Being a prison reform blogger is frustrating. The frustration lies in not being able to take readers into a prison environment with mere words. Most people can visualize a baseball stadium, the inside of a movie theater, or a crowded airport; they’ve experienced those environments. Those exposures create a mental database of impressions retrievable by a written or verbal cue. Think of a zebra—you automatically see stripes.
My friend Ashley recently told me about her expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. I was fascinated. Never having been anywhere close to Tanzania, I was interested in her experiences in this East African country. She told me about her ascent and descent of the mountain and described the animal life, vegetation, climate, and glaciers she saw. She recounted the sights, sounds, and environments her experience revealed.
Ashley’s descriptive details flashed me back to the conversations I’ve had with people about my prison experience. I, too, described the details of my experience—including the sights, sounds, and environment of prison life. My enthusiasm for an offbeat subject mirrored Ashley’s excitement of verbally taking me on her adventure. However, even though I made the trip with her in my mind’s eye, I had not personally experienced the sights, sounds, and feelings associated with her trek.
The same is true for people who vicariously experience prison conditions depicted in the media, literature, and the arts. Hence, the frustration of not being able to break through.
Haven’t Been There, Haven’t Done That
To try and fill the gap between experience and conjecture about prison life, I turn to the journals I kept while in prison. My journal entries bear witness to the prison world around me. As an experienced attorney, I became a good note taker to commemorate observations and thoughts for future reference, much as former FBI director James Comey immediately created written memos after his disturbing encounters with Donald Trump. Comey’s memos take us to those meetings and add to his credibility concerning encounters that would otherwise fade away with time.
In this blog post, I extract notes from my contemporary journal entries on three specific, recurring themes: the passage of time, prison life, and worries and concerns. My purpose is to take you there— even though you may not have done any of that. Hopefully you’ll see the zebra next time the topics of prisons and prison life arise.
I have included six representative entries in each category. In actuality, there are hundreds.
Passage of Time
January 1, 2004. I have 6 days in this small cell with Billy W. until being classified [approved for assimilation into the prison general population]. We are on 24-hour lockdown until Tuesday. When I arrived here [Ironwood State Prison] yesterday, the thought of this task was gut-wrenching—I had mini panic attacks—sleep was disturbed by crazy thoughts.
January 6, 2004. [Tuesday, and not yet classified.] No panic attacks for many days; resigned to this cramped confinement with no time out of cell except for a 10-minute shower every 3 days.
November 24, 2004. Today marks the 1 more year point in my sentence. I have less than a year to go. Looking back a year, time seems to have moved fast. My thoughts are focused on where I will be in a year—next Thanksgiving—and what will be ahead for me. Sometimes I feel like one more year in this place is in the realm of impossible. . . . I’m getting tired of the inmate mentalities . . . the ignorance, self-centeredness, stupidity, and offensive speech are grating on me. [This entry is an example of the conflict between my positive and negative masks. This was a constant mental give-and-take that kept me mentally centered. See my same-day entry under Worries and Concerns for a concrete example of this phenomenon.]
January 3, 2005. New Year’s Eve has come and gone. Where will I be next New Year’s Eve?
January 7, 2005. This morning my watch was running 20 minutes slow. Don’t rob me of one single minute!
January 26, 2005. Capt. Hawthorne came to the yard to inform us that masturbation is now a potential 115 [write-up possibly leading to disciplinary confinement]. What jerk-offs!
May 20, 2004. [My friend] Jeff was beat up in front of the dorm at about 7:15 PM. This afternoon we had talked about his fears. Some thought him to be a rat and he could not shake the label. Was he a rat? I was walking the yard with him just before he was taxed [beat up]. Had I not decided to walk another lap around the yard, I might have been caught in the waylay. He was rolled up to Ad Seg [solitary confinement] for his own safety . . . and we did not say goodbye.
May 25, 2004. [While I was working my job in the prison library,] Pete was playing loud music in the library—just to aggravate me. When I asked to have it turned down, he turned it up. A real jerk, but I don’t expect support from my coworkers—shine it on. [I did not know at the time that Pete ran with the Nazi lowriders. I was flirting with danger that would come back to get me. See the February 11, 2005, entry under Worries and Concerns.]
June 4, 2014. I was told that it does not look good for me to walk the track with Cylver [a black man] due to the race thing—I hate this. Now I have a problem because of others’ racism?
June 7, 2014. Another mutual combat tonight. Friction built up inside the dorm. A white was disrespectful to an SS [south-sider gang member], who demanded the whites do something about it. Cops come in—another search outside, taken out by rows [of bunks]. They are looking for who got punched = injury [an inspection of each inmate’s body is made, especially knuckles, which might show an injury on the combatants].
January 10, 2005. Yard locked down at 2:00 PM because a black c/o [correctional officer] was killed [stabbed by an inmate] in Chino [prison in Chino, California]. Should last 24–48 hours. [A lockdown means no movement on the yard and confinement to one’s bunk, with limited bathroom privileges and meals served in cells and dorms.]
November 27, 2004. Today I was told that I saved Mike’s [a friend’s] life by covering his $250 debt with Gypsy. I was the last to know how serious the situation was because Mike did not tell me the whole truth. [I did not enter the source of the debt in my journal since it could be confiscated and used against Gypsy and Mike. A phone call to my brother-in-law resulted in money being wired to a person on the outside who later confirmed receipt, which then got Mike off the hook.]
Worries and Concerns
November 24, 2004. The Bakersfield clique runs the white car [whites on the yard]. I don’t run with them. Some are skinheads [racists who hate everyone, particularly Jews].
January 2, 2005. It feels good to be in 2005. The weather is cold and rainy this new year. The noisy TV, all day into early morning, is starting to irritate me a lot. There’s no quiet to be found anywhere. Too cold to exercise outside. I’ve got to keep my head together until November [my month of release].
January 9, 2005. Danny “the Lung” left today after 4 years 4 mos. It was good to see him so happy and excited to be free. Poor guy is smoking himself to death with cigarettes.
January 16, 2005. No visits this weekend put me in an unusual depressed state and made the days go by very slowly. Tomorrow is MLK holiday, so no mail. [The combination of no visits and no mail combined to occasionally cave my mood.]
February 8, 2005. Argument with Paulino in the shower. He said my showerhead was reserved for Pops. I said I was there first. Paulino said he would tax me [beat me up] for this. Blew over. Another situation that made me feel fear and the absurdity of this place at the same time. [I did not know I was being set up for the February 11 encounter, below.]
February 11, 2005. In library, 7:20 PM before closing at 7:45. Spike [a skinhead] got into the stacks of books where he didn’t belong. Pete [aka Knucklehead] was there. Library was full. He called me a kike for not giving up the shower when Paulino demanded. Guys in the library fled out the door after Spike said he was going to “fuck up that old Jew.” No backup from Chicago [library staffer]. Confronted again: “Kike—respect my comrades and I—I’m going to fuck that old Jew up.”
[My encounter with these thugs proved to be physically and emotionally painful. The unwritten rule of prison decorum is that in situations such as this—if you live and have no obvious trauma wounds—you suck it up. To report such incidents exposes those victimized by others to be labeled as rats. Being a rat (a snitch) is a life sentence that can follow you throughout the prison system and beyond.]
Seeing the Zebra’s Stripes
The next time you’re exposed to the broad topic of prison reform, in any of its contexts, I hope that your short trek through my experiences will have made the issues more easily accessible to you. I do not wish anyone firsthand experience of the cruel nature of incarceration. I hope you’ll step back with elevated objectivity and see the stripes on the zebra.
Additional Resource on the Dynamics of Prison Existence
Check out Professor Philip Zimbardo’s The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971). This study is realistic in its approach, and in its results, based on its findings about the human dynamics that result from putting good people in an evil place such as prison.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please use the comments section below.
Image courtesy of 123rf