Visiting Prison

A few weekends ago, both my Mother and I went to prison. We were 800 miles apart, but we probably saw some of the same heartbreaking scenes. Antiseptic beige hallways, acres of space where every leaf of grass and sympathy is ripped up and away.

I heard prison officials refer to the incarcerated men as “creatures” that “crawl” around the yard. I listened as they tried to scare us, telling us both that prisoners are “bad guys” and treated as well as they deserve to be. There were Shawshank Redemption jokes. It was horrible.

There were moments of wonder. A man who is spending life in prison gave us a tour of a new facility where inmates can practice woodworking, hydroponics, furniture repair. They also make piñatas, teddy bears, and quilts for children and people who are sick.

I saw men playing the most spirited game of handball I have ever witnessed. The prison guard who worked in a pair guiding us told me the inmates had agreed that the morning time was for handball and the afternoon for basketball, since there was only one court and no way for people to do both without interfering with each other’s games. She was the same person who compared African American inmates unfavorably with Latino (her term was “Hispanics”) and White inmates because they didn’t beat accused child molesters. “Child molesting doesn’t bother them, I guess,” she said.

The racism made it hard to breathe, hard to keep asking questions and not retreat from the experience. I kept asking questions, because I had a five hour drive to process and needed to get some information from a uniquely and temporarily-available source. I asked how change happened in the administration. One of the staff said it changed when leadership changed. The people who guided us said the median term in that prison for staff was over a decade, indicating norms once planted in the minds of staff may take decades to root out.

We stood in a classroom with desks that could not be ripped into weapons and with behavioral therapy signs on the walls. The signs had charts, walking inmates through how to handle anger. I would show you a picture of the signs, but we were told to leave our phones in the car, to wear no revealing or tight or loose clothing, bring no electronics, leave our keys in lock boxes.

In my classes on justice and policy, we talked about retributive vs rehabilitative justice. They had a third term there, essentially that they set up punishments and a few incentives to force prisoners to conform to their expectations. They said sometimes their methods could change a man’s mind, and sometimes the “system just tires them out.”

I have thought a lot about the men who go to jail because of the anti-human trafficking laws I worked to pass. There are people who need to be away from potential victims, from the economies and buyers that make victimization so easy. There are people who should never see the outside of a prison’s walls, no matter how beige or claustrophobic. But the vast majority of people who go to prison will come out, rejoin their communities, and need a way to survive. For the very few rapists who are convicted the average term is 14 years–that 22-year-old rapist will celebrate his 36th birthday a free man, with half-a-century of time left in his life that he has to live.

Carrying the burden of hatred for people who hurt others, fantasizing about punishing them, does not change that. Ensuring that 36-year-old man never rapes again because he has learned women are people, making sure he can get a job so he does not try to find ways to live by exploiting others, whether we do it for the moral or the fiscal reason, we need to do the work to ensure our prisons change that man. Not just “tire[] him out.”

On our tour, I could see how the system would tire people out, how it was used to control behavior. They used to have two of the units share an outdoor space, controlled only by the “call out system,” which is when they give orders for who is allowed to move at different moments. I asked one staff-member asked if the Norteños and Sureños were some of the stronger gangs, since they were some of the big ones back home. She said they were, and they had to put a wall of barbed wire down the middle of a shared yard because of a previous piece of violence involving 60 inmates of the two different gangs.

Both she and the other guide seemed to enjoy using gang slang, interspersed with professional prison guard slang. They talked about people “Calling shots” (meaning ordering violence) and “fight on sight” and “always green” (meaning standing orders from gang leaders for behavior towards other gangs). Their sentences could be a mix of these two vocabularies that are sometimes literally at war with themselves.

We were told the men in the prison were “murders, rapists, and robbers.” That phrase stuck with me, because it was the exact same one the Secretary of Corrections had used with us a few months ago. When we heard that phrase used, both times it was in the context of a question being asked about nonviolent offenders being locked up. Perhaps it was intended to undercut our sympathy for the men locked up.

After the prison tour, we met with the leader of a nonprofit that helps prisoners reintegrate into society. She said 1/3 of inmates are locked up for nonviolent property crime. So, not murders or rapists, but “robbers”.

As I learned during the legislative session, WA state has the highest rate of property crime in the United States. Some policy analysts think that is because there is nearly no supervision (i.e. probation) for people who commit nonviolent property crimes. The idea that 30% of released offenders reoffend should scare any fiscal conservative, not because he should fear for his stereo, but because it costs $40,000+ to house a prisoner. If that money could be spent on keeping that prisoner from reoffending, that would save a huge amount of pain and suffering, not the least of that person’s victims.

The emotions I experienced were complex. I was afraid a number of times, when prisoners significantly larger than me walked close by. I realized it wasn’t their size or the vague threat of the men in the prison being “murderers, rapists, and robbers” but that I had no idea what the etiquette was. I know how to walk the streets in Cairo and Pittsburgh, but in the open yard of a men’s minimum security camp, do I make eye-contact? Do I turn my back to men seated on a bench, even if their arms are the thickness of my thigh?

I opted not to smile, since I don’t usually smile at strangers, but make brief eye-contact and nod. That’s how I interact with homeless men on my walk home, so I thought it might be good enough. It made me realize that after all of that fear-mongering from the prison guards, they had neglected to give us basic information about how to behave, how to fit into the space so we didn’t cross a line we did not know was there. Security theater as a form of control, but less functional security for our group than I expected, given the way the staff spoke about the prisoners.

I hated the prison and I want to go back. If that is someplace our money and men are going to be locked up, I think it’s important to know more about it.

Update 6/19/15 2:10pm: My Mom asked me to clarify she was visiting a prison in California as a volunteer with a group from St Andrews Episcopal Church. If she writes about her experience on her blog, I’ll link to it here.

Inspirational Quote:

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” ― Cheris Kramarae

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