What is and what should be

Hartman, Kenneth



KENNETH E. HARTMAN WHAT IS AND WHAT SHOULD BE THE TENSION cuts through your clothes and into your skin like a jagged shank. Another alarm goes off, its pitched wailing, yelling out: there’s trouble over here, be careful, be concerned, stay vigilant. The prisoners, all knotted up into little groups defined by skin color and tattoos, warily circle before sitting down. Each group watches the others closely. This could be a diversionary tactic to draw the guards off to a far corner of the compound to launch a sneak attack. The tower speaker is blaring a constant refrain, “Down on the yard, down on the yard.” _ The guards go running off to where a blue light is flashing. It could be anything from a false alarm to a full—on attempted takeover of the building or anything in between. Clubs drawn, pepper spray canisters in hand, they pour into the open doorway. On the yard, each group is sizing up its relative position. Because the alarms are essentially random, you never know where you might be when one goes off. It is a Russian roulette version of the chairs game. If the guards come out with combatants of different hues or conflicting tat- toos you might get caught sitting on the ground, out of your seat, with your head kicked in. The longer it takes the guards to come back out, the sharper the tension gets. This happens multiple times every day. After a While, everyone is a raw nerve. The guards be- come so hyper—vigilant they react to everything with overwhelming force. The prisoners are so stressed they become landmines, trip- wires extended out in every direction. Fear, masked as aggression, suppresses the higher modes of thought resulting in a defensive stance so rigid that all slights and perceived incursions provoke a mindless, out—of-proportion reaction. This goes on for years. 119 T he breaks in this lunacy come in the form of periodic lock- downs that last for a day or a week or months, usually without any easily comprehended distinction. One stabbing could be a lockdown of a week, another a month. At first, the feeling on all sides is one of general relief. From having to watch hundreds of potential adver- saries to only your cellmate is a diminution of stress by orders of magnitude. In those few cases when you are truly compatible with the man sharing your concrete box, the relaxation is invigorating. Normally, as the choice of who lives in your space is never truly vol- untary, this is not the case. Now, whatever irritating peculiarities exist become heightened. Body odors and irrational hostilities come to the fore. It often devolves into a wary dance around hard-to- understand psychological problems and complex, deep—seated fears and resentments. Regardless of compatibility, within a few days most prisoners begin to suffer an odd form of cabin fever, a depressive rage against the powerlessness of being trapped behind a steel door that only opens unpredictably and infrequently. Some men sleep all day, slip- ping into a self-induced semi-coma state of passive resistance. Others revthemselves up, adopting a maniacal workout routine consisting of hours and hours of furious grunting and sweating, as if by the force of transmitted kinetic energy the walls will spread apart. For many, the cabin fever expresses itself in the loss of rationality. This is particularly true for those with preexisting mental health problems, a startlingly large percentage of modern prisoners. For these unfor- tunates, the lockdown becomes too much to bear. Door kicking, random shouts, radios played at full volume for days on end, stop- ping up toilets to flood the tiers, and other similarly irrational behav- iors proliferate throughout the buildings. Like a virulent, highly contagious disease, once a few men slip the constraints of civilized behavior, a general disorder is unleashed. Cell fights start to occur more frequently because there is no other way to escape intolerable situations. Asking for a move is tantamount to being an informer in the bizarro world of prison. Even if you do, the guards normal re- sponse is “sliow us some blood." Suicide attenipts iiicrease during these periods. The cell starts to shrink down on some prisoners until it is little more than a concrete collin, squeezing out the desire to continue. In most prisons, a man spends more olhis time on lock- down than off‘. This goes on for years. The yards are peppered with these guys, these so—called “shot- callers.” They are the ones who have become prison. Beyond the electrified lences, there is no existence. for them besides that ol‘ scorned outcast. Faces tattooed with hideous and outrageous state- ments oi’ ignorant re_jectionism, they appear to rule this world by a sleight oil hand so (lelllv performed few ever manage to perceive it. They receive special treatment, hold the best jobs, have the most movement around and between the buildings. Most ironically, in light of their complete disdain for the mores oi‘ the real world, they are accorded the most respect and humanity available from the guards.’ It is to this group of thugs and psychopaths that the course of events on a prison yard is handed. T o maintain their grip on power, held as it is without any justifiable claim, they must foment violence. Fear, as has been noted b_v dictators throughout history, a powerful motivator of men. Follow our rules or you will be attacked, possibly killed. A whole series of dehumanizing and conforming policies are constantly pushed by their mercenaries, which only add to the stress and misery of this experience. You must wear your boots at all times because you must be prepared to tight for our group at all times. You must swear fealty to whichever bonehead happens to be the lat- est anointed holder of the keys to the yard. (Leaden irony in the use of “keys” to connote power to a prisoner, without actual keys, in a prison.) You must be willing to sacrifice your own goodjudgment to the lowest common denominator of herd thinking driven by the basest of human instincts. VVorse, all of this will be actively sup- ported by the gu2u'ds empowering the shotcallers. Violence will be used, and encouraged, to achieve complete compliance. All will be penalized for the actions of the dumbest as if all were complicit. Re- llusal oll an inclividual to play along will result in exlre.ii'iel_\‘ negative consequences. This is the norm, the status quo. Tliis goes on lor years. Idle hands are never a good thing. Combined with too often ad- dled minds and t.orn1ent.ed hearts, the results are disastrous. Oi‘ course, the kinds ol programs needed to combat the outcome of lilletimes inisspent and mismanaged are well linown. Real and com- prehensive substance abuse treatment, substantial education, mental health ti‘eat1nent., welcoming visitation, religious prograrnming, cre- ative outlets like art ‘therapy, and regular and predictable recreatioii. All of these are prover) to make a positive difllerence in the success or lailure of prisoners. The problem is, heedless to reality, none of these are available to the average man. VV hat substance abuse treat- ment there is provided boils down to liectoring and spotty enforce» ment, devoid of any actual treatment. Education in prison is little more than watching movies, doing crossword puzzles, and marking time in an overcrowded, loud little room monitored b_y a bored teacher marking his time until retirement. Mental health treatment is the issuance of pills to masl; the unpleasant outward manifesta- tions of madness and the generation of reams of paper to paint a picture of activity that does not exist beyond the motions, little of substance ever occurring. Visiting is the opposite of welcoming, being rather an effective bar to families and friends Who are forced to endure a series olihumiliations both petty and profound for mak- ing the obviously poor choice of consorting with prisoners. Beyond the highest hurdle, the location of prisons far from the places most prisoners originate, there is the maze oliinconsistently applied rules visitors are forced to navigate. Those who lead religious programs and art therapies are both tossed into the same category of “inmate lover,” which serves to both denigrate and accuse in one phrase. The prevailing opinion of those who guard prisons is that anyone who comes in to work with us must be dirty, somehow. As for reg- ular and predictable recreation, the only constant in prison is its un- predictable and irregular nature. Each day has the qiialitjv of a 122 crapshoot existence where the doors open with a capriciousness not unlike the weather in the mountiains. Guards and administrators, teachers and doctors, who hold a fundamental belief in the lutility ol‘ their mission, in the great‘ waste oil time it is to try and make a dif- lerence, nianage these “1i)i‘t>;;1‘2uns.” Lockdowns break up the conti- nuity olany program, and lockdowns dominate the lilie olia prison. The result is tens oi" thousands of prisoners with nothing to do even remotely productive in nature. This goes on for years. Corruption and incompetence hide behind chaos. This is the iron law oi this particular jungle. Because the people who are charged with implementing the programs do not believe the pro- grams have any chance oll success, and because too many of those same people lack the requisite skills and education to elliectively im- plement the programs in the first place, the maintenance of the state of chaos that rules prisons is in their best interest. It is the perfect dodge to responsibility: VV e would run these rehabilitative programs, but the inmates just won't cooperate. The gangs destroy anything good we try to do. The inmates are not capable of anything positive. These are the well—rehearsed excuses that play well to a public con- ditioned to assume that prisoners are, in fact, irredeemably recalci- trant, gang members who live to sow destruction and are all, simply, had. To speak the truth, that most who run these institutions have little interest in our success, and a personal interest in our failure, is just not done. Nevertheless, to those ol‘ us who have spent enough time inside and struggled to achieve a level ol'consciousness beyond the walls, it is self—evident, this foul truth; It is a question of economics. The fewer of us, the smaller the empire. It is a question of disposition. The system, in obeisance to the all—powerful god of security, trains its minions to consider pris- oners as little more than security risks with legs. It is a question, most fundamentally, ofideology. They cannot, at the risk of professional suicide, accept that prisoners are capable of real and sustained growth. T o abandon the company line of presumed failure would call into question the foundational elements underpinning this world. This world of humiliation and (leg1‘21cl2i;t.i<>ii, of isolation and stigma, would fall apart without the regular injection of negative poi» son that is the gasoline on the funeral pyres of so many wasted lives- lives on both sides of the fences. Chaos is created with the unconscious cooperation of prisoners who desperately want to be part of something, even if that something is a system that feeds off our own suffering. The drug dealers and shotcallers are supported, years are spent in crushing lockdowns, vi- olence is perpetuated, and those programs that could ameliorate the effects of tragic lives are suppressed or dismissed or subsumed in the terrible reality of prison. This chaos acts as a superbly effective smokescreen, a perfect blind behind which failure’s familiars hide. Even so, to be fair to those human beings that manage these places, the majority are not evil. They are rather, mostly, functionar- ies not capable of breaking out of the small box of prison thinking. Ideas like rehabilitation and reform bounce off of them as they search for the appropriate box to check on the appropriate form. The forms have no check boxes for abstractions like harm reduction or making a positive difference. It's all about resuictions and negative reinforcement: took this, took that, will take more if this and that don't result in compliance. People who missed f1rst—year psychology must have designed the forms. They are all punishment and no re- ‘ward. They are the products of reactive and punitive thinking that has never worked. These bureaucratic marionettes are simply not adept at reflection or analysis. Follow the form, go through the mo- tions; any creative thinking will be punished. VVhen the boxes are all checked off, and your ass is sufficiently covered by the appropriate ass—covering form, you have performed your duty. That the result of this is all too often, all too predictably, more failure, more violence and more chaos, is warped proof of the futility of this world. This has gone on for far too many years. Deeply ensconced at all levels of the system is a much smaller group who acuvely work to defend the status quo, who consciously fight against positive change. These are the bullies who see their po- sitions as opportunities to right the wrongs oi’ their personal lives, the slights and iiijiistices olliigli school still sharp in their memories. These are the crime victims who seek a place on this side of the fences to exact revenge, to take a bite out oil criminals. And the ide- ologues, the most dangerous among the corrupt minority, the reli- gious and political zealots who act with their own distorted sense ol moral certitude. These are the creators of the lorms that demand compliance to a failed system, a system that creates the failure it prolits from, that it depends upon for its survival. These are the naysayers and the underminers, the hearts and brains oil the current system. This has gone on for years, for decades and, absent radical change, it will go on liorever. All of this could lead an average person to conclude there is little hope for change, a not unreasonable conclusion. There is within the system this dejected sensibility; it’s what ultimately drives oft‘ most reformers. But among prisoners, in particular those of us serv- ing life sentences, there exists a stubborn strain of determination rooted in outrage that things have deteriorated to such an abysmal state. VV e know prison does not have to be this horrible. Prisoners do not need to be brutalized and traumatized at the hands of the system or their fellow prisoners. VV e know there are prison systems in this country that achieve markedly better results while treating their prisoners with much more humanity. VV e know the culture of gangs and violence, racism and self—destruction, is not a given. VV e also know that the groups in positions of power and influence have a personal stake in maintaining the status quo of failure, on both sides of the prisoner—guard divide. The strange twist of this is we lif- ers, who will be around for the long haul and who must see this world as our home, may be the only large group, the only long—term stakeholders, willing to tight for lasting change and endure the con- sequences for mounting the challenge. It was in this vein of thinking that a small group of us got together and came up with a plan to create a transformational yard in one of the most dysfunctional of California’s prisons. VV e had all watched 125 as the creeping maelstrom of systemic disorde.r invaded our corner of the svsteni. In the space of a few years, the whole prison was en» gulfed in massive race riots, organized attaclas on gu2u‘ds, retaliator_\f brutality against prisoners, and a stunning level of corruption cam- ouflaged in the tear gas laced clouds of chaos. It was never a good place, but now it became a terrible, frigltiteiiiiig and dangerous place. This was the time of the final ascendancy of gangs to pox-ve.1‘ tln‘ough- out the system, including prison guard gangs in the worst ofthe pris— ons. It appeared that those who lcnew better, the old veteran guards who came from before the era of outright inmate hating, left and turned over the reins to the new thugs in uniforms. And these new thugs, empowered by the victims’ rights movement’s incessant de- mands for ever more punishment and the pandei‘ing of opportunis— tic politicians, launched a war on prisoners. The ruse was that by taking everything away from us that made existence inside tolerable, it would malae prison so intolerable an experience it would drive us into compliance and terrif_v us into never coming back. W7 e all knew, on both sides of the fence and with complete certainty, the result would be disaster. As the disaster unfolded, we came up with a proposal to create one yard for those prisoners who wanted to stay out of the whirlpool sucking us all down. I couched it in language that appealed to the de- mand for genuflection before the security altar and the basic need to have the necessary services (food preparation, laundry, and the like) performed by prisoners not nursing wounds incurred in the latest riot. W7 e had the great good fortune of one of the last wardens to come up through the non—custody ranks (he had been a teacher) and a few smart and humane staff willing to carry the water for the project. The waves of tragedies that had scoured this prison left everyone not interested in the triumph of chaos open to experimen- tation. ' The specifics were simple: take only those. prisoners who vol- unteered, who had a record of positive behavior, and enact a strict system to disempower the worst elements of our own 1.2-l1.11'\l$o This 126 wotild be a yard devoid ot (l1‘L1g dealers, devoid ol‘slt1(>lt?allers, and de\*oi(l of‘ all the chaos these groups bring with tiliem. Anyone who brolae the rules would be removecl l)21(Zl’x to the hell oil the other yards, a powei"lul and visible (lisincentive. Additionally, and most coritroversially as it turned out, positive incentives for successlhl par- ticipation would be included——a llevv modest carrots to balance out the thicket of sticks. The warden ordered implementation and the process was com— pleted in a ‘levy months. The recalcitrant prisoners left of their own accord, takiiig with them the (lrugs and violence and the grossest of stupidity. VVitl1in a six—month period, a yartl with a housing unit once ltnown to all as “Tliunder Dome” was fully functio1‘1al. Gone were the. negative elements that destroy prisoners’ ability and will to achieve the kind OllU‘ElI1Sl()I”l]1Ell'l()D necessary to SU(‘.CCSSl’lLll reintegra- tion back into free society. T he madness ol’ constant alarms inter- rupting the flow of every day simply stopped. Locladovms ceased for years, literally. T he shotcallers, having no shots to call, disappeared, meltingbacl; into the torment from which they emanated. And pro- grams proliferated, exploding in a great blast of pent—up demand to be apart of something, 2tI1_Vl'l1l11g vvortliwhile. In the next few years, something Wholly unexpected was achieved on this yard known as the “Honor Program.” It was far be- yond the peace and positive energy that replaced the fearful tension, beyond the absence oflocladowns and alarms and casualties, beyond even the programs sell—iniIiated by prisoners proving many of us ac- tually desire to do good. VVhat happened was the emergence of a movement that grew out beyond the fence. line. At first, mostly our families and friends——which is to be expected—but then political lig- ures, community leaders and local nonprofits got involved. Men on the yard started to Write the newspapers, describing something in- congruous, practically unbelievable out of‘ one ol‘ these places. Good things were happening on a prison yard deep in the mire ofwhat is, arguably, the worst prison system in the cmiiitiwj. Television crews came in to document this strange aberration. Leaders ol‘ the state 127 -.,,-..,. . ; ,:.. ,:: :'1.,‘..,,,;_r g()\/’€1‘111I1€11l' sliowed up to witness how g<><>(l could possibly liave taken seed in such barren soil. It was a heady time. Fora little while, many of us believed we had crossed the Rubicon, or rather we had pulled the prison across; there would be no turning back to the be- foretime of such obvious failure and waste. During the few years things reached their apogee, the transfor- mation was complete and deep. We organized our own sports leagues and required all teams to be integrated of our own accord. This is such a revolutionar_v act in the h_vper—racialized world of Cal- ifornia prisons that administrators froni other prisons came in to see it for themselves. “How did you do this?” one of them asked me, a lool; of utter astonishment on his face. We recruited the educated from amongst our own ranks and set up formal instruction in an empty classroom. Foreign languages, mathematics, creative writing and business courses tool; off with diverse and peaceful groups of students eager to learn. The best artists formed a collective to donate their work to local charities. A prisoner group formed to counsel at- 1‘iSl§ youth, gaining widespread recognition. Men conducted their omi religious services, without any troubles. (Before the implemen- tation of the Honor Program, when the chapel required _a staff pres- ence for any activity to talge place, the area was the site of endless fighting and rampant drug dealing.) At one point, there were real plans to bring in service dogs for us to train. Prisoners performing an indisputably valuable function for the community. It was a mo- ment of genuine pride for all of us who had labored to make this happen, prisoners and our supporters, and those staff who had the courage to breal; out of the negative expectation. Then, something else unexpected happened. In retrospect, it is obvious why it happened, but this was during our moment of great- est success. VVe were blinded in the footlights, unaccustomed warmth. VV e didn’t see it coming. The elements that stand behind their barricade of disorder launched a concerted effort to undo all that we had done. The manufactured need for ever—increasing secu- rity, which means more positions and more money, was being ex- 128 posed by our peaceful yard. Talk was beginning to spread up and dmm the dark empire ofopening more yards like this one, olinject— ing the system with an inoculation of positive energy. V\7ithout the cover story of prisoners as unmanageable beasts, the more uncom- fortable truth might be exposed. Even though a growing body of scholarship and a towering pile of studies and reports documented the mismanagement and incompetence at the heart of the prison syst.ein’s failure, the sad facts on the ground stymied efforts to bring about change. This was the strategy, and it had always worked to wear out the reformers, something it continues to accomplish. The public’s desire to see prisoners treated humanely is shallow, at best. Added to this the constant, well—'funded druinbeat of demands for revenge dressed Lip in ,justice’s flowing robes, which keeps the locus on punishment for the sake of the infliction of pain. The reformers know this only results in further victimization and further vast sums ofscarce dollars poured down the drain of prisons. The trouble. is, the bullies know they can count on some twisted wreck of a human spat out to the real world, after years of neglect and torment, com- mitting a senseless and atrocious act. The calls for justice (punish- ment and pain) shout down the appeals to reason, and the circus of horrors then resumes, unmoved and unchanged. VVe brought it on ourselves, to a certain degree. Perhaps if we had been silent, had quietly enjoyed our little space of peace, the reaction would not have come. But we couldn’t. ‘N e had proven it was not necessary to exist as animals, and we wanted to share this revelation for the benefit of the many thousands trapped in the quag- mire elsewhere. The truth is we felt like we had done something demonstrably good. For men whose lives have been defined by everything but good, the desire to take oimership of good is power- ful. This last impulse, this claiming to us what was rightfully ours, turned out to be another irritant of considerable weight. Even some of the more progressive staff, who seemed to appreciate the positive direction events had taken, could not accept that the bulk of the changes were on account of us—that our efforts, primarily, had re- sulted in this good turn. They were ollen(le<l, heir leeliiigs hurt, perhaps. But the department’s administrators were livid at our au- dacity. How could prisoners have done anything good:‘ This was an outrage.ous usurpation. ll anytliing good had happened, which they mostly now insisted ha.d not, it was solely on account ol‘ their deci- sions and their superior knowledge. In the linal analysis, the Honor Program was denigrated as little more than inollycoddling, at best, and perhaps nothing more than a shain behind which a slew ol'gang— banging, drug dealing regular (read bad) inmates were liirling‘. Once the gloves came off, and with a resounding slap on the concrete table they did come oil, the next lew years devolved into a series olipolitical battles between the movement we created and led, and the big bosses in the state capitol. Reports lavoring the program aired on television and appeared in print. A bill passed in the stat.e legislature that would have mandated the program only to be vetoed by the governor at the insistence of the department. All the while, as we did all we could to hold our place, the underniiriing went on. The best staff, the ones who had been willing to support this better way, were transferred or otliemdse penalized. The standards we had set up to create a workable population were deliberately ignored as the yard collapsed closer to the violence and degeneracy of a normal yard. The past couple of years we have spent coming on t.o half our time on lockdoym, although, thus far, the issues have been manufac- tured. VV e still have held off the worst of our own idiocy, though it grows stronger every day. The yard is now three distinct groups: we who started this and struggle to keep it alive, a growing group of blockheads and tattooed faces who work mindlessly to end it, and a final group of mental health cases who wander around like human I.E.D.’s waiting to explode at the most inconvenient of moments. It is a true shame, and it is very deliberate and purposeful what has been done. Regardless of the ultimate late ol‘ this particular corner of the concrete and razor wire empire, whether we are able to pull yet an- other rabbit out of our stat;e—issue(l hats and stave off the end_, we proved that prison doesn’t need to be the wasteful, destructive mon- strosity it has become. It is not a foregone conclusion that prisoners must descend into tribal priinitivisni and atavistic violence. \/Ve also proved that most prisoners want to be productive, contributing members of society. If only the impotent rage against the daily degra- dations of prison life can be lessened by the creation ofa semblance of peace zuid respect, the average prisoner can focus on recreating himself, on disabusing his previously held notions of ’ who or What he is supposed to be. VV e proved this life does not necessarily need to be a pointless, meaningless experience in futility. VV hat with all the millions of words spewed and the boatloads of inl; splattered on forests of paper seeking to convince the average cit- izen of the great: Waste of time it is to seel; rehabilitation, and the far greater need to exact many pounds offlesh, a logical response to all of this is, \7Vhy should I care? The simple answer is found at the front gate of every prison in the form ofthe angry mass of ill-clothed, destitute men pouring out every day. Men who have lived a Hobbe- sizui nightmare vtdthout a moments break. N o substance abuse treat- ment, no mental health care, no education of any kind, and no meaningful attachments in the communities to which they are headed, which all translates to without any real hope of success. These men will be your neighbors. These men, out of an endless battlefield of shame and rage, will be walking down your streets. Contrast that daily dose of poison with a man who has lived a life of peaceful reflection and service, who has been able to receive the treatments and skills needed to reenter the community prepared to participate. It is not a question of whether this man deserved to be helped or not—it is a question of societal self—interest. Building up the fallen is worthy even beyond the ethical issues of ajust society. It is worthy from the pragmatic perspective of the American sense of doing what works because it works, because it achieves the results we all want to achieve. No matter how emotionally satisfying it may be to pursue the twisted ideal of revenge, in practice what falls off that 131 dead tree is l11(lllf_Q,‘L‘Sl’ll)lC. To qiiote the maxim olthe 1‘ii<>i1ieiit, the zip- p1‘o2i(:l1 needs to he sinzirt on crime. Tlie SU12tI"l'.(iSl tliiiig is to zipp1‘e~ liencl the olleiidei‘, seel; 21 jiist and 21ppmp1ii2ite peiizilty, and then set to worl; II12.1l~;l1'1g the clizmee. for 1'el12il'>ilit2itioii more thzui 21 slogzui O1‘ 21 111ll“'c1g€ obscured by the glare of idiotic policies. The p1‘ogi‘2im we crezited, that we have lbuglit the gootl light lor, is that real chzinee. VV e have, ‘linzilly, proveii aJ1()tl1(:1"lV21Cl. of‘ this world. It is 21 terrible fact that ouglit to eiigendei‘ a grezit uprising of disgiist and outeries for ll11111€Cll’d[€ 1‘efoi‘m. The people who iiiziiizige the p1‘i.son system, la1"gely, lizive no desire to 1‘el‘121l)ilit;ite prisoners. VVoi‘se, t.l"1ey see re- l’12il)ilitatio1.i as 21 threat to their livelilicxids. All the pious tall; of p1‘o~ tectiiig the puhl’ ‘ and szilving the wounds ()l‘Cl”l1I1€ victims is notliiiig more than public relations spin. The experience of diis prog1‘;;im’s light for su1'vi\«'al is stark t.esti1iion_V to this truth that needs no embel- lishment. If eliange is going to c:0me—aind come it most C€.1‘[21l11l_V must—— this truth needs to be addressed, first.

Author: Hartman, Kenneth

Author Location: California

Date: October 21, 2016

Genre: Essay

Extent: 14 pages

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