The psychological impact of life in a federal prison
Valenzuela, Richard R.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT OF LIFE IN A FEDERAL PRISON
The stress of being in prison hits you every waking minute and hour that you are conscious, and may even affect you while you sleep.
From the time of your arrest, which may occur in front of families and/or friends, then taken to the local jail where you will be held until your trial, then the humilation that you go through while being paraded in front of the public while you are dressed in the ever famous bright orange jump suits, along with shackles around your ankles and the handcuffs attached to chains that are draped around your waist, even before you have been found either guilty or innocent, you are displayed as a guilty dangerous individual.
What ever happened to the notion of being innocent UNTIL you're proven guilty? The very act of being excorted between two law enforcement officials bound and chained just screams out guilt to the general public. Their thinking is, oh he must be guilty if he is appearing in such a manner! The weight of stress that you are under, the embarrassment and shame brought upon both you and your family adds to the guilt that you will carry during this period.
And if this is your first time finding yourself in this situation, the stress of carrying your ignorance of jail life makes you the perfect target for those who have lived a life as a prisoner year after year, who prey upon those who are "fresh" to the jail life.
As a new prisoner your stress will rise as you will be taken advantage of by those who are more experienced in jail life. You will be tested to see how much resolve you have in facing those who are going to confront you in both a physical and emotional way.
You will be challenged to a physical confrontation. You will be faced with the decision to give something up, be it your meal or your shoes or whatever you may have in your possession that someone else feels they must have. You only choice is to either give it up; or have it forcefully taken from you; which usually means you will be injured in some way.
Once you show any form of weakness, then you will be tested almost on a daily basis. You will never know who will approach you or what demands will be made of you, forcing you to give something up that they want.
And don't even think of going to the correctional officer.
Once you do that you will be forever labeled as a rat, and the first thing the correctional officer will want is the names of the indi- viduals who are harassing you. Once you tell the names or point out the individuals, you will then be labeled a snitch; and your life in prison just got worse by a thousand-fold.
And let's just say for arguments sake that you decide to make a stand for yourself. Let's just add more stress to your life as you attempt to defend yourself and your property. Once you make a stand against your oppressor, you will then be jumped by many others who have gathered to watch the confrontation. They want to get in on the action only because you are the "new fish", the new guy on the block and they are only bullies who want to vent their anger and strike out at anyone that they deem inferior to them.
This is also a way for the bullies in the jail system to work out their own stress that they find themselves under. It is so easy to strike out at the new guy, and besides, everyone else is doing it so why can't I?
Then you face the stress of either telling the authorities, or keeping quiet about the abuse. The authorities will put you under a lot of stress to tell them what is going on, while the other inmates will add to your stress by reminding you what will happen to you if you do tell. Remember, a lot happens when the lights go out at night.
And all of this happens BEEORE you even get to trial!
That is if you decide to go to trial. You see, the government is so sure of their conviction rates that they will tell you, you might as well accept their plea deal, because if you go to trial and lose, and you will lose, they emphasis, then your sentence will be either doubled or tripled of what they are offering in the plea deal. It all boils down to money. The government does not want to spend money on a long trial, so they always offer a plea deal. It saves them money, and makes their conviction rate look very im- pressive.
So accept a plea deal of doing thirty years in a federal prison, or if you go to trial, you will end up with a sentence of sixty years.
You think there is no stress when considering if you want to go to prison for thirty or sixty years? Can I face thirty years in prison, hell can I survive sixty years in prison? Bottom line: my life is going to end in prison.
And so in accepting the thirty year deal, I will have a chance, albeit a slim chance, or being 79 years old upon my release. What type of life can I look forward to at 79?
Let's add more stress as I consider this. What will I have to look forward to upon my release at 79 years of age? I will literally have NOTHING in my life but the clothes on my back when
I am released from prison. Everything I had prior to my incarcer- ation has been taken from me; my home, all my possessions, my
Vehicle, furniture, appliances, clothing, hell even my pets were taken from me.
Upon my release I will have no home to go to, no job waiting for me, and besides, who the hell is going to hire a 79 year old?
I have no family members or friends to look to for help in any way, no emotional or financial support of any kind.
I will be a 79 year old ex-con who has nothing!
On top of all of this stress, I will be facing an umbrella of probation for the next ten years upon my release, meaning that the slightest error on my part will result in me being placed back in prison.
Imagine the stress of having no place to live, no source of income except social security and food stamps, and having to toe the line for fear of being sent back to prison for the next ten years. Can you live a life for the next ten years under all of that stress?
And the stress just keeps on coming!
You're finally sentenced. You are being transported on a van along with 8-10 other inmates, all who are shackled and in chains, then you're on a bus along with 80 other inmates, still shackled and chained, going to a processing center. There you will be given forms to fill out, you will be interviewed regarding your crime, your past life, and you will be repeatedly asked why you cannot supply a name of an individual who will claim your body upon your death if it occurs while you are in prison.
Maybe because I have no one? Every six months I am asked this question, and every six months I still reply with the same answer: no. Then I get a sneer and a shake of the head because I cannot supply a name.
Now you are on the bus that is taking you to the prison where you will live the rest of your life until you are released. Once you arrive at said prison, you are led into a small room that is made of concrete, where 30 or more other inmates are standing.
None by one in no particular order your name will be called, while you are still in shackles and chains, where you once again will be interviewed. Once the interview is over, you are led to another room where your chains and shackles are removed. You are then directed into a small room where you are instructed to com- pletely disrobe, display your nude body to the officer who then examines you from head to toe, then you are given a ratty pair of white boxers, mismatched white socks, one t-shirt along with one pair of elastic—waisted pants, and a cheap pair of ugly blue or orange imitation espadrilles for your feet. You then told to move onto the next room, where you are given a bed roll consisting of two flat sheets, one blanket and one roll of toilet paper. You will then be escorted out by a correctional officer, or as they are knowntas C.O.s.
Your heart rate is up, you blood pressure is sky—rocketing, you are literally sweating because all of this is new to you, this has nver happened to you before because you do not know what to expect, and when you take that first step into the housing unit that will serve as your home for the next thirty years, it finally hits you square in the face.
YOU ARE IN PRISON!
Most of the housing units in the federal prison system are built the same way. The building is made up entirely of concrete.
There is an upper and lower section, each section consisting of
30-40 cells. Most cells are made for two men, but becasue of the over-crowding situation in the federal system, the two man cells have be converted to either three man or four man cells. Most of the new inmates will be assigned to either a three or four man cell.
So each housing tier may consist of 180-250 men. And as soon as you walk into the unit, all eyes will fall upon you because you are the new guy. And let the questions begin! Who are you? Why are you here? But most important, what is your charge? Where is your paper work to prove what your charge is? How long is your sentence?
Depending upon what your charge is will determine if you will have a rough time doing your sentence or not, or if your time will be pretty smooth, if you can call doing thirty years in a federal prison smooth.
If it is known that you are a rat, a snitch, or a Chile mo- lester, you will be forced off the compound, meaning that no one will want to cell with you, no one wants you walking the yard or compound, and meaning that you will be physically abused if your found to be on the compound.
The only recouse you have if you find yourself in this cir- cumstance will be to check yourself into protective custody. This entails you going to a C.O., explain that you want to check in, he will then have you excorted to the captains office, where you will have to explain why you are checking in.
The captain will want answers, why you are requesting pro- tective custody, who is forcing you off the yard, why won't you tell me the names so that I can help you?
Stress is surrounding you.
If you are lucky to stay on the compound, you will be assigned to a cell where you will live with complete strangers. Imagine you walking down a busy street in any major city, and the first three men that you make eye contact with will now share a small jail cell with you for the next ten years. You have no choice in the matter.
Be they black, hispanic, white or asian, no matter the race or the individual, you will live with them.
You will eat with them, you will at times shit in front of them, you will brush your teeth, comb your hair and even shower along side them. This is your life for the next thirty years.
Want more stress? You are surrounded by up to 200 individuals in a building with floors walls and ceiling made from concrete.
The littlest whisper echos out ten-fold.
You have groups of inmates playing dominoes, which requires the players to slam down the playing piece upon the metal table that is bolted down to the floor. This sound is amplified by the echo while the player screams out, "Take that mutha fuckah!"
Then there are the other groups at other tables playing various card games, either spades or poker. Not only are they NOT sitting on the stools attached to the metal tables, they are standing with one foot on the stool, slamming down the card upon the center pile of cards, yelling out what the card is and what effect it has on the game.
Other groups of inmates are sitting in plastic chairs with either ear—buds or head phones over their ears, watching one of the several televisions that are bolted onto the concrete pillars that support the ceiling beams. While they are watching the t.v.s they find it is necessary to talk to the person who is sitting next to them. And since they have head phones over their ears, and the card and dominoe players are screaming, they find it nec- essary for themselves to scream so that they can be heard.
Metal tables surrounded by concrete does nothing but amplify the voices of the housing unit. It is pure cacophony to the extreme.
There is a certain hierarchy that can be found in prison. It usually works out that the individual who has been there the long- est usually lays claim to certain perks; sitting closer to the tele- vision, getting to choose what to watch and when to watch it, hav- ing the best spot in the chow hall, being able to use certain equip- ment in the rec yard, etc.
Because you are the new guy, you get nothing. You will be lucky to find a decent spot to watch t.v. because everyone has their particular spot, you have no friends or acquaintances. So basically you will be a loner for awhile. You eat your meals at a table where no one knows you, you will walk the yard alone and you will nothing to do with yourself until you are assigned a job.
So you will spend a lot of time on your bunk reading books, that is if you are allowed time on your bunk. Certain inmates hate what is called a "house-mouse". Someone who continually stays on their in the cell.
As humans, we crave attention, we need social interaction.
This is something you will not get being the new guy in prison.
You are basically an outcast until you prove to others who you really are. One does not need the stress of being an outcast, so one strives to make friends fast. And this is sometimes not a good thing to do.
Add to all of this stress the turmoil of having to deal with the correctional officers and administrative staff.
I will state that while MOST correctional officers are decent individuals, there are those few who tend to be assholes. They will snarl at you, be very disrespective of you, they will belittle you and call you names, while they at the same time will simply ignore you or your requests.
I've not the space to cite specific examples, but let me cite you one. I have been assigned to a medical center because of my heart condition. The medical staff told me that I was severly de- hydrated, and they instructed me to carry a water bottle with me at all times and drink from it on an hourly basis. One day as I was going to enter the chow hall, a correctional officer stopped me from entering with my water bottle. I explained the situation to the officer, telling them I was instructed by the medical staff to have with me my water bottle. His response: Medical does not run chow hall, I run chow hall. Now get the fuck outta here!,
It is bad enough that we are in prison, some for many years and even decades. Everything has been taken away from us, we have to deal with the stress of doing our time, and then we have the stress of dealing with the correctional officers and staff by the way they are towards us on a daily basis.
Prison is prison, and they have to add to that depression by treating us a sub-human, something not owrthy of their time or attention.
All of this stress only adds to our health issues, which are exacerbated by the food that is served in prison. Trust me when I say this, when you first come to prison, you will lose weight! In my first three months of incarceration, I lost 37 pounds.
Prison is truly punishment. Granted, we all did something that was a crime that resulted us in being in prison. But it seems that being in prison is not enough punishment. Making life as hard as possible for those who find themselves in prison is bad, because we all have to deal with the stress and burden it places upon us on a daily basis.
Everything and everyone we know is affected by our prison sen- tence. Our family members, our friends, everything being taken away from us, then having the stress of dealing with over 1500 complete strangers who you now live with and socialize with has a very neg- ative impact upon our lives and our health. The surroundings are so forlone, the meals are a joke and the daily grind of moving about trying to adjust to your new life, being constantly harrassed and ridiculed, it is no wonder that the suicide rate among prisoners is so high.
Prison has a definite detrimental affect on the psychological impact that affects those of us who live it day in and day out.
I wish there was a better situation than prison.
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