This past weekend I made a trip to Kentucky with my girlfriend, and on the way back we travelled through the north Georgia mountains. Not far from our route was Lee Arrendale State Prison, in Alto, Georgia. I was incarcerated there from 1985 to 1989, and it was by far the worst prison I did time in. Today it is very different, housing women instead of male teens, and with only a few of the buildings left that I knew.
As I neared the prison my body grew cold and numb, my heart rate and breathing increased, and I seemed to have trouble thinking straight. I observed these changes from a distance, watching my body and mind react to a place that I hadn’t seen for 23 years. Suddenly, it appeared on our right. My dissociation reached a peak, with a low buzz seeming to fill my brain. There was the main building, where I had lived and often worked. Memories suffused me, flickering from one to the next without seeming connection.
I drove on, but turned around to make another pass. Turning the car down a side road I could see a different section of the compound. In my day it housed the Annex, the worst part of the prison. There I had seen the most violence: beatings, stabbings, sexual assaults. We were 20 yards from where “dead man’s curve” had existed, a notorious spot for armed robberies and assaults. Turning around again, we drove away and resumed our journey home. The tension slowly left my body, replaced by relief and an appreciation for living in a different world now.
I recalled the last time that I left the prison. I was being transferred, sitting in a van, bound by shackles, cuffs, and a waist chain. Even though I was in chains, it was as if a huge weight was being lifted off of my body. For nearly four years I had lived in a state of almost constant vigilance and fear. A fierce joy filled me as the prison van pulled away that day in 1989, and I raised my bound hands as high as I could, flipping two birds and cursing that piece of hell for all I was worth. I never expected to see it again.
Since my trip I have been considering with surprise how much I was affected by seeing the old prison. I do not think every day about what happened there. Like everyone else I am caught up in my current life, and I would not have predicted the response I had. I have been wondering and researching what underlay my reaction. I have also been thinking about young men incarcerated today, and wondering what horrors are going on right now in their world. These are places where trauma is a near daily occurrence.
There is reluctance in society to think of prisoners as victims, and people resist hearing that message. This reluctance accompanies the belief that the people there deserve what they get. They are, somehow, disqualified from the moral sphere of protection because they broke the law, perhaps even harming an innocent person in the process. It feels right that they are there, and any indication to the contrary is met with resistance.
It seems to me that these two issues are often confused. The first issue is what should happen to juveniles who commit crimes. There is a wide spectrum of opinion, with some thinking that they should be sentenced without regard to their age and others advocating for consideration of juvenile malleability and a focus on rehabilitation. Let me set aside for a moment my own opinion of whether children should be imprisoned and for how long. I recognize that certain crimes will call for separating the juvenile from society; whether that happens for safety, justice, treatment, or any other reason doesn’t really matter to the second issue: what form should that separation take?
In the current system the norm is a dangerous and abusive environment. Like my own early days in a youth prison, juvenile facilities today remain filled with assaults, sexual violence, intimidation, dehumanization, mental and physical deprivation, lack of decent medical care, little support for maintaining or developing family connections and poor opportunities for personal development. Is this the way that we want it to be? Do we want prisons to be filled with pain? Are we really saying that kids should have to face the possibility of being beaten, raped, or stabbed as a consequence of their actions? If that is the case then let’s just say so. At least that would be better than indifference and feigned ignorance.
Forcing kids to live this way, even ones convicted of crimes, is wrong. Failure to change this situation is the same as endorsement. Even those who advocate for toughness, if they took a moment, would realize nothing good can come from this type of treatment. Most of these kids will see the streets again. How they live while on the inside can have a big impact on how they act when released. Subjecting kids to further harm, who in many cases have already experienced a lot of trauma in their young lives, is extremely unlikely to bring about the kinds of change that we want to see. Deprivation of liberty, no matter how “soft” critics think it is, is already punishment, it doesn’t need to be enhanced.