Research has shown that physical human touch, particularly positive and supportive touch, is necessary for a healthy emotional state. While many people may be familiar with babies needing to be held and cuddled to develop healthily, humans in general must also receive and give positive physical contact to maintain a healthy emotional state.
Many adults, even those with numerous family and friends may be lacking in positive physical contact. However, incarcerated people are not just among the most socially isolated in our society, they are physically isolated — specifically, isolated from positive human touch.
While it may be common knowledge that violence — including sexual violence — occurs in prison, the gravity of the issue may not be as widely considered. Whether at the hands of their fellow inmates or of prison staff, incarcerated people may only know for years what it’s like to be touched by people who either have no interest in their wellbeing or outright wish them harm or death.
Some prisoners may be lucky enough to enjoy the spontaneous, positive touch of fellow inmates who are also friends. However, when some nonviolent touch occurs it may be calculated and particular. Friends or allies may shake hands or even embrace. But every moment of physical contact may be measured in some way to initiate or preserve alliances, or break them, in order to maintain the inmate’s status or survival in prison. And if inmates do engage in nonviolent, consensual sexual activities with each other, it is always illicit, per prison rules.
Incarcerated people are, of course, also denied the ability to touch their loved ones: their family and friends. While some prisoners can touch visitors, if they have visitors at all, some are separated by thick glass. Others still might find visiting hours cruelly unaccommodating. Additionally, highly invasive strip searches are standard procedure before and after a prisoner receives a vist. Millions of opportunities for positive physical contact are poisoned or vanish altogether as soon as a person enters prison.
Shrinking visiting hours and poor opportunities for communication plague inmates and their families. Private companies provide prisons with services for phone calls, video calls, and email (at a profit) and there is growing concern that these extremely expensive digital and phone connections are replacing in-person visiting at some facilities, further distancing prisoners from positive human touch.
While many prisoners may have the dogged support from and frequent contact with family and friends, there are many who do not. Some prisoners, for a variety of reasons, receive few or no letters, phone calls or visits. This can have a devastating effect on the person in prison.
Solving the issue of the lack of positive human touch and supportive human contact for people incarcerated in the United States is a matter of a greater scope than this post can address. But there are ways individuals and institutions can support prisoners within the current context of incarceration even as organizers and activists resist against a system that so thoroughly dehumanizes millions of people.
Writing to a prisoner, for example, is one of the easiest ways to give support. Receiving their calls, sending supplies and books, or visiting them in person is vital to any given prisoner, too. But a letter is usually the easiest way for someone on the outside to reach in. And while letters cannot replace face-to-face contact or ease the lack of positive touch prisoners face, letters can provide an emotional lifeline to someone in dire need of one.
Adopt an Inmate facilitates the connection between incarcerated individuals and the people who wish to lend their support. AI is always looking for compassionate people who want to be there for someone who may have no one else on the outside. Submit this form to start the process.
Natalie Korman is a poet, writer, and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Heliotropics (dancing girl press). In 2017, after being introduced to Adopt an Inmate by a former classmate, Natalie began correspondences with two people through the organization; both are now meaningful friendships. In the spirit of Adopt an Inmate, Natalie believes ongoing healing from institutional and interpersonal harm is a necessary part of the struggle for a more just and peaceful world.
For most of my life I believed what the media and television wanted me to believe. Everyone convicted by the courts is a criminal and should be thrown in prison. The keys should be tossed into a lake somewhere and they should spend the rest of their miserable lives behind bars and barbed wire – so that the rest of us will be protected from them.
I believed them to be sub-human, not worthy of … anything, to be honest. When I would hear about them watching cable TV I was outraged. I mean, who do they think they are? Cable TV? Health care? A decent meal? Bread and water, I say! Don’t spend my hard-earned tax dollars on trying to help some … some convict. They’re nothing but a bunch of animals – sausages, all of them. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have stayed out of prison. My life hasn’t been a bed of roses. Let them suffer, I say.
Then I found myself standing before a jduge, court-appointed attorney by my side. I’ll be okay. I’ve seen the TV shows. I’ve been a firefighter for 26 years. I’m one of the good guys.
My heart leaps to my throat. Eight years. The sound of the gavel makes it official. I’m now one of “them.”
My family still believes as I once did, never having had to experience the judicial process. I’ve been deemed guilty, therefore I am. They turn their back on me and I find myself alone, in a place not meant for me, with no one to talk to. I’m afraid. I’m surrounded by “them.”
Weeks, then months pass. It can’t be. How is this possible? “They” are just like me. I’m no longer afraid. We talk and I realize we’re not so different. Am I becoming an animal? A sausage? Or had I been wrong all these years? Are these convicts actually human? With feelings? And people who care about them? I was so sure of myself. How could I have been so wrong? Me? I’m usually right.
Months turn into years. I now have friends. I share in their happiness, their pain. I read about a birthday, a graduation, a death. We smile, shed tears, but they never ask me about my family, because they know I’m one of them now.
I go into my cell. Bury my head. I don’t want them to know.
You may not think a few words scratched on a piece of paper to be very important but I want to let you know that they can be life changing. You have an opportunity to truly touch another human being in a way that most cannot comprehend. I’ve seen the power of words turn men away from hate and violence and lead them to enlightenment.
You may not think you have anything to offer or anything in common with someone in prison. Trust me. It doesn’t matter. Just knowing you took the time to write is more than enough to form a bond and cause one of “them” to come out from under his blanket and yell, “Hey, Fred! Look what I just got!”
If you would like to drop Kenneth a line, email us at email@example.com for his contact info.
I’m still feeling a little down about last week’s execution. They killed Mark Asay on the 24th. I had honestly expected him to get a stay. Florida was using a new drug, etomidate. Mark was the guinea pig. I sincerely believe the courts would let them shoot us full of rat poison, but this is the first time a new drug was used without hearings.
The media said Florida changed drugs because they were concerned that midazolam had the potential to cause unnecessary suffering. This is total bullshit. They changed drugs because no one would sell them midazolam. It is a nationwide problem which, unfortunately, Florida may just have solved.
The media made Mark out to be a white supremacist and this is also false. I can’t say who he was while free, but I’ve known the dude for 26 years and he wasn’t the person they made him out to be on TV. Mark walked up to my bars in ’91 while coming in from the yard. I had just been moved onto a permanent wing, and still wasn’t allowed outside. He said, “You have friends here.” That meant a lot to me.
Prison is a place full of people doing creepy shit, and some of them like nothing better than trying to take advantage of anyone new. Dudes who go out of their way to make you feel welcome, especially when you don’t know what to expect, stand out in my mind.
I also remember singing a Hank Jr. song, Family Tradition with Mark in the visit park. That had to be in ’92, and it stands out as I am not a fan of country.
It took a lot out of Mark when his mom died in a car accident, and by all accounts he had lost the will to live at the end. That is why we still don’t know how the high court may feel about expanding the retroactivity, as Mark did not raise the issue. Still, it is a hell of a thing when a state can execute someone after having their death penalty statute declared unconstitutional twice in the last 18 months.
Regardless of the typical squabbles between siblings, my brother has always been someone I’ve looked up to — it’s even fair to say I have idolized him. (Except for the times I want to smash his face in, like all siblings do from time to time). Growing up, he was both the comic relief and the genius of the family. The class clown. Popular with teachers and students — though he didn’t seem to notice that. Every single one of my girlfriends had a crush on him (which continued after we became adults). He is the favored uncle to my kids. He’s HIGH-larious. Seriously — he’s Jerry Seinfeld-funny. He has the kind of talent as a musician that intimidates other artists. He has a photographic memory – I’ve never seen anything like it. (A friend was stunned when Rick described what was on page eight of a schematic he hadn’t seen in years). He is wrong so infrequently that it is super annoying. I mean come on! He’s impossible to argue with, which is usually why I want to smash his face in. I used to argue with him constantly. He’s my only sibling. When he and his wife bought property in Texas back in 2000, turning the talk of a long-distance move into reality, I couldn’t even speak the news out loud. It felt like I was losing my best friend. I thought it was the worst news ever.
It wasn’t. In the summer of 2013, our dad delivered the actual worst news ever. Rick had been arrested, because someone told a lie. A monstrous lie. In Texas, that’s a go-directly-to-jail card. Everything in my life is measured by that day — what happened before it, and what happened after it.
I wrote the true story below back in December of 2014, after a year and a half of the daily anguish every family member knows only too well when you’re seeing someone you love suffer unjustly.
And yet, one of the first things Rick said to me from a phone in Travis County Jail was, “There are a lot of good people in here. And a lot of sad stories.” In the midst of his own despair, he wanted to do something to help people — and Adopt an Inmate was born.
While, three and-a-half years after his arrest, we have adjusted to a “new normal,” and it helps Rick and the whole family every time we can share news that we’re helping more people — certain memories still feel like a fresh kick in the gut. This is one of them.
I hardly ever want to smash his face in any more.
Cards, Letters and Jail Shenanigans
It took four attempts to collect it from the jail. After a number of blatant lies and conflicting stories from a handful of guards and post officers, the bag was lost. We feared it had been thrown in the trash. On the third attempt to collect it, I was shouted at by one of the guards, who literally refused to hear anything I had to say.
Finally on the fourth attempt – I was shown some measure of civility by one guard, who informed me that the property had been located, and would be walked over to the video visitation building, where I was waiting for my last visit with my brother before I flew back home, and before he would be moved to prison. The guard who shouted at me exhibited great maturity when, after the bag was delivered, refused to hand me the bag even though it was six inches in front of her on the counter. She actually called another guard over (the civil one) to pick it up from in front of her and hand it to me.
This is what it’s like to try to get anything done for someone who is in jail. It is exactly how everything else has gone since this nightmare began. Save for a few angels, it is pure hell.
But wait, there’s more.
Because I was made to wait an hour and a half for the visit, even though there were over 20 —TWENTY! — available video booths and zero people ahead of me (they have perfected the art of causing families to suffer every possible unnecessary nuisance), I missed my flight. Then because of weather (now the landing time would be after dark), the connecting flight was first delayed, and then diverted, so instead of arriving home at six pm that day, I landed at an airport in a different city, and took a two and-a-half hour bus shuttle, arriving home at 4:00 the next morning.
Thanks, Travis County Correctional Center.
This bag of letters was my carry-on. I held on to that bag like it was made of gold, as if Rick himself were in there. I carried it with me through the airport to my connecting gate, clutching it until my flight finally departed. I read the cards and letters in the air, and wept quiet tears of both joy and grief, trying not to disturb my seat mates.
Among the letters were also notes from other inmates, that Rick would pass on to us so that we could contact family members and give them messages. There are many pre-trial detainees that don’t have someone on the outside with the resources to help them, so we tried to fill that gap when we could – but mostly we felt helpless.
Innocent until proven guilty? No. Not in this country. Unless you are wealthy, or have some substantial political clout, you will not be permitted to participate in your own defense. If you are charged – you’re going down.
This, and every other shenanigan we have been forced to go through, is exactly why we are starting a non-profit, to address these kinds of issues. These people have no lobbies, and thus no voices – their stories go unheard, their urgent needs unmet. That is not okay.
Look for news about our non-profit in the near future, and please continue to send cards and letters while we wait out this next chapter. We’ll get through it by focusing on this positive work, and looking forward to his release.
Trust me, there will be a big party. You’re all invited, and I can’t wait to see you there.