The Concrete Conundrum
By: Jay Miller #[ID]
How or where do I begin to describe or even scratch the surface of what it's like living in a tiny concrete box year after year? Prison is much like any other unfathomable experience. It is impossible to fully describe with simple words all the complex and raw emotional surrealism that goes on behind bars. It is something that must be truly experienced in order to fully understand the magnitude of incarceration. Since most of my readers have never been incarcerated, nor wish to be incarcerated anytime soon, I will do my best to give you all a brief and basic glimpse into my world: The Shackled Wonderland where the men are often colder than the iron bars that house them through the passing winters.
So where do I begin? I will start by congratulating you, dear reader, on being foreign to this concrete world. A pat on the back to you my friend for never stepping foot inside a prison cell. For you, following the law isn't even a problem; it is simply a natural and unconscious act, some sort of ethically inherent moral compass that was instilled in you at birth and reinforced through childhood. For most people, in general, doing right and acting legally responsible seems to be programmed in them automatically. But for guys like me, a convict and a life-long criminal, I've had to seriously work hard at learning and instilling the morals and ethics that come so naturally to the rest of the world. Because for some unknown reason the magnetic north of my moral compass has until recently only pointed toward my sociopathic self.
Of course, after spending four years in prison and some very serious reflection, meditation, contemplation, and gradual maturation, I am finally finding my ethical self on equal footing with the rest of the general population. But Kudos to you my friend for never having to walk through a blazing fire in order to understand the concept of "Hot".
I must admit that I myself am an oddity amongst the general prison population. Sadly, a good majority of the inmates around me could care less about personal reformation. I wish that I could write and shout that prison is an undeserving Hell-hole and that the men in here could change with a little love and counseling. But that is not the case at all. The truth is that a good chunk of the prison population has no desire or intent to change at all. I do not believe they are beyond redemption, but they are so far down the rabbit hole and have been in the dark so long that they've completely lost their sight. It is as if there is almost something natural about the criminal nature that is instilled deep within them. I am speaking from both subjective personal experience and objective observational experience.
Many inmates have a reflexive repulsion to ethical standards; much like a man who has lived in the dark would suffer an instant repulsion to the light. I am sure there is some complex socio-cultural-genetic factors at play that causes a man to develop ethical allergies, but I'll leave that discussion for another day. So I will leave it at this: Prison is needed. Does it need changed? Sure. We need to figure out how to properly treat and hopefully cure this degenerate moral disease called "Criminality". The current prison system does nothing but house societies rabid and stray dogs. A cage may relieve society of its unwanted pests but it does nothing to treat the underlying problem. Relief should only be sought as a step toward finding a solution and not confused as the solution itself. I will not argue the merits against prison because the truth is that society needs a place to keep the wild things at bay; and yes, I am and was one of those men.
I was once a menace to the world around me. My selfishness had no limits. I had a complete disregard for all rules whatsoever. I did what I wanted, when I wanted, no matter the cost. What I wanted was drugs. Addiction ruled my life and feeding this ever hungry monster was the sole purpose of my existence. So what I needed was money, which meant I was willing to do whatever I needed in order to obtain money fast and easily. As we all know, that is where the crime comes in.
So when I speak of moral degeneration, I am not some outsider looking in. I have fully experienced this disease; I have burglarized businesses, sold drugs, fought enemies, and committed almost every crime in the book. Aside from sex crimes, and I hate to sound prejudice, but those men are dealing with something completely different than the typical criminal mindset that I'm addressing in this essay.
There isn't an easy answer or simple solution to criminality. What I do know personally is that I have changed and continue to change because it is a choice that I have made and continue to make. Not because some program or class that should be, but is not, taught to inmates in prison. Prison has done one thing and in fact it only does one thing: It locks a bunch of men in a box and places them in a world where violence and criminality are the accepted social "Norms".
How can you expect a man to change his behavior when everybody in his immediate vicinity is accepting and mimicking the very behavior you're asking him to change? Peer pressure and group thinking often breed collective and personal similarities between members of the group. I once heard my friend say "If you want to find out what kind of man he is, look at the people he surrounds himself with". We are all familiar with the expression "Birds of a feather flock together" blah blah blah. I do not have a doctorate in Social Psychology, but I'm pretty sure "Like begets Like".
If the very definition of ethics is the accepted and collective moral norms of a group then a prisoner will find his morals ethically accepted in prison. If everybody around me has the same moral views as me then it will only reinforce my own views. A.K.A, if everybody around me thinks it's o.k to sell drugs then it must be o.k. to sell drugs.
When I was a child, my aunt used to live way out in the country. She had a bunch of chickens but only one duck. We all used to think it was so funny how this duck acted like a chicken. It used to quack with the roosters at sunrise and walk around pecking food with the chickens. In its mind it probably was a chicken. Why? Because it was surrounded by freaking chickens instead of ducks. If you want to turn a criminal into a productive citizen, then we should probably start by finding a way for him to interact with some good people so that he can slowly start to mimick the behavior of other productive citizens. Because in prison, our environmental and accepted social norms are much, much different than society's ethical standards.
Prison is a cesspool of stagnating and ever rotting criminal ideologies. This makes it very hard and very rare for the men who contemplate change to actually follow through with it because in the prison world it would make them a duck amongst the chickens. For every inmate who is truly trying to evolve their character, there is another twenty calling him a blasphemous traitor.
But, not all hope is lost. There are some truly good men in prison, men who are willing to do whatever it takes to exorcise and rip the demons out of their thinking process. I seem to be the oddity in that I began to change the very moment the judge sentenced me to serve 17 years in the Department of Corrections. It was at that point in time I realized just how much I had been wasting my life pursuing a vain and selfish lifestyle. It was the magnitude of the sentence that carried enough force to finally hammer in the nail. From my experience it is actually the men with long sentences or who have served long periods of time generally tend to have reformed the most. After 8-20 years, most men are no longer the same man that committed the crime that put them in prison. This is of course not a "One size fits all" philosophy. It is a purely case by case observation that I've noticed during my incarceration. Usually, the most laid back and moral inmates are the ones with longer sentences and time under their belt.
Twenty years ago I was six years old. Am I that same little boy who received a spanking for sneaking ice cream out of the freezer? I no longer look like my six year old self. I talk different; I think different; I enjoy different things. In fact, I can't even fathom why or how I used to like watching "Barnie" on the television. I don't think a person could pay me to watch that show today. So the question is at what point did I change enough that I was no longer that 6 year old boy? I am both him and not him anymore. How much time, or how much change is required for a man to no longer be held responsible for the actions of his 6 year old self?
I ask this question because I know men who were arrested before their twenties and have lived longer in prison than in society. They are not those 6 year old boys anymore. Truly my heart aches for these men, the men who have reformed but have another twenty years left to serve. It is odd seeing a man of great character, compassionate, loving, and kind continue to be held responsible for the actions of his lost and still maturing 18 year old. Especially when he shed that skin twenty years ago. From my experience these are the men that I've seen truly change and deserve a chance at freedom the most, or at least a gradual subsidized form of freedom so that they can slowly prove their change to the world.
Of course, not all men change for the better. Long amounts of time spent locked in a cell can do some pretty strange things to the psyche. It is always easy to tell the short-timers apart from the long-timers. By long-timers I mean inmates who have been incarcerated 15 plus years. A lot of long-timers start to develop odd thinking patterns and behaviors. Many of them have a "Slightly off" feel which is hard to describe. It is especially noticeable in their social interactions. When you talk to them some seem to never make eye contact and others seem to never break it. Body language is often overly exaggerated and subtly aggressive or completely mute. Although slang is heavily used in prison, my conversation with long-timers often feels a bit off as if we are never quite connecting on the same wave. Like some sort of social static is getting between us. The conversational format is different, their choice in words seem asque, and they either pause too long or not long enough between their responses. But generally it is their responses, the logic behind their choice of words that always seem to feel odd. Although I have yet to figure out exactly what causes this conversational strangeness, I am convinced that there is definitely a social and psychological change that has developed in them throughout the years of their incarceration.
When I meet other inmates who have gone completely crazy, I often wonder if prison is the cause of their insanity. Did prison induced their mental-illness, or was it the illness that brought them to prison? Either way, there is a correlation between the two and the prison environment probably isn't the best treatment for their disease. There is very little therapy going on behind bars and a whole lot of pharmaceutical prescriptions being given out. Why teach a man to think when you can chemically force him not to? Environmentally oblivious zombies that shuffle around too drugged to break the rules is quite common in here. But as long as the average American continues to demonize prisoners as a whole and continue to look the other way, focusing on their delusional heaven with their backs turned to hell, ignoring the screams and the suffering of those burning just behind them, the prison system will never change.
So what's the point of this essay? I have none. What are my answers to mass incarceration? Awareness of the broken system. The humanizing of society's lost sheeps and the compassion to seek new treatments and new ways to rehabilitate the decadent. Although it is a lovely idea to think that all monsters need is a hug, let us not forget that there will always be some men and women who are truly deserving of a life of incarceration. In this respect, society should practice discretion and never lose sight of practical wisdom. I am not trying to argue against the necessity of prisons; I am simply asking America to re-evaluate their approach to crime and reformation. Maybe there isn't a better way than this, perhaps mass incarceration is the best solution. But maybe it isn't. We will never know unless we try other alternatives. There may be a better way out there, buried beneath the dirt: A golden treasure trove of solutions just waiting to be found. However, we will never know unless we dig.
I doubt that the prison system will change during my stay. Change is such a slow and gradual thing. So I write these words for the men to come, in hopes that they will find their incarceration to be a place of reformation and not the rotting world in which I live. I write for them and those that could bring about the change. I also write for myself simply out of boredom. I am locked in a cell 21 hours a day. This essay is just another way for me to pass the time. Everyday I embark on a quest to find a way to make the hours move a little faster.
It is true that a man can find peace in prison; he can find happiness; and he can find intellectual enlightenment, but the seekers are few and far between. He is far more likely to find black eyes and gang politics instead of remorse and rehabilitation. It is a shame that our legal system does not pay attention to individuals on a case by case basis. There are some men in here who will never get out, men who have spent decades working on their character and they truly deserve a second chance. You also have men who are going home tomorrow but need to stay a little longer. Perhaps these systematic flaws can be addressed in the years to come.
You might be wondering where do I, your lovely inmate writer, fall on this scale? Well, I have ten years left to serve. Do I deserve to go home tomorrow? Perhaps not. I was a drug dealer and somebody overdosed on the drugs that I had sold them. Perhaps my 17 year sentence is just. All I can say is that I live with terrible regret. When you are an addict and you live in a world of addicts, you don't think much about the consequences or repercussions of drug use. But, this is not the place for me to tell my story. I just wish that I could give back to the community that I disrespected for so long. There are no programs available for me to serve society, make amends, or try to make things right. All I have is a prison cell and a deep desire to somehow help build the world that I used to break. That is the reason I'm writing this.
No prison official told me about A.P.W.A. I had to diligently search for ways that I could personally make a difference. I do not know who will read this or why you'll read this or even if my ramblings will make a difference in you life. So I will leave you with my final thoughts.
Society needs prison to protect itself from crime and punish criminal behavior. Yet society should also seek out better solutions and treatment to cure this degenerate moral disease. Surely there is a more humane and altruistic, or even holistic approach to addressing the individuals reformation instead of dishing out archaic forms of generalized punishment.
Punishment alone is not enough to fix our broken behaviors. Most inmates need to be psychologically reprogrammed. They need to spend some time on the "other side" of the spectrum surrounded by moral and ethical people that are more than just strangers on the street. They need to be completely submerged in accepted American ethics to the point that they feel their backwards moral beliefs are so far astrange that they feel a real desire to change.
Maybe this isn't the best solution, but something needs to change. Because if we continue to collect and compile our country's "social trash", America will be left with two options: We can either let the trash pile build, sit, rot, and slowly decay; or we can find a proper and more environmentally conscious way of recycling those of us who have wronged our communities.
In my other essay titled "Reformationville" on the A.P.W.A. website, I will be addressing what I believe to be a unique approach to help treat criminality and fix, or at least contribute to fixing, the problem of mass incarceration in American prisons. I am not some expert, politician, professor, or economic guru, I am just another piece of society's trash begging to be recycled. The slow rot of my remorse has done its job and I am ready to make a difference.
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