Our society is in a collective moment of reckoning with the sins of our past- at least those of us willing to be honest are. Centuries of harm caused by colonialism, slavery, racial oppression and a western world dominated by the interest of white men have culminated into a barrage of modern-day resistance movements and widespread critical discourse on these themes.
One space where this discourse is distorted- if present at all- is within the walls of American prisons, especially male prisons. Here, the historical plagues of racism and misogyny are endemic; centuries of racial hostility manifest into extreme segregation, and a violently toxic masculinity poisons the seeds of any debate about women’s rights or roles in society.
It is predictable, even if ironic, that communities of people deemed expendable by society would exhibit the symptoms of the society’s most virulent illnesses. A vast majority of prisoners experienced adverse childhoods in poor, racially segregated pockets of America and many were also witnesses to, or victims of domestic violence. But like any guilty party, America attempts to bury the evidence of it’s most egregious sins, rather than confront them directly. But prisons aren’t burial grounds- not permanent ones, anyways. 19 out of 20 prisoners will eventually return to the society which deemed them unfit.
The lack of exposure to conversations about topics like racism and hyper-masculinity is just one more obstacle to add to the catalogue of stumbling blocks in the path to healthy reorientation and reentry to society.
Outdated and outright appalling narratives about women and ethnic groups are still dominant themes in prison culture. Over- incarceration and overcrowding in prisons has led to unsafe environments and the prioritization of security to the point of apathy towards educational pursuits, leaving little will to address issues like these, which derive from lack of exposure to informed discourse. From the correctional regime’s perspective however, information is the enemy- any force that would empower the population would also make them more of a risk.
If the system’s purpose is to administer “justice” on the behalf of the public, then they are doing a great disservice to the public by sheltering prisoners from intellectual growth with increasingly prohibitive measures. The lack of access to local resources like guest lecturers and volunteer educators leaves a prison population isolated from cultural debates and community engagement which could provide purpose for their lives. These are the types of discussions we need to have if we want to produce anything resembling “justice” within a prison, and build communities of formerly incarcerated people who are ready to make a better future for all of us.
This may not be the typical answer in response to the question, but it does relate, and it’s my story so I’m posting in on here and as a blog on one of my websites:
After leaving the halfway house for my first adventure into the free society, three decades later, on a timed-pass for my first trip to downtown Atlanta, I paid $2.50 to ride the bus to the train station (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority).
I was shocked having to pay $2.50 for the bus fare that used to be much less.
The bus arrived at the train station. To enter the train terminal, I attempted to go through a turnstile that wouldn’t open. I looked at a MARTA employee and said, “It won’t work.”
“You need to buy a Breeze card,” she said.
“I gotta pay to get in here?”
She nodded. I turned took a few steps and glanced around the terminal. I didn’t see a store or anywhere to buy it from, so I said, “Where at?”
She pointed to an area where I saw several machines embedded in a wall of the terminal. I stood and gazed at one of the machines and tried to figure out how to use it: Too many buttons and features for a mind that had been exempt from using most technological-creations for the last thirty years!
For a few moments I continued to stand and stare at the machine, stressed out and overwhelmed because I couldn’t figure out how to operate it (My stress level had more to do with that than the actual technology involved).
I was in a rush because I didn’t want to be late. I had to call in to the halfway house every time I arrived at an approved destination, or risked being put on escape status and being sent back to prison.
I didn’t have time to figure out how to use the Breeze Card Machine, so I looked for help. I saw a man who worked for MARTA and walked up to him and pointed at the machines and then asked, “Do you know how to operate those?”
“Sure,” he said and began walking toward them with me.
“I’ve been in prison for thirty years and need help.”
Moments later, I was on my way to board the train and before the day was over, a woman at another downtown MARTA train station asked me if I knew how to operate the machine so she could buy train fare.
“Sure,” I said and then shared the wealth and we were on our way to our separate designations.
I’ve adapted well to most technology, as is evident by me having several websites now and my using the cellphones I had never used until August 28, 2018, but that darn Breeze Card Machine was just too much for me to comprehend when feeling like a caveman running around in modern society.
Update: I appreciate each response to this answer, all of the upvotes, thousands of views, and a request for permission to translate.
The word “Gratitude” doesn’t express the magnitude of my emotions attached to this experience.
For those who visited my listed website (straightfromthepen.com) and viewed some of my post, most of which were done before my release, please know my publisher created the blog for me, because I had never been online until I went to the halfway house on August 28, 2018.
[Updated with comments on August 9, 2019, a year after walking out of the prison gates (08/28/2018), still attempting to recover from the damage caused by thirty-years and ten-days inside the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons.]
Prison damages people. Those who spend decades in prison are damaged in many ways, all of which I will not go into. For instance, exposure to violence or physical abuse that people deal with, or repressing natural tendencies to fight when having to comply with irrational demands; e.g., like ones I wrote about in “The Truth About Incarceration, Part I” (https:/straightfromthepen.com) and “Authority and a Prisoner’s Story” (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/508702).
DON’T GET PERSONAL: A less than obvious example of damage, occurs for someone like me — a southern gentleman by nature who likes to assist people I see carrying a heavy load or otherwise look to need help; especially, women, who represses the natural desire to help. To engage in a personal conversation may also create difficulties.
At times, I resist the desire to offer help due to fear of causing a conflict for the damsel in distress. I still offer to help in certain situations. Because of prison regulations and the warped, unwritten code of prison ethics, I may avoid speaking openly about an issue I would normally speak about to a person I feel I can help by offering a suggestion.
The person may or may not accept a helping hand. In such a situation, an inmate may decline assistance at the fear of being seen as weak or vulnerable. A staff member may decline due to fear of another staff member suspecting improprieties between him or her and the compassionate prisoner. Personal conversations and any type of transaction between staff and inmates are viewed as inappropriate by many prisoners and staff alike. Humanity prohibited!
INSTINCTS DENIED: My instinct is to help others. Sometimes I don’t because of the risk I may put the other person in by doing what comes natural. Knowing that my act of kindness may harm the other person, makes me reluctant to offer the assistance my ethics and natural instincts tells me to do, as a decent human being.
Upon release, I will have to undo decades of damage done by the prison experience: suppressing healthy emotions and needs. I must learn to be a normal.
[I continue to work on behaving as I normally would do as a free citizen, if not for the damage caused by the extensive incarceration. I still struggle when it comes to relationships. I am a decent, loving, kind, and gentle human being, who doesn’t have to pretend to be bullet proof.]
I sent out the following message to a friend who posted it on social media for me. A lot of people liked it so I will share:
“03/05/17: To all my Faithful Friends: I hope March brings each of you lots of love and success or whatever your hearts desire. For me, I’d be happy to be able to walk through a park or to sit on a lake to listen and observe the beauty of nature; to give someone a hug, kiss someone special, or to just be able to sit and watch animals; or to pet a dog, cat, rabbit, or a chicken. 🙂 Hell, I’d be happy to watch some fish swim around in an aquarium. I am looking forward to going to the Georgia Aquarium to see some really big fish! So much in life people take for granted until it’s gone. One day soon I will be reentering the human race. Then I will be able to interact with each of you like a normal person. Have a great day! Wayne”
[Georgia Aquarium: I walked by the Georgia Aquarium en route to a job fair at the City of Refuge, but have not been to watch the fish swim. I will go soon now that I’m working and can afford to buy the tickets. Everything is expensive! Update 08/02/2020: I did visit the Georgia Aquarium with loved ones and enjoyed the experience but was shocked by the entry-cost and food prices.]
The above indicates the desensitization of prisoners. For over 28-1/2 years, my physical contact with other humans and mammals has been severely restricted. That is definitely true on an intimate level about lovers and sexual intercourse! During this sentence, I have resisted romantic-relationships. I’ve only been involved in three since 1988, and only one of those included physical contact (hugs and kisses on a visit).
At U.S.P. Atlanta, I had one female visitor I got to hug and kiss, and some mice to pet. 🙂
In Lompoc, California, I got to take care of a friend’s pet house sparrow, and to go outside to feed the seagulls, crows, other birds, and ground squirrels. I fed the ground squirrels until the administration poisoned them. 😦
In a relationship, I love to hug and touch, to put my arm around my mate’s waist or shoulder, to sleep with my arm around her to maintain contact. I guess I am by nature, a “touchy-feely” kind of guy. In prison, I sleep alone and touch myself.
SEXUAL REPRESSION: In 1980-81, when I took psychology in college, I seem to recall that a prominent psychologist or psychiatrist wrote about the damaging effect of suppressing sexual feelings and desires. If that is true, I must be more damaged than I realize. Perhaps I need a therapist, now!
In my opinion, sexual repression is a leading causes of mental illness in America.
Around 1997, a Nevada, Holier-than-Thou politician, pushed a bill through Congress that prohibited federal prisoners from receiving magazines or books containing nudity. [Ensign later resigned due to negative publicity about his extramarital affairs.]
CENSORSHIP & COMPLEX REASONING: Several years ago, the prison mail room staff rejected an issue of Smithsonian I subscribed to because it contained nudity. I appealed.
The program statement makes an exception for educational or anthropological content, as one may see in National Geographic; however, understanding an “exception clause” requires cognitive thinking; an ability to comprehend the subject matter and its relation to the provision; to then analyze the situation and decide whether the matter before one’s eye, does in fact, contain what constitutes a permissible exception, a far too complicated process for someone who may not have a GED, I reckon.
The Smithsonian Board of Directors has Supreme Court justices and politicians. If I was wrong in my assertions, the justices and politicians on the Board of Directors support publishing and distributing pornography.
I appealed the decision to reject my Smithsonian. I took it to the highest level in Washington, DC. No one involved comprehended the “exception clause” and upheld the denial of my magazine. Censorship won because I didn’t want to spend $500.00 to litigate the matter in federal court, where someone with the required intelligence could understand the educational/anthropological, “exception clause.”
PERVERSION & THE POLITICIAN: Since that policy took effect, I saw a dramatic increase of inmates put in the hole (confined to a cell 23-hours per day, restricted from purchasing most commissary items, using the phone, email system, etc.) for “gunning down” female staff members (masturbating or exposing genitalia while watching the woman). That may qualify as abnormal behavior.
The politician who sponsored the censorship bill, later came under fire for getting caught cheating on his wife. Throughout the years, many of the politicians who come up with such bills did what prisoners in the Georgia prison system called “Shifting the Heat,” which is to say or to do things to put the focus on other people to keep it away from themselves.
CELIBATE BY CHOICE: In prison, I remain celibate because I choose not to participate in homosexual activities, my only other option since I do not have or attempt to have sexual affairs with staff members. Even if involved in a heterosexual relationship with someone, I still couldn’t engage in sexual activities, even if someone visited me. While visiting, prison rules limit physical contact to hugs and kisses when greeting and leaving. Therefore, I remain celibate and will do so until I reenter that part of humanity upon release from prison.
LOMPOC CA: In 1999, while I was at the United States Penitentiary in Lompoc, California, a tall and pretty, female staff member worked in M-Unit, along with a male staff member known to create drama with staff and inmates alike.
M-Unit is where those of us with high profiles were kept. I lived in it because I was a maximum custody prisoner. The administration scored me as Maximum custody due to violence and an escape in 1981, when I was a 24-year-old knucklehead in the Georgia prison system. Today I am a model prisoner.
PRETTY WOMAN: That tall and pretty woman was a mother of three. The male guard wanted her to sit in a booth where the correctional officers, who worked in the unit, had a phone, small desk, drawers, and a cabinet to store their personal and work-related items.
She rebelled. Instead, she chose to speak with me, within his view. We stood talking on a tier, in an open area, where others could hear our conversation. To learn how she might help raise her children, she asked about my childhood and history, and wanted to know what I thought lead to me spending my life in prison. Our conversation was wholesome, no improprieties of any sort.
The next time I saw her, she asked if I’d be willing to give her an affidavit about our conversation, if she needed it.
“Sure,” I said.
The male guard wrote a complaint against her for fraternizing with an inmate.
Because of that experience, I sometimes avoided conversations with female staff members, who may have only wanted to engage in conversation to ease their tension from working in a male prison.
When sexually attracted, I must resist the impulse to flirt or to make an advance. A rejection might result in a trip to the hole and a damaged ego, the damaged ego being the worst casualty of rejection.
[Today, I resist the urge to flirt or ask for a date because of some of the BS generated through the ME TOO movement, where many people filed complaints and alleged sexual abuse by those in power positions (most of which were legitimate complaints, I suspect). The main reason is because of personal circumstanceand for reasons I wrote about in previous blog posts, and because I don’t think it’s what I need until I become more accustomized to living on the outside.]
As damaged as I may be from the prison experience, I will blend into society when I am released. With a little help from my friends, and maybe a therapist or two, I will be okay and become a success story.
[Returning Citizen: I am a success story, as are all of the men and women who returned to society and have not returned to prison life.]
Purchase books by Wayne T. Dowdy from your favorite bookstores or Amazon.com. For best buys on eBooks from his authors page at Smashwords.com.