Identity #2

Posted: January 22, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Continuing our look at identity – prison rips the identity out of people.

fingerprintWhenever I go into prison to teach my class, I hear the public address system call for Inmate Smith 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 Smith or Patient Smith?

In a maximum-security facility, I wanted to return my ten students to their unit. I called control. “I have ten men to return to Unit D,” I said.

Silence. “You mean ten inmates?”

“No. Ten men.” This was a pre-trial facility, so everyone there was supposed to be presumed innocent.

Silence. “Ten inmates.” The tone was angry.

Two of the guys had to go to the bathroom and there was no washroom where we held class.

Finally I said, “Ten… to return to Unit D.”

There was a long silence and then the door clicked open.

Constantly being called an Inmate gets to a person.

Reports on a person do as much damage. The man reads the report the caseworker does on him.  He doesn’t even recognize the person on the paper. He’s some evil dude. He’s not himself.  But the report stays there and the same old tired things keep being said, as if there were no hope for change. A very creative, interesting man gave me his whole file to read. I couldn’t believe it – not one positive word about him.

An inmate studies the walls around him.  He puts his hand on them.  What do they tell him about who he is? He’s an prison cellanimal that must be caged.

No doubt he will be raped.  Many inmates are. He will lose this last bit of control over his body.

Study an inmate’s function in society.  He exists 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 he is entertainment. We get to hear the racy details of his crime every night on TV, and then we see him pleading with the judge, and then – what a show – he is dragged off to prison.  We feel safe knowing that he’s locked up. Alleluia. Evil is in jail.

Television programs like Oz contribute to the negative image of prisoners. Inmates 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 a man into a new and better person, has destroyed him. 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

Do you think our prisons should build a new positive identity or tear down what’s there?

Images courtesy of:

  • fineartamerica.com
  • en.wikipedia.org
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