How Can Prison Be Described By Those Outside?

How can prison be described

I’ve shared three pieces that my penpal Lacino Hamilton wrote and sent me (this is the one I typed out last month) over the past year and a half, and this piece, fully titled “How Can Prison Be Described? Perhaps Not At All By Those Who Have Not Experienced It” focuses on prison conditions and how can they be explained and described by non-incarcerated people. He and I agree on essentially every issue, so if you want to read more of his published work, this is a link to his articles on Truthout. As always, I have not edited or changed any of his writing for this post.

Most people know little about this place, but behind Marquette Maximum Prison’s crumbling walls lives a large group of men who are more pushed out of the life-cycle and more removed from the American dream than even I could have imaged before being sent here 2 years ago—and I have been imprisoned a quarter century. Even though the men here come from all races and every part of the state of Michigan, Marquette Maximum Prison is made up mostly of young impoverished inner city blacks who still suffer from the heritage of harmful structural and racial arrangements that severely worsen the impact of continuing industrial and geographic changes in the American economy.

What is significant to note is living conditions here are so inferior in quality to those enjoyed by even the poorest people in society, that someone from the outside could hardly avoid a sense of shock if they could see for themselves the degree of filth, disease, cramped living space, deprivation, and how things like food and communicating with family and friends are used to “manage” us. I am restricted to 5 short phone calls per week because I called a radio station and supported the release of men who have been in solitary confinement over 30 years. This place inflicts a great deal of emotional and psychological suffering, compelling most people imprisoned here to live and act in ways that do not conform to most community norms and expectations.

Here at Marquette Maximum Prison we always have to chase after something, always have to hide something, and always have to hold our ground against something or someone to keep alive and be able to extract whatever gratification that can be seized, courtesy of the contemptuous attitudes and severely restricted acts of daily living, passive acceptance of the elimination of critical and individual decision making, and internalized acceptance of restrictions on honest expression of thoughts and feelings. Basically, the expectation is that we act as if the idleness, monotony and loneliness is not damaging, w hen it is. It is enough to drive any sane person mad.

The cumulative effects of living like this influences and often results in antisocial personality traits—at least that is what psychologists call them. These traits involve the tendency to challenge guards’ authority, break rules and victimize others; “acting out,” and in the end self-destructive behavior. Many prisoners and our allies tend to avoid acknowledging or describing these kind of behaviors because they could be construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to us, but such behavior is predictable and an intensified counter-response to the pervasive structural and material constraints of living 23 and 1. That’s 23 hours a day locked down, and 1 hour a day walking around in mind numbing circles on a tiny prison yard where signs are strategically posted that read, “Get to close to the line and you will be shot.”

Probably anyone who has never been in a similarly unnatural position cannot realize the kind of mortification that occurs when required to undertake a daily round of life that is predicated on state sanctioned violence. Lectures and books of leading intellectual figures often preach that if we keep our noses clean and work hard that the deep torment and anguish of the predicament of prison would be solved. To explain the challenges confronting men behind these walls solely in terms of “keeping our nose clean” and “working hard” is, of course, a serious error. Most disturbing of the implications of this advice is, in effect, it presents an apology for the heavy emotional and psychological burden imposed by the deprivations of imprisonment.

I have spent years thinking about the “antisocial behaviors” required to survive this place and make it out. I have spent years thinking about how to capture it in clear and understandable terms that neither oversimplify nor exaggerates this real live nightmare. “Antisocial behavior” is a coping skill and psychological defense mechanism which comes from living in a harshly punitive environment. But it is difficult to get people outside this place to understand this because it does not resonate with the basic belief that what psychologists call “antisocial behavior” could be anything other than personal defects.

While some people on the outside whose only real prison reference is what they see in the movies may honestly believe that something is seriously wrong with the people in here, social planners, policy makers, and scholars are aware that structures and behavior are inseparable. They are aware that how people live and act is shaped, though in no way dictated or determined, by the larger circumstances in which people find themselves. Said another way, if a flower is deprived of sunlight, rain, and soil, we would not be shocked if it withered and died, right? Why then are we shocked when caging people for part or all of their lives produces social, psychic, political, and economic harms of unprecedented proportions?

By focusing attention only on the supposedly personal defects of imprisoned citizens our eyes are diverted—no one remembers to ask questions about the initial effects of prison on imprisoned citizens’ previous social relationships; no one remembers to ask questions about the ways of adapting once in the prison; about the severely restricted daily routines; about being held in maximum security confinement for prolonged period of time as a tool for reducing the cost of prisoner management; and no one remembers to ask questions about the effects of being abused by both guards and other prisoners. Is the time spent in prison being reduced to a passive recipient of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse supposed to be a recipe for success? Of course not. Let’s get beyond a narrow view of the alleged deviant value system of imprisoned citizens, get beyond returning citizens being the cause of their own troubles. The rise of the carceral state is a failure, unless the goal is an endless repetition of abuse and trauma?

As public conversations have slowly been opening up about decarceration, I feel that the timing could not be better to challenge the dominant themes reflected in popular media and in the writings of conservative intellectuals that characterize the heavy stresses of being caged for part or all of our life as antisocial. Let’s get real about why 70% of the people who leave prison return at some point: prison is an extremely abusive and traumatic experience that causes, not solves problems.

Always having to chase after something, always having to hide something, and always having to hold our ground against something or someone creates hyper vigilance, generalized paranoia, and a reduced capacity to trust. It creates chronic problems with mental functioning that includes irritability, outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and exaggerated startle response. This is why the solution to America leading the world in imprisonment does not mean being “smart on crime,” to the extent that the phrase has become shorthand for still imprisoning record numbers of people, just for less amounts of time.

The reasons why this matters is the internal order of prison is grounded in the use of raw force, and the exercise of total power by administrators and guards. To my knowledge there is at present nothing in the vast literature of social science treaties to move society away from stigmatizing and criminalizing behaviors influenced by the harm and violence of said force and power. This matters because without an understanding of these structural relations efforts to decarcerate will simply reproduce the tools of punishment and exclusion, and expand the deep torment and anguish of the total prison predicament.

This year alone it is projected that there will be at least 1.2 million imprisoned citizens returning to the community. America does not like to admit—seldom does—that returning citizens are at risk for substance abuse dependence, relapsing to substance abuse use if they were previously addicted, active mental illness, and returning to a life of aggression, violence, and “crime” due to both pre-prison abuse and trauma, and abuse and trauma experienced while imprisoned. For solutions to be relevant to the pressing needs of people leaving prison, society as a whole must have the courage to reexamine present assumptions, methods and programs, and must dare to run the risks of being part of a real and comprehensive program of social action and social change.

I’m not talking about making prisons “better” by implementing piecemeal, isolated, and peripheral programs that neither help returning citizens nor dismantle structures and construct new ones designed to enable communities to service themselves. The goal cannot be to make prisons so-called better because prisons are a perverse form of social organization—there is no making that better. Even imprisonment for a short period of time causes intrusive memories, intense psychological distress, and physiological reactivity. Nothing short of a concerted and massive attack on caging people for part or all of their lives will suffice if anything more than daubing or a displacement of the deep torment and anguish of the total prison predicament is to be achieved.

Starting out, 80% of federal and state prisons should be closed and converted into rehabilitation facilities with daily involvement in restorative and transformative justice programs; fund the training and expansion of community based addiction and mental health programs staffed by residents of the community; and a large group of citizens from communities most affected by prisons, both youth and adults, need to be organized. Otherwise, these vast and wide-ranging programs would be amount to a benevolence from outside the community, vulnerable to control and abuse, and tending to encourage further dependency.

I do not mean to imply in any way that the needs of those harmed are not important or a secondary consideration. Listening to the stories of those that have been harmed, acknowledging and understanding the nature of their harm experiences, and fully grasping the evolution of their processes of healing should always be society’s central concern. But healing cannot be accomplished by focusing on the victim and harming the offender.

Both victim and offender need to experience acknowledgement, voice, participation, and support services in order to live a healthy life that has experienced trauma, but not be defined by it. And if society’s institutional structures provide support for one and not the other by fostering and legalizing conditions that sanction and perpetuate harm, then societies need our support with restorative and transformative reconstruction.

In such a context it makes sense that the response to harm should not be more harm. This means holding people accountable for their actions, but it also means holding ourselves accountable to stop the cycle of harm and trauma which has become an integral part of the American justice system.

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