The Lost Boys of Prisontonia
In the story of Peter pan, it is the isolated children who band together to create their own society complete with it's own unique culture and ethics. In the United States it is our isolated prison population who have done the same, Becoming the
Lost Boys of the 21st century.The immaturity and confusion of their undeveloped morals makes them the dacadent children of
American Ethics. And like the children in the story, They too have been ripped away from society, abducted by the pirate ship of the Criminal Justice system, and dumped in a world where reality is but the fog of a distant memory. But in this world, this warpped and twisted Neverland, the Lost Boys find shackles instead of flight; their dreams and imaginations smothered beneath the weight of a single bad decision.
Like any community, their isolation has bred a culture of its own making: A tribalsociety chalked full of its own rules and regulations. They've developed their own beliefs,;their own code of ethics, their own Taboo's, language, and even a unique commissary based economy. Prison has given birth to Prisontonia:
A new and unique culture born and bred on American soil. Like the indigenious Native Americans, Prisontonia may be one of the few cultures to ever originate on this chunk of land. Prisontonia, like the fantasy world of Neverland, also seems to somehow defy the Laws of time. lnsead of children never growing old, it is the criminals who remain unchanged. They are stuck in a mental time warp, frozen as they watch time stand by behind the bars and the years pass by outside the walls. This is Prisontonia.
When it comes to discussing ideas on prison reform it would be beneficial to keep the idea of "Prison Culture" in mind. By doing so we can then view releasing insitutionalized inmates back into society as a sociological cultral assimilation project. Which is somehting we have historically dealt with in the past. Sewing paroled prisoners back into the fabric of society isn’t a new problem, It is an old problem resurfaced in a new way.
After spending years behind bars, at what point does the incarcerated American prisoner begin to adapt and assimilate into this new Prisontonian into which he has been submerged? How long does it take little Johnny, recently thrown into Neverland, to become known as "Tomahawk" to the Lost Boys? How long until he aligns his values and his beliefs to match the masses around him?
At what point does the American outcast after being rejected by his society find acceptance in his new Prisontoian home? How do we stop this adaptation; How do we keep Americans from becoming
Prisontonians and how do we convert Prisontonians safety back into the Ameican culture?
As a Prisontonian who must migrate and assimilate myself back into America, it is my hope that my words can help citizens, activists, and legislatures View mass incarceration from as many angles as possible. Sometimes changing our perception of a problem is all it takes to find new ways to solve it. By viewing institutionalization and recidivism rates of inmates through the eyes of culture assimilation then we can use our history and experience with this problem as a place to start.
So what we have then, in theory, is one morally advanced culture (American society) who is trying to assimilate people from a lesser, ethicly primitive, and savage culture
(prisontonians) into the fabric of its society. Luckily we do not have to tackle this task blindly. Our history books are full of present the Do's and Dont's, the good and bad, and all the trials and errors of cultural conversion. The westernization of Native
Americans, the Manifest Destiny, and the instant abolishment of slavery all have wisdom to donate on our current problem of mass incarceration. All we have to do is squint a little to see the similarities between lost parolees findinf freedom in a felon prejudice world to that of slaves finding freedom and all the Jim
Crow laws that awaited them.
There are obvious things we do today that we know from expeience are terrible ideas. There are also things we want to try, new ideas, and new approaches to the problem, but we are just to afraid to try. The single greatest approach to prison reform is having the courage to set aside our fear of change and try as many new things as we can in order to find solutions.
Experiment. It is only through the dirty hands on process of trial and error will we ever make any advancement. Before the creation and acceptance of the scientific theory, our scientist were really just philosophers talking about grand ideas without ever having experimented or proven a thing. Which is exactly what we have reverted back to as we try to figure out the problems that plague our justice system.
Our politicians and legislatures are just philosophers bickering about the problem and its solutions. But what justice reform really needs is a scientist willing to experiment and test all these grand hypothesis and ideas. Find the methods that work and throw out the ones that don't. The greatest enemy of our society is the stagnant acceptance, born from the fires of fear that our way of doing things is "Good enough." If this essay inspires 106 men and women, yet not a single one of them acts upon that inspiration then I have failed as a writer. Through cirmustance, all I can be is a philosopher. It is the American citizen who must force its legislatures to become bold and fearless pioneers willing to step off the beaten path and explore the realm of possibilities.
So how does cultural assimilation come into play? Why is it important? In my previous essays I wrote for the A.P.W.A. I spoke a lot on the idea of "like begets like." That if you place a criminal in an environment where a degraded moral system and his criminal behavior is the accepted norm, that this acceptance by his peers would only reinforce his beliefs and attitudes. The old saying "If you want to find out what kind of person he is, look at the people he surounds himself with." If you lock a criminal in a room with other criminals don't expect anything less than a criminal when he leaves. Every religion works much in the same way. Our attitudes and beliefs are reinforced when weare around others who act and believe the same things we do.
It is also to be expected that most people, no matter how different they believe, will generally align and change their beliefs to match that of those in their immediate surroundings.
This is called social adaptation. A community adopts to its environment and its members adapt to the community. This collective adaptation and and attitude reinforcement is a huge contibutor to the problems that plague our prison system. In this essay I would like to take this idea one step further, so we can
View this collective adaptation of prisoners as a culture in its own right in order to find new ways to readapt inmates to
Although I won't be discussing the prison culture in depth here,
It is something that should be fully examined and understood by the activists trying to find ways to assimilate them. But I will give the reader a few examples to highlight the differences between the American and the Prisontonian culture because it is important to make this distinction of two seperate bodies of beliefs. While this essay is mostly geared toward toward long- time inmates, institutionalization, and recitivism rates, it is also important to know the impact of dumping first—time offenders, short—timers, and non-violent offenders in this brutal world to which they don't belong. We need to be aware of the culture of the foreign country in which we are forcing our citizens to live.
When I speak of "culture" I am speaking about the totality of the beliefs, customs, ethics, norms, language, and shared practices of a paricular group of people living in a particular geographical location. In this essay when I refer to Prisontonia
I will be refering to the totality of beliefs, ethics, customs, etc. shared by and expeienced by general prison population in
America. I have only experienced one prison in one state but I've watched enough T.V. shows to know all prisoners share the same culture in which I personally live. While every prison may vary from the next, governing itself, and having individual differences, there seems to be a broad cultural umbrella under which every tribe falls. Why does this happen? How does this happen?
For example, most prison cultures tend to share the same basic ideaologies of homophobia, "snitches get stiches" attitudes, and sticking to your own ethnic or racial kind. In society if you see a crime you report it. In prison you keep your mouth shut. In America, segregation and homophobia are socially un—cool. In prison it is expected. You NEVER EVER befriend a homosexual. In fact homophobia is so rampant in male prisoners that not only is it expected, it is enforced. To even speak to a known homosexual could lead to a permanent social ostriziation. Like eating pork in an Isis camp, the breaking of this taboo, along with any of the others, has very real consequences. And these consequences and rules are far different than the typical American ethics.
Much like the Europeans conquering the Native Americans, the
American citizen coming into the prison system will either assimilate quickly to the Prisontonia culture or he will pay the price. And the longer a man is saturated in this new culture the harder it will be for him to re—assimilate and re—adopt the
American culture once he is released. This is in part, the essence of institutionalization. Which ironically defeats the
"Reformative" purpose of our prison system. If you want your kid to be a better basketball player, you don't send him to space camp for 10 years. This absurd idea is the equivelent to deporting our criminals to third world countries and hoping the mere removal of them is enough to correct their behaviors.
On the other hand, for the sake of idea equinimity, I must boldly state that I am not opposed to or arguing against the necessity of incarceration as a form of punishment, justice, and the safety of our citizens. Prison is needed. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; the breaking of laws requires some form of punishment. But punishment alone is an archaic approach.
It lacks any purpose other than to serve as a form of revenge and a crime deterrent that weakly whispers the modern equivalent of leaving the bodies of hanged men to rot in a tree just outside of the town. It is a warning to the law—breaker. The only difference is that we've learned to preserve the symbolic warning of decapitated heads on a spike by keeping the corpse alive. The use of a corpse as deterrent can only last a few months until it rots and dissapears. Taking with it its symbolic message of°done't commit crime?
But a prisoner? They last much, much longer. They get to be flaunted on T.V. shows for years as a symbol against crime. They get to serve the public as an warning signal 100 times longer than a dead man. The American prisoner has become our countries modern day scarecrow, left to hang in a cell and dangled invisibly before the masses. You might not physically see these
Scarecrow inmates but you know they're there. You understand the symbolic warning their incarcerated lives represent.
Luckily, prison was not created to be solely a form of punishment or symbolic crime deterrence. Theoretically”it3isf meant to serve society with the dual purpose of punishment and behavioral corrction. Sadly, it has severly failed and forgotten about half of its intended purpose. The Department of Corrections has now bemcome the Department of Storage. It has become a warehouse of the unwanted, societies human waste basket in which trash is buried instead of recyled.
This essay and the ideas in it are directly focused on prisons paricular task of Reformation. How do we properly assimilate men back into society after living as a Brisontonian for so long?
Transitioning one culture to another. We know simply putting a
Native American in pants and taking away his feathers didn't work. Dressing Indians up as Europeans didn't transform them into the Westernized W.A.S.P. (White—Angelosaxon Protestant). So putting American clothes on a Prisontonian and kicking him out the door after his 10 year sentence probably won't work.
We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the catch, hold, and release method is prone to fail. Take any type of animal out of it's natural habitat, place him in a cage, feed him 3 times a day, then let him sit for 15 years before you release him back into the wild. Upon his release one of two things will happen.
The animal will either fail to re—adapt to its environment and die, or it will instinctively revert back into the same wild animal it was when it was captured. But never will a released bear magically start behaving like a sheep. Isolation will not turn Pandas into Kangaroo's, Parokeets into Piranhas, or criminals into law abiding citezens. It's absurd. Yet we as a country are flabergasted why this method doesn't work with human prisoners. Why do they keep reverting back into their previous self!? Why is the wolf not magically a sheep!?
As a society we ignorantly sit and watch, expecting Hokus
Fokus to defy the very laws of nature. When it doesn't work we act completely stupified that nothing happened. The only magic taking place is the fact that a very few inmates DO actually change, they defy nature, swim up a river in a brutal world, Those men are miracles.
The good news is that America sort of knows how, or at least has an idea how to help change or correct criminal behavior. Even if we are too conservatively scared to apply it. We may not consciously be approaching mass incarceration as cultural immigrants, but we subconsciously know the same rules apply. We know inmates need to be educated, slowly intergrated into society.
They need help embracing and understanding American Morals and
Ethics, and they will need programs that help them lay the foundation of their new lifeas a citizen, not as a criminal, not as a Prisontonian.
How we achieve this task may seem like new territory, but through the lens of history we at least have a place to start.
We've made enough mistakes to know what not to do. We know playing dress up with Native Americans didn't work. We know the instntaneous freedom granted to slaves in a prejudice world had catastophic effects. Lets not keep making these same mistakes.
There are thousands of reformation experiments we as a society need to try. Only throgh trial and error will we find new and better methods to handle the epidemic of Mass incarceration. We must examine the waters, collect the data, analyze the data, form a hypothesis, and test our theories.
But even more importantly, States need to unite, systematically test new ideas together, share their results, and not let political pride keep states from changing their laws to match that of other succesful ideas being implemented in other states.
Whatever states have the lowest recitivism rates and the emptiest prisons should become the blueprint for other states to follow.
If one state has a better strategy then other states should change their freaking stategies! It is absurd that there are 50 states and every single one of them has a different approach on crime. If I commit the same crime, at the same time in 3 different states, I will undoubtly be given 3 completely distinct punishments. I may get a 10 year sentensce in one state, a 4 year sentence in the next, and probation in the other. And all of this randomness will also depend on whether or not I'm rich enough to afford a lawyer, Or if I decide to go to trial or take a plea deal. Not to mention the bias views and opinions of the Judge I have. Even the conservativeness of the county Ilm in plays a factor.
There is no uniformity on our approach to crime. There are so many variables, especiaaly that of geographical location and opinions of Judges that the sentencing of criminals is a wild and rabid beast of randomness. For class X Drug offenses in Illinois the Judge can sentence men between 6-30 years in prison. This giant range of difference means that every Judge can vary on his sentence by 24 years. I was sentenced to 17 years for my drug offense. I know men who received 10 years-for the same offense?and men who received 23 years for it. What's worse is that I was offered a plea deal of 10 years if I waived my right to trial. I didn't take it. I went to trial and received an additional 7 years for exercizing my constitutional right. In every state my crime carries a different range of punishment as well.
Punishment should not be determined by whim or geographical location.
Does a man from Illinois have less access to programs?
Deserve to sit in prison longer? Or have a higher chance of violating his parole than the same man who commits the same crime in Ohio? States may have the right to self govern, but what about our American right of equal opportunity? How are we a country so greatly divided by our laws? At what point does one states approach to crime become so backwards that it must be federally forced to change? Why do men in North Carolina deserve any better or worse forms of punishment than the men in
If states want to self-govern their policy on crime, why are they so reluctant to follow the lead of other states with better policies? If there are better ways to fix the problem, then those new methods should be graciously accepted and applied by less effective states. What if Idaho's approach to healthcare was bloodletting and leeching? Is this their self-governing right?
Perhaps the question we should be asking is not why states are so divided on crime, but why crime and punishment is even under state law? Perhaps there needs to be more federal laws in place to bring mor uniformity to this jumbled mess of random sentencing,
-‘Commiting burglary in California should be treated Almost as equally as commiting burglary in New Hampshire. Geographical location shouldn't be the greatest factor in determining the punishment of American citizens.
Perhaps asking the federal government to step in is legally radical... But if states continue to refuse to cooperate with better policies that directly effect the equality and livlihood of American citizens, then somthing radical must be done. Our federal government needs to look at every state and tell them
"Fix your laws, or we will fix them for you."
Although I've provided little solutions in this essay, I hope that I have at least sparked new ideas and brought new ways for the reader to perceive the problems of Mass Incarceration. I'm not an expert, a college graduate, and hell, I might not even be culturally considered an American anymore. But I am a prisontonian and I can tell you fromn firsthand experience that the changes I've made are a rare miracle, the exeptions to the
Rule of prison nature. The Department of Corrections has done nothing but isolate me from society. Every book I've read my family either bought it for me or it was donated by an outside charity program.
While prison may provide the bare essentials for survival it is my family who bared the weight of my financial burden. They paid for the paper I wrote this essay on, the ink I used to write it, the 100 cups of coffee I drank during it's creation, and the postage it will cost to mailit off. Not to mention the case of
Ramen noodles and the Box of Oatmeal Cream Pies I will pay another inmate (who is lucky enough to afford a typewriter) to type this essay for me. Clearly I am a dependent and financial burden on my family. All inmates are. It is just another side effect of incarceration.
I created my own program of reformation and I walked it alone.
The Department of Corrections did nothing and deserves NO credit for the changes I've made. I watch them fail to help the prisoners around me every single day. I watched men get warehoused in a human zoo, treated like animals for 10 years only to be released back into the wild once they've lost every skill they needed to survive in it.
Everyday I see the hollow stare of men who are but the empty shells of a soul that jumped ship and abandoned them long ago.
Men who have spent 20 years in a dark cell staring into a T.V. screen desparately trying to escape their bleek existence; hoping to expeience just a taste of what it feels to live. They have long forgotten the sensations of life: The feeling of petting a puppy or taking a bath. They've never held a cell phone, facebooked, or face-timed. And every possible dream or goal they've ever aspired to reach is impossibly buried beneath the weight of their mistakes.
With 9 years left to serve, it is only in Prisontonia that I'm still considered one of the lucky ones. I know men who have been incarcerated longer than I've been alive. Most inmates might come and go, but when they come to prison, they adapt. They assimilate into their new culture. They might of stepped into the prison system as Americans, but I can gurantee you they will leave as
If you are working on an APWA-related project, please let us know how you plan to utilize the Archive. We hope to share information about your work with our readers and, whenever possible, with relevant APWA authors.
APWA is an open access archive. We encourage use of the writings for research, course planning, and projects engaged in examination of the criminal legal system. Reproduction of essays in their entirety infringes on author copyright without their explicit consent from the writers. Please contact us if you plan to reproduce entire essays; we will do our best to put you in contact with the authors for consent, and their compensation for any project that is profit making.