the details of these shifts:
- Misguided Fears of a New Crime Wave
- A New War on Drugs?
- Increased Immigration Enforcement and Detention
- Decreased Oversight of Local Police
- Increased Use of Private Prisons
- Possible Federal Sentencing or Reentry Legislation
For me, being in prison felt how I now feel about the skidding leadership path of Mr. Trump. I can imagine historical roadmaps, based on European political models, where factions’ power turned countries into totalitarian states. How all of this will shake out regarding advances in prison reform remains to be seen. These are complicated problems that require knowledge, interest, and the ability to focus—traits and values that do not reside in the executive mansion. Under Mr. Trump, things haven’t been good so far for reform, and there’s no evidence anyone in control cares much. (“We’ve got to build that wall.)
My goal was to use my own experience equivalency—how I feel about current events—to share my as closely as possible what prison feels like.
Your comments about this topic or of general interest are always welcome.
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