Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sucker Punch Then Haymaker: How Prison De-Humanizes Inmates

N. has shaved his head again. He has also bulked up over the last couple of months. Crude tattoos sprout from his forearms. He walks with more of a swagger, a don't-fuck-with-me cockiness. When he joins the workshop, he first scans the tables to see who else is there. Most often, he loosens up before giving me a nod and smile of recognition. Sometimes, though, he sits outside the circle, back against a wall. 

N. is twenty-two years old, bright, interested -- deeply interested  -- in writing screen plays. He has written a few that he has entered in the Pen Prison Writing Contest. So far, he has not won or placed. He keeps trying though, keeps knocking on the door.

N. is in on drug charges, like many of the other young men in the writing workshop.  He grew up poor in Phoenix, the only son of a single mom. He learned early on to fight, to hold his ground. Raves and the fast life of ecstasy dealing proved too much to resist.

He should, in my view, be in college. If he were at the University of Arizona, he would likely be one of the star students in film or writing courses. He works hard at his craft, taking it far more seriously than even my best university students. He reads well. He devours the books on writing that I bring in.

I know because he cites them when he makes a comment on another man’s work. He is a fine critic, with a good ear. 

I mention N. because he is a case study in what is lost when a country locks up too many of its men and women. He has become invisible to the “free world.” He is losing something of himself that he may never again recover. He wages a losing battle to feed the fires of humanity that burn strong in him. I ask myself how one might feed that humanity. What would it take to keep the burning, to add fuel to the flame? All I can offer is language and its ability to express some human truth, to ask a shared human question. I can bring in words and ideas that may or may not be enough to offset the soul hungry maw of prison. He needs dignity, fire to create, a chance.  He is hanging by a thread, a thread of what he believes as humanly possible. What is "humanly possible" rests on what he imagines as "human," and what is human is composed in his experience, his imagination, and what he sees in books, film, music, and the storm of discourse that is language. Language holds the key to what he will imagine as possible.  

He is one of over two million and counting of Americans who are locked up, which is more than any country on Earth. We are champion incarcerators. But it's killing us, even if we don't know it, especially because we don't know it. 

Money from education has decreased about as much as funding for prisons has increased. Incarceration cost more that drug treatment, and is far less effective. Prison serves to perpetuate poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and organized crime. It makes our nation a less desirable place to live. 

Prison, in this man's America, strives to punish rather than rehabilitate, crush rather than foster, reduce to the lowest common denominator rather than enlarge an offender's humanity. This punish and let-them-rot mission of mass incarceration produces monsters rather than fully functioning human beings. The system operates with clinical, if not fully thought through, efficiency.

Prisons exacerbate chronic social ills; they fan the flames of racism, reinforce a toxic form of masculinity, perpetuate cycles of poverty and violence, deprive inmates of contact with nature, and actually strengthen organized crime by letting gangs run the show on the yard. Education programs have been eliminated; vocational opportunities have disappeared. The prison complex in Tucson used to grow much of its own vegetables in a large garden that is now barren, scraped dust. 

Prison culture is racist, misogynistic, ultra macho. Prison populations are the throw-aways of society: the poor, the people of color, the under-educated, the marginalized, desperate, and mentally ill. The message of prison is one of despair more often than hope.  

But the greatest damage prisons exact on the men and women unfortunate enough to end up there is that it deprives them of voice, removes them from the horizon of social visibility. They become forgotten ghosts to all but those who make the trip to visit or volunteer.

N. is trying. He wants to write. He wants to find his voice. He wants to learn. He wants to be heard, to be seen, to find out who he might become, given half a chance. 

His work is good, and he has published some poems, stories, and essays. He has explored how his identity as a man is tied to combat; he wrote an extended essay about his father that was published in the prison workshop literary magazine. That might give him some confidence, open a door to another possibility. His learning to express his struggles, his gaining a awareness of the forces aligned against him might provide a larger world of possibility. Reading and writing can illuminate and expand his horizons beyond the perimeter of razor wire. If he accepts prison life as all there is, he is doomed.

Odds aren't good, but he is young enough to learn to dodge a punch, absorb a blow or two, especially if has vision to see what's coming. 

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