Sometimes I forget I was in prison, even though I spent nearly a quarter century there. Maybe, I just get caught up in the day-to-day concerns of my life out here in the “free world.”
I am a student in a fast-paced master’s program, so I am studying, reading, writing and attending 13 hours of class every other weekend. I write for two websites. I have an internship. When I can fit it in, I have the rest of my life to focus on, with a girlfriend, a house, pets, cooking and the other details of living an ordinary life.
Maybe it’s not these things that cause me to forget my past though. A lot of my school and work revolves around juvenile justice issues, conflict management, violence reduction and restorative processes. All of these interests, and a lot of my expertise, were born during my time on the inside. Sometimes my past is the reason people listen to what I have to say at all. I am not downplaying it or hiding it. In fact, I speak and write about it often.
Last week, I wrote an article about the culture of violence in prison, and I mentioned my own time at Alto, a now-shuttered prison in north Georgia. Like some of my other pieces, it garnered a few comments.
I like this, of course, because it is nice to know my work is being read. When I do get one of these, I get an email alerting me. A few days ago, I was sitting in my car when one came in. I pulled my phone out and opened the email. I started to read it while I was sitting at a traffic light.
It began: “My son was also at Alto. He was attacked by a group of inmates that a guard let into his cell…” I stopped reading as the light changed, and I didn’t look at the email again for several hours. I was reluctant to read on for some reason, but I finally did. The writer, a woman, went on to tell me that a group of inmates slit her son’s throat, and that if not for another inmate calling her she wouldn’t have known that her child was in intensive care. The guard, who had a hand in this event, was only fired. A subsequent comment revealed that the boy was incarcerated at the age of 15, with a life sentence, and has now been in for 14 years. He was a juvenile when this attack happened.
A few days later, I was talking with my girlfriend after work and she told me that she had been catching up on my weekly articles. Sometimes she reads them before they are submitted, but often she doesn’t have time. Awhile back, I wrote one about sexual assault, and told a story about a young man who was a victim of sexual violence.
After I wrote it, I told her she might prefer not to read it, since it was an upsetting topic, and she hadn’t, until now. The boy I wrote about ended up trying to slash his own throat. She was asking me some factual questions about what had happened, and then she said, “Did you try to stop him?” I paused, thinking how strange her words sounded. The idea that I would have done anything to help him seemed alien to me, even though today I know that I would have a different response.
The truth is, I did nothing to help him. None of us did, not when he was being bullied, not when he was being assaulted, not when he began to cut himself. Even worse, we blamed him for what had happened. We laughed at him after he left, making a joke about the look on his face, an expression of horror that chills me today to remember. We thought of him as weak and told ourselves he deserved what happened to him.
Today I realize this kind of reaction is a common defense to incredible stress. Humans have the ability to survive horrors because of this adaptation. It allows us to distance ourselves from what is happening, to cover up our real selves and just get through. I am not saying that some people in prison aren’t cruel. Most are not though. I realize that today my own forgetting is a defense as well. The mental distancing I find within myself is a way to move on with my life, which is a fine goal, but I try to fight it sometimes, to remember what the truth is.
Many years after witnessing that suicide attempt, I sat up one night trading stories with my dad, who is a Vietnam veteran. He told me about some civilians who lived near his base. Because of constant shelling they had piled sandbags around their home, and added a few more every day. One morning the men at the base heard a loud crash. The home had collapsed under the weight of the sandbags, killing everyone inside. “We laughed our asses off,” he said. Then he paused and said somberly, “What the hell were we laughing at?” He didn’t have to explain to me. I understood perfectly.
Someone told me recently that prisoners are the most hated people in America. It certainly seemed true when I was in. How else to explain what happened to us? There is a callous attitude towards those in prison, even kids. People make jokes about prison rape. It is accepted in our society that cruelty and horror are the lot of those who break the law. Some people even imagine that it is just.
There is something in us that tells us that people deserve what they get, but I don’t believe that is true. Accountability is important, as is taking responsibility. The current system, with its cruelty and neglect, does nothing to foster these. I guarantee you that when those men attacked that boy and slit his throat, he did not feel more connected to the people he had harmed. He was not moved to feel remorse or develop a desire to right the wrongs he committed. If he has done those things it is in spite of the system. We have to ask ourselves what we want from incarceration. If we want change in people it has to be developed within themselves, and a safe environment makes that a lot more likely to happen.
Why is this difficult to see? I am not sure. Maybe, like me so many years ago, people just don’t know what to do when confronted by evil. Maybe it is the way society protects itself, by imagining that the people on the other side of the fence are different, that they deserve what happens to them, that they are not quite human beings. This is not true. They are sons, brothers, fathers and friends. They will be back with us in society. By all means, justice must be served. I only wish to add, let it be a justice that holds people accountable, while at the same time giving them a place where they can heal themselves and connect to their own humanity.
Those in prisons and jails are, and will always be, human beings, despite what they have done, or what they are told, or what we believe. That wasn’t always easy to hold on to when I was on the inside. The message that we were animals, or worse, was constant. Our whole world seemed to scream it at us. I saw many men who forgot their humanity. Somehow I was able to remember it, and now I remember those still on the inside. I invite you to join me.