Posts Tagged ‘attitude’

It seems to me that I am always criticizing our prison system. But yesterday I had a very positive experience in a local pre-trial center.

I had the privilege of taking a famous writer to this facility. As you probably know, pretrial facilities separate people, so that those who were in a crime together cannot work on their stories. As a result there are many separate sections in pretrial, and they can’t be mixed.

The famous writer did not object to speaking to only two of the six or so units. She was her usual engaging, personal self. Nothing was a problem for her, having her picture taken with the men, moving through all the heavy metal doors, and repeating her talk three times, twice to the men and once to the staff.

Everyone was in a good mood. Was it her charm? Was it the fact of having a NYTimes best seller visit them? Was it that I only saw a small segment of the staff and of the inmates?

Whatever, the morning was filled with laughter and good cheer. There are staff who are human beings and inmates who know how to get along with staff.

It was a lesson for a critical person like me.

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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[1]

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:

Article 1.

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.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Write: I have the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5.

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.

Article 20.

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4]

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.

[1] Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, pt 5, st 5

[2] Vatican II, The Church and the Modern World, #27

[3] Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Foucault, Michel, New York: Random House, 1979, page 272.

[4] Ibid, page 277

Some good news from a man who’s written for this blog several times.

It wasn’t so very long ago that I found myself sitting outside of the federal institution that I had just spent some quality time in.

Sitting out there waiting for my ride to come and drive me to the halfway house I had some time to reflect on the journey that had brought me to the bench just outside the prison on a sunny Monday morning in June. The bench was reminiscent of a bus stop and I was sitting there waiting for a ride because I didn’t want an escort from my former keepers and instead asked a community volunteer to give me a ride.

The view from outside was actually kind of weird, probably due to the nine years that I had spent inside of various provincial and federal institutions as part of my journey to that bench. I had the vague sense of foreboding, like the rover truck would come speeding up and stormtroopers from inside would come streaming out of the gate saying that the parole board had made a mistake and that I would be returning to my cell.

Since I had received the decision on Thursday of the week before I still didn’t really believe that it was going to happen. Seriously, why would they let me walk out the door.

What got me to that place in the sun was a lot of hard work and a final willingness to accept that I needed to do something different. I had spent years railing against the system to no avail and, in the end, it was my reaching out to community volunteers and asking for help that paved the road to happy destiny for me.

For me it was interacting with many volunteers that made me feel like I could be part of the community and for that I will be eternally grateful. It was also the hard work of an IPO (institutional parole officer) that made it all possible for me to be liberated from the confines of my surroundings.

I’m not saying that the system is perfect, it most definitely is not (especially under the conservative government), but I now understand that rehabilitation is an individual thing and that prisoners need to take responsibility for their past and for their future.

It would, of course, be easier if there were opportunities for vocational programming and if the CSC(the prison administration) or community parole took some initiative and worked with employers in the community to find employment opportunities for those who were honestly doing the work to better themselves.

The CSC has become more punitive in nature in recent years and as a result there is more resentment building up inside the institutions. I’m not looking for some utopian vision of the prison system, just something that would be more progressive for those who are looking to make a change and, perhaps, don’t know where to start or who to turn to.

All I can say is that I finally figured it out and if I can figure it out and get parole with my record maybe there is hope for our flawed system after all.

Let’s assume for a moment that prison staff are there to rehabilitate people. And assume that a staff goal is to prepare inmates to lead normal lives in society.

Currently there are several steps in the right direction. However, my experience over twenty years is that the small steps forward don’t seem to last long.

One prison had some sympathy for lifers, mainly those with a life sentence for murder. Off the main hallway, a ten by twenty room sat abandoned except for a sink, an old stove, and a freezer. The lifers’ group asked admin if they could buy their own food and have a meal there once a week.

The warden approved, and soon the freezer was filled with steaks, roasts and ribs.

I watched the men prepare for this…it could only be called a banquet, a royal banquet. Guys who gave the finger to jailhouse jobs worked hard testing recipes and finding real silverware (or making it).

The meal went off without a hitch, that meal and others for over a year. The room got to be called, “The Lifer’s Kitchen.” People tried to up their crime classification so they could join the group.

Of course, like most good things prison does, it died a year later. “What will people think, the convicts are eating T bone steaks?”

In Canada, to give the system credit, minimum security prisoners live in four to six man cottages, and each man gets $35 a week to buy his own groceries.

Several other great self-management programs had similar histories – inmates beg for permission, finally get it, the program is very successful and helps people rehabilitate, and then admin kills it because some in the public object.

Some cases are:

The men developed an empty field into a small golf course for their own use. “Those damn convicts are hanging around playing golf. And we pay for it.” Now community people use the golf course, but inmates can’t.

A tattoo parlor. Inmates decorate an old room in the prison with tattoo posters, and they get an old record player to play anything but elevator music. The warden likes this idea, because only clean needles will be used. Hep C and HIV are practically eliminated. Then, “those damn convicts are getting free tattoos.”

Men and women prisoners ask to grow their own veggies. (Somebody send me a recent example of this in an American prison, but I lost it). Everything is fine – prisons include a lot of land. Then a new security chief is hired and he thinks the garden is a security leak.

Inmates cannot have the internet. But the security chief could set up an “Internal Net” where the prison would put ‘on line’ several informative pages about a whole variety of subjects. This gave the inmates a feel for what the real Internet was like.

Good idea, don’t you think? The idea was vetoed before it got off the ground. Prison officials are deathly afraid of the computers and the Internet.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a story like this – an idea that almost got off the ground, but died at the beginning?

 

“We will decide what programs you need. Take the programs, work at them, and you will get out sooner.”  (Case Worker).

“Don’t become friends with these inmates. Don’t talk about your personal life. Besides they will use that information to threaten you or hurt you. If they reach out to you, tell them to see the shrink. (Supervisor of programs)

“Theatre, no, we can’t do that here. It’s not therapeutic. Music, painting, and writing, the same. We’re here to do some serious rehab work on you.” (Program facilitator.)

“Your day will be regulated here. Everything is on the clock. We’re preparing you for life on the outside.” (Top director of guards.)

“Do what you’re told. Respect the staff. They’re trying to help you. Don’t talk back, you will just be reported.” (Assistant warden)

  •  Is this an atmosphere for rehabilitation?

Call him Conrad. When a man is sentenced to more than two years, the next place he goes is to an assessment centre. When Conrad got here, he told the officials he wanted to go to a high security place where he heard there was a writing program.

“But your security rating is better than that. You go to an easier prison.”

words“No,” Conrad said, “I want to learn how to write.”

So one day in August, 2008 Conrad showed up in my creative writing class. The guy was amazing, one of those students that you explain a few things to and off they go. They develop their own style and glory in it. Conrad wrote about his first nation’s culture and then moved down the map to the swamps of Louisiana and wrote about swamp people in their dialect. I have no idea how he learned that dialect in a prison where the Internet is denied.

Everyone in the class liked his work. I knew he had a future in writing if he pursued it.

A problem arose. He had some outstanding charges that he had to face so he asked to be transferred to a remand centre so he could make appearances in court.

First he went to a local remand centre, where I tried to visit him in a private area.

“Are you his lawyer or minister?”

“No, I’m his creative writing teacher.”

“Line up with everybody else.”

So we visited through a hard plastic window, with a small space below where a metal screen let sound through. Each visitor had such a window with only a small divider separating us. I often had to almost yell to be heard.

But Conrad was doing fine. He played a mean game of handball and had read most of the Aztec books.

His trial on the outstanding charges was to be in the interior of the province, so he was transferred to another remand closer to his trial. There he waited for well over a year. But Conrad didn’t just sit and wait. He organized a writing class for the men, similar to the one I had established. He discovered that there was no release plan for prisoners, no discussion of that all important question – “What are you going to do on the day you get out of jail?”

Many men left remand, sometimes even after years there. Maybe the crown decided not to prosecute because a key witness had died. There were many reasons, but the system had no plan in place to help a man on that first day out.

Conrad developed one for the men, independent of staff, with the exception of the chaplain.

Finally, in early 2010 he came to trial. His charges were serious, so I tried to get some letters of support for him. The chaplain in the remand had emailed me praising Conrad for his work, his attitude and his realization of how his crime had hurt people. The crime was drug dealingdrug dealing (not using). At the end, the chaplain mentioned that since he was an employee of the prison system, he couldn’t let the court know these things. So I incorporated his comments in my letter to the judge.

The trial revealed that he was NOT the big time drug dealer that the crown tried to imply, but rather a very small time dealer. The judge sentenced him – I think it was a few more years beyond the three he’d already spent in jail.

Then a most unusual thing happened. The police took him – not to a prison, but to a halfway house near his home. He couldn’t believe his luck. Over the next month he found a job, reestablished ties with his family and connected with an old girlfriend. The two of them decided they would marry.

The manager of the halfway house reported to the prison system that Conrad was doing great – not a single infraction of the rules. But the warden of a nearby prison got word of this unusual treatment and decided that Conrad belonged in prison. After all, another inmate always helped the prison’s numbers.

That night when Conrad returned from work, the manager of the halfway house was waiting for him. “I’m sorry, Conrad, you have to go back to prison.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. The warden didn’t tell me.”

“When?”

“Right now. The prison has sent two guards to pick you up. They should be here any moment.”

“Can I call my girlfriend and my mother?”

“Look. They’re here now.”

So at the end of his working day, after a month of a perfect record, Conrad was hauled back to prison.

The next day was my day to teach. The minute I walked in, the guys told me about Conrad. “Where is he?” I asked.

“In seg.” (segregation)

I went to the guard’s office and to a correctional manager and said he was supposed to be in class. A few papers shuffled and he was released to go with me to class. As we walked, he told me what happened. I was livid, angry, boiling mad at the warden and the whole system, but Conrad told me to calm down.

“We’ll work it out,” he said, and that was Conrad.

I went to a woman in the system that I thought would help. “He won’t be here long,” she told me. I assumed that meant a few weeks.

Conrad came to class every week. He proposed to me that we invite staff to come to a class. He didn’t like the “us and them” attitude among the guys, and he knew I had the same attitude. I was mad at what they had done to him in particular.

“Go ahead,” I said, “you can ask, but they won’t come.”

They came – at least five or six of them.

Conrad was as smooth as silk. He believed that the medicine went down better ‘with a spoonful of sugar.’ I admired the man for that.sugar

The next time Conrad got out of prison was a year and a half later. I contact him now and then and he’s doing well on the outside.

Images courtesy of:

  • drpinna.com
  • healthyeatingforfamilies.com

An Act of Courage

Posted: January 28, 2012 by Ed Griffin in Prison
Tags: , , , , ,

In a local prison there was an inmate who couldn’t hear and couldn’t speak. He made funny sounds with his mouth and he was always ling. The other inmates accepted him and helped him, as they seem to do with anyone who is out of the ordinary. This is contrary to the impression the public has of inmates.

One day this man was at the end of the line at the chow hall. Behind him a group of guards started mocking him,

chow line

chow line

making strange sounds, smiling, and contorting their bodies in strange ways.

Another inmate approached the line from the opposite direction and saw what was happening. He didn’t say anything to the guards – he just kept walking. When he got back to his cell, he thought about what he had seen. It wasn’t right. So he decided to report it to the shift supervisor. This guard took the information, a smirk on his face, and said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll look into it.”

Of course, nothing happened and the inmate saw it happen again. He reported to the next level of supervision and this is what he was told: “Look, fella, if you’re smart, you’ll just shut up. Keep pushing this and every guard here will give you a bad time. Take it easy and just do your time.”

And the higher supervisor had the same smirk on his face.

snirkThe public seldom gets into a prison to see what goes on there, but watch reality jail or cop shows on TV, and you’ll see the smirk.

Images courtesy of:

  • flickr.com
  • kra.deviantart.com