Life in the “inside”

I was flairless for the first time since I can remember. My arms, ears, and chest naked as I walked behind bars, seeing life from the “inside”. 

My visit was with prisoners at a high-max security prison. All serving 25+ year sentences, but the majority of my time was spent with two men sentenced to life without parole. However, all the men had one thing in common. They were sentenced before the age of 20. All their flair, identity, and freedom were gone before reaching the legal age to drink. 

They live life in the “inside”

And while it’s June, outside, it’s February in the inside. A very specific day, groundhogs day. Every day is on repeat with the same internal movie, a reminder of the worst day of your life. Your entire existence is summarized by a fraction of a fraction of your life. And that is how you “lead.” 

You lead with your worst day.  You lead with only mistakes. Bad ones. Ones that make people take a step back or stand a little straighter. I guess “regular” introductions have no place here. There is no beating around the bush as they sit next to you in their prisoner in uniforms. There is no “so what do you do?” There actually are no questions, as they lead only with declarative clauses, their sentences, which end in a big black period. 

“I’m Dave. I am in for manslaughter. I was 17 years old when I took the life of a thirteen-year-old. I grew up on the streets and everyone has guns. I was given one at 15. When at a movie theater things started to get heated and these boys brought out a gun. So I did too. And shot it, never thinking I would hit someone, but I did, an innocent child in the movie theater. His father called him his “buddy.” I took away his buddy.”  

Dave cries and the next man begins his introduction. Dave does not mention that he is now 52 years old. He holds a bachelor’s and a masters. He also resides on honor block, which makes him a mentor for many people in the “inside.” But these details I only learn later when I ask. 

So what is life like in cages? What is life like when all you know about your future is nothing beyond today? What is life like when you are scheduled to shower with dozens of others 3x a week and showering is your most dangerous activity? Well like everything you have a choice. You have a choice as to how you spend or show up. 

But I would argue that everyone I met showed up broken.

Dave ran away at 13 years old. He actually was not planning on really running away. He ran away to get attention. He wanted his family to notice him. But when no one came to find him…he went to live on the streets. His only family was a gang. By 15 Dave was already in trouble with the police and had possession of 2 guns.

Dave never had a chance.

The mission of the penitentiary system “is to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.”

The goals of our prison system are clear, but I saw no evidence of that mission. For example Dave wants to repay his debt to society, he wants to do good for the bad. He knows that he is not ever leaving prison this he has accepted,  but he has not accepted that he will die in there without making things right in some way. He is not going to die as only a killer. But he has no ability to do repent except in the form of sitting in a cell and being a drain on society and the outside.

And Dave is lucky. At least he is at a prison with self-improvement programs and education access. Half of the prisons have no such access. They claim the programs are too costly, but I think there is more here as I know of several universities who would provide access to their programs free of charge. But that would require internet, which is banned even in the educational programs. Keeping our inmates not only uneducated, but also behind in technology, is a recipe for recidivism. They can’t survive in the outside.

One inmate who was serving their second sentence recalled how scary it was on the outside when he got out last time. He recalls seeing a digital billboard on the streets and marveling in it. And he could not figure out how to use a smart phone. He felt isolated. He felt like an alien. It was only a matter of months until he returned to the only place he has known.

“Prison is all I can do. It is the only skill I have.”

And he is not alone.

When touring the facility I was amazed by how OLD most of the inmates were and how decrepit their living quarters are. But what amazed me the most was how familiar it. If I took away the bars, I felt oddly at home. It looked just like all of our state institutions, it looked like a middle school hallway!

So I reverted to my normal school visit questions when meeting with the prisoners, and I want to share answers to one of them.

If you were in charge what would be the first thing you would do? Something so obvious that you can’t believe it hasn’t been done. 

I’ve found this question always enlightening or at least entertaining. Answers can range from “No homework” to  “more study halls”  or even ending school completely.

Here is a selection of answers I got from inmates (which just shows you the ABSURDITY of what is going on in there).

  1. I would make communication with the outside a right not a privilege. One inmate spoke about the importance of connections to the outside. Especially considering that their only chance of success if they are freed is support from the outsiders, family and friends as they have little skills. Prisoners can lose their rights to see family members, get mail, etc for as small of an act as talking in the halls. Sometimes family will travel days to see an inmate and be turned away due to a prisoner being late to a line up.
  1. Mandated workshops should happen immediately. All of the prisoners I met were required to take a substance abuse program or tools for aggression program as part of their sentence. However, they are not allowed to access such workshops until 2 years before they are released. What? We throw drug addicts into prison, knowing they are drug addicts, and when they get caught doing drugs in prison (which turns out to be an easy thing to do!) your sentence just gets longer and longer. They are never given a chance to get clean. And if you have spent your life on the streets and know no other coping mechanism except fight or flight (and flight is not an option) you are going to fight. And again…sentences lengthened from conflicts in the yard.
  2. Allow me to contribute and not be a drain!” In federal prisons, inmates are paid min wage, but in state prisons they pay much less. Inmates I spoke to were paid 40 cents an hour. While you can argue that they should make zero money, inmates do need to pay for things. For example to send an email…they pay 63 cents, the same as a written letter. I just don’t understand how it all is legal knowing emails are basically free.

Not once did I hear if I was in charge I would let everyone go. No, they are just asking to be treated in a way that allows them to be functional and productive. 

And don’t get me wrong,  I’m fully aware that these individuals did horrific things. They are too. They live everyday with this fact and have no way to give back or make amends. But meeting these 40+ year old men who have lived 20+ years on bars, the last thing you see is a murderer. Instead you see just humans trying to make meaning. Trying to have value. Trying to have a purpose.

Just like the rest of us.

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