People in our society often talk about a positive self-image. They say this is most important for mental health. In prison, however, everything militates against a positive self-identity, and I mean everything. Twice a year I dedicated a portion of every class to read this essay out loud. Sadly, I’m no longer allowed in prison to do that. The essay:
You are Somebody
Let’s get something straight: You are somebody.
Everything in your present life militates against you believing that you are somebody. From the moment of your arrest to the moment of your final release, the system tells you that you are less than a human being.
You hands are cuffed and you are put in a cage to ride to the police station. You will overhear officers referring to you as ‘scum bag,’ ‘ass hole’ and worse. Your possessions and your clothes will be taken from you and you will be given a number. From now on the passive voice will be used to refer to you. You will no longer initiate action on your own. “He was arrested, he was sentenced, he was moved, he was given prison clothes.”
You are given an institutional personage and clothing to match. You are told the rules. You must comply. You must fit in. You must become an institutional man. Your daily schedule will be determined by the authorities, when you eat, when you sleep, even when you piss.
Slowly you lose your identity, the things that make you an individual. You become a case, someone to be treated by prison social workers and shrinks. You will be defined as a sociopath. You’re sick. You will be told to be caring in an institution that doesn’t care for you. You will be taught alternatives to violence by people who have used high levels of violence to keep you there. You will learn a new rule, that your keepers are always right and you are always wrong. You will be expected to bottle up all your normal sexual desires. Most likely your wife will divorce you and your kids will disown you. The quicker you lose your identity and become a slave of the state, the sooner you will get out of prison.
Whenever I go into prison to teach my class, I hear the public address system call for Inmate Jones to go to the infirmary, or Inmate Smith to report to the social worker. In what other institution are people referred to like that? Do we say Student Jones or Patient Jones?
You read the report the caseworker does on you. You don’t even recognize the person on the paper. He’s some evil dude. He’s not you. But the report stays there and the same old tired things keep being said about you, as if there were no hope for change.
Study the walls around you. Put your hand on them. What do they tell you about who you are? You are an animal that must be caged.
No doubt you will be raped. Many inmates are. You will lose this last bit of control over your body.
Study your function in society. You exist so I will feel better about me. Let’s say I have a real nothing of a job. My boss yells at me, my wife and my kids don’t respect me, but one thing I can say – I’m better than those bums in prison.
And you are entertainment. We get to hear the racy details of your crime every night on the TV and then we see you pleading with the judge and then – what a show – you are dragged off to prison. We feel safe knowing that you’re locked up. Alleluia. Evil is in jail.
Television programs like Oz contribute to the negative image of prisoners. You are portrayed as animals who have no morals. These programs like to say ‘they tell it like it is.’ But that’s exactly what they don’t do. They show only the evil side of people and seldom the good.
Prison, which is supposed to make you into a new and better person, has destroyed you. Perhaps Oscar Wilde says it best:
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison air:
It is only what is good in man
That wastes and withers there
I call for a revolution and this revolution starts in the human heart. Make no mistake, all change starts in the human heart. Don’t say, “They should do this or they should do that to reform the system.” Don’t say, “It’s the system or the warden or the guards.” It’s you. You have to re-educate yourself.
You are somebody, to quote Jesse Jackson. Let’s look at it from several angles. Who are you? It sounds corny, but maybe you should sit down and write one affirming sentence about yourself every day, e.g. I am somebody.
From an evolutionary point of view, you are another example of the greatest thing going. You are a human being. You are the results of thousands of years of evolution. You have a fantastically complex brain. Given half a chance, you can master complex sciences or paint a new Mona Lisa or write a great novel.
Say it to yourself: I am somebody. Write it on a piece of paper: I am somebody.
People love you. You are an object of love. People care what happens to you. You ARE lovable. You have certain characteristics that are great, things we all strive for. Make a list of those characteristics. Really. Sit down and write out your good points. Your list should have at least 25 items on it. While some may laugh at this technique as self-help inanity, I believe it is necessary, because the prison system has so thoroughly brainwashed convicts the other way.
I am able to think my way through problems
I have a good sense of humor. People laugh at my jokes.
I have loved a woman. Love is always a good thing.
I am interested in …. Being interested in something is great.
And so forth
Read the universal declaration of human rights from the UN. Read each article carefully and then rewrite the article putting your own name in the article. Here are a few of the articles:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Write: I am a human being. I was born free. I am equal to all others in dignity and rights. I have been endowed with reason and conscience. I should act towards others in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Write: I have the right to life, liberty and security of person.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Write: I should not be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Write: I have a right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Every organized system of belief teaches that you are special. Christianity says that God sent his only son to save you, you the filthy criminal that people said should rot in hell. Jesus said that what people did to the least of the brethren, they did to him. In the view of our society there is nobody more least than you.
Protestants, Catholics and Jews believe that human beings are children of God. God is our loving father/mother. All people are brothers and sisters. My own discipline, the Catholic Church, says that insults to human dignity “… poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.”
Respect for human dignity is at the core of Christianity. Read the Gospel and the Epistles of John.
You were made in the image and likeness of God. Stand up and stand up tall. Did you get that? The image and likeness of God? You, prisoner number 108392.
Of course our society doesn’t believe this. If we did, we wouldn’t treat prisoners the way we do. But as they say, Christianity is a great religion, except that it’s never really been tried.
Islam says that Allah created all that is on Earth and in the Heavens for man. Man sits high above all. For his sake Allah sent prophets and messengers, preachers, carriers of glad tidings to lead people to the truth. Allah says: “Indeed, We have honored the children of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favors, above a great part of Our Creation.” (Al-Isra’ 17:70)
Eastern religions talk about the spark of divinity in all of us. Do you really believe that there is a spark of divinity in you? Call God the Great Spirit or Yahweh or Allah or God, there is a spark of him/her in each of us.
Those who construct systems of philosophy all respect human dignity, from Aristotle to Teilhard de Chardin. Just one example would be Wilhelm von Humboldt who had the deepest respect for human nature and who believed that freedom was the proper environment for this human dignity.
Michel Foucault, the French social critic, has interesting observations on the nature of those in prison. He begins his ideas on prison by wondering why prisons are still around, since they are clearly so unsuccessful at preventing crime. “But perhaps one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison.”
Foucault claims that the ruling class uses criminality as a way of preventing revolution. His theory is that the dynamic groups of the lower social class are the ones who commit crimes. The establishment fears these people – they are willing to break the rules. The power elites then brand these people and continue to brand them even after they have finished their sentences. The law-breakers become outcasts and therefore powerless. “..prison has succeeded extremely well…in producing delinquents, in an apparently marginal, but in fact centrally supervised milieu. (Prison has succeeded extremely well)… in producing the delinquent as a pathologized subject.
Up close a particular prisoner might seem to be anything but a dynamic member of society, but stepping back, one sees the point of Foucault’s observations.
Victim talk must cease. You are not a victim. You are a proud man, competent, together. You’re in control of your life. You can do things. In the past things beyond your control may have happened to you, but that’s all over. You’re in charge now.
When you realize that you are somebody, that your life is important, that you have work to do while you are in prison, then drugs become less of a problem. Drugs are a way to pass time in prison. Drugs are a response to a terrible existence. Yes, addiction is one hell of a thing to get over, but you can do it. You are somebody.
With the realization that you are somebody, comes the responsibility of being somebody. Prison officials talk about responsibility only in terms of what you have done in the past. Yes, we are all responsible for our past and we have to do what we can to make amends. But often we are very limited in what we can actually do.
It seems to me that the big responsibility is to yourself and to those around you. As to yourself, use your time in prison to develop yourself, your education, your artistic ability, your ability to earn a living. (Here prisons fail you miserably. They won’t pay for good education for you and they train you for jobs that are already out of date.)
We are all responsible for those around us. No one exists in a vacuum. We influence the men around us and they influence us. You are responsible, like it or not, for men you may consider scum-bags. And even harder news is that you are responsible for the guards and the administration. Like it or not, you are where you are and you are part of the system you are in. Make no mistake – you will be no different when you are free. You don’t give a damn now about those around you – you won’t in the future either. So don’t get mad when the report on you uses the word, anti-social.
Prison is a horror movie. Zombies walk from morning work to count and then to lunch and from lunch to afternoon work and then to count. A human being walks the cement corridors. His head is down, his back bent, his spirit lifeless. He moves not with purpose, but to fill time. He’s doing time. He’s being stored in a human-being warehouse. No, it’s worse than that, his soul is being ripped out of him. He’s in dystopia, the opposite of utopia. He’s a modern day Frankenstein, awaiting the jolting message that he is someone.
You are someone. You are someone. You are someone.
 Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, pt 5, st 5
 Vatican II, The Church and the Modern World, #27
 Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Foucault, Michel, New York: Random House, 1979, page 272.
 Ibid, page 277