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Hello to all I the A.I. Universe.
I was given an article recently by Katie Rose Quandt and Alexi Jones titled Research Roundup: Incarceration can cause lasting damage to mental health. The article went in depth about the effects of our current system of penology on the mental health of those affected with mental health issues prior to being incarcerated. But what was most fascinating for me was the evidence that those who previously had no mental health issues were being subjected to such cruel conditions that even those leaving prison are experiencing lasting detrimental affects to their mental health. The affectation is known as “Post Incarceration Syndrome.”
The article took into consideration what I have found to be the most prevalent factor surrounding the mental deterioration in the carceral environment… STAFF. I will always remain fair in my assessments and never place all staff in the same category, but like the inmates, the staff that make the incarcerative experience a pure living hell, as opposed to a corrective endeavor, without a doubt have the most influence, and hence, the biggest impact on the mental health of prisoners.
A recent experience may explain. I am currently housed at a prison in Lake County Florida, appropriately Lake Correctional Institution. At this prison there is no library, no law library, nor any vocational education programs. There is space for a limited number of prisoners to work on obtaining a G.E.D., and a recently-begun wellness education program. There are also some religious volunteers and someone from Toastmaster’s International that comes in once a week to facilitate a group known as the Gavel Club. I am a member of the Gavel Club and the Wellness class. Unfortunately, although the Wellness instructor is very adept at relating her subject matter, almost none of the material is applicable to prison life. We have wellness education in the morning, and a coinciding recreation period in the afternoon. On this particular afternoon after walking several laps around the rec yard I sat my arthritic self on an incline in the grass to rest my knees. The next thing I knew two newer officers, officers, arroyo and stewart, were standing over me ordering me to get up and get moving. I attempted to explain that I had just walked several laps around the rec yard and was resting because I suffer from arthritis. None of the precipitating factors made any difference to these two officers. I know this because they said so when they replied, “I don’t care, get up and get moving like I told you.” I then tried to explain that the Wellness instructor is aware of my situation but was again informed that that held no weight with these two power hungry officers, that they had given me an order. When I asked if they would treat their grandfather this way that was all the reason they needed to whip out the handcuffs and begin the walk of shame across the rec yard with their quota of radical senior citizens in tow on the road to confinement where I would begin days if not weeks…yes you guessed it, doing nothing but lying on my back. The worst part for me would not be the loss of what little stimuli we do have by being placed into confinement, it was being essentially arrested by these two officers simply because of the power play that was created by them in the first place. When we reached the captain for approval to “lock me up,” thankfully he was somewhat level-headed and had the presence of mind to inform the officers that “the thing that started the whole thing,” my laying in the grass during recreation, I was actually allowed to do. The captain left it up to the officers whether or not to place me in confinement and I have no idea why they declined but by that time the damage to my psyche had already been done. While removing the hand cuffs the other officer had to get in one last jab by making the statement, “and wipe that smirk off your face.”
Now mind you, I’m sixty years old being ordered around by two recent high school graduate misandrists because FDC has lowered the recruitment age to 18. What can possibly be accomplished by placing an 18 year old in a position of authority over a sixty year old? The only thing to be accomplished is having a body to fill the position. There is absolutely zero rehabilitation even if that were the goal. Which it is not. The end result was that I was ordered to leave the rec yard and return to the dormitory. So instead of hitting what they were shooting at, me to be physically active on the rec yard, I went to the dorm and proceeded to lay back on my bunk doing nothing. Not only was my physical well being completely disregarded by officers arroyo and stewart, but it was literally days before my mental functioning began to process the event without anger, depression, and the feeling of degradation. And to be quite honest I still have not gotten completely over it because I find myself doing everything possible to avoid these two officers even in passing. The real question is will I ever be able to deal with life on life’s own terms again whether inside or outside these fences?
It is not surprising the recidivism rate is as high as it is as mental illness appears to be the touchstone of the largest incarceral system the world has ever known.
By the way, did I mention Lake C.I. is a designated mental health facility. A lot of good that does.
Peace and love. Namaste.
This morning (3-24-21) at Twins Rivers Unit in Washington state, an incarcerated individual approached C.U.S Collins with a complaint about the imposition of a new DOC policy that required incarcerated individuals to cohort. This man asked why is it that we are being subject to punishment if we don’t cohort, but the staff (Corrections Officers and Administration) walk from unit to unit and potentially pass Covid. This man was told that staff is doing what they can.
Then when asked “How come we are not allowed to sit at a table that has 4 seats with 3 other men, or a table with six seats with 5 other men?” When all Washington counties are in phase 3. We have 3 wings per unit and it’s basically bedrooms (cells) with a living room (day room) but with each wing having 75+ men we are only allowed about 23 men in the day room and we have to be six feet away with our masks on. Now when we get caught with our mask down on a phone or talking to another person we are subject to punishment. We are basically in our house’s living room – why do we have to wear a mask at home? Staff go home and remove their masks and relax. Staff can only bring Covid into us so they should be the only ones wearing mask as you would if you had company come over.
Furthermore we should have the governor give guidelines for the prisons if they are not to follow the phase for the county they reside. The whole state is in phase 3, DOC is in sec.1 of phase 1. As communities move forward, DOC moved back. After expressing all this to C.U.S Collins this man was told to make a complaint. His response was “I am making a complaint.” Then he was told to yard in as they were gonna have a “Play Safety Muster.” Which is where they talk about safety in the units. When they should be talking about how punishing us for not following a unwritten rule doesn’t coincide with state policy. State employees will not be fined or punished for not wearing a mask but can impose punishment for a choice.
Our families need to know we’re being taken care of by knowing DOC is following all the phasing that is taking place in the state. And that we’re not being punished for asking why.
This is not a trick question, and there are no prizes for placing at the top of the list. But as I read articles from around the country in regard to the ever-increasing numbers of newly infected persons, and hear next-to-nothing about prisoners, it stands to reason that somebody is making those decisions. I have no delusions when it comes to the disbursement of the vaccine for this terrible disease — that according to mainstream media is taking the lives of 94 Americans every hour. Prisoners will in all likelihood be at the very end of that list. But here in the south, it appears there is some sort of Russian roulette being played out by the staff at the prisons.
The first wave was subtle and most didn’t know that what they were suffering was more likely than not actually covid 19. Of course the virus must have been working it’s way through the population since at least…2019. We may never know the full extent of the toll that the virus has taken on the prison population but we can see by the actions of prison staff and administration there is no concern for the safety of prisoners.
First of all they were shuffling inmates who tested positive in and out of dormitories with inmates who hadn’t yet gotten test results. This seemed to ensure that all of the inmates were exposed as quickly as possible. The staff has been directed to constantly harangue inmates to wear the apparently useless masks that were made by the laundry department, all the while not wearing their own masks. The coup de grace came this week however, when staff decided that it would be safe for the prisoners if they set up a makeshift, impromptu barbershop in the middle of the prison, outside — literally, with zero sanitation precautions, forcing inmates to shave their heads under threat of confinement. The clippers were not being cleaned. Not just properly, but not at all in between prisoner’s head shaves. If you remember, some of the first businesses to close were beauty and barbershops. And those were legitimate businesses complying with health and safety codes. In this makeshift torture line, hundreds of prisoners were being forced by threat to shave their heads to the scalp one after the other leaving open nicks, cuts, and wounds on their heads with no cleaning procedures in between prisoners. Florida Department of Corrections policy and procedure manual rescinded the section on ”barber and cosmetology sanitation” in 2003 and never replaced it. The rules and the policy and procedure manual does, however, provide the process for forced compliance to required hygiene. Amazingly enough, outside assembly line forced head shaves are not to be found in either of those controlling documents. When one individual mentioned that it was not procedure, he was told “I’ll f___ing show you procedure ho.’‘
Upon filing an official grievance with administration, the grievant was told that his complaint was too broad and vague. How specific must one say, ”I don’t want to be sick from the corona virus…again.” If you have loved ones, family, adoptees or friends in prison, and are not yet involved, get involved and stay involved. DEEPLY INVOLVED. You may save their life. Since after all, we don’t know who gets to make the decision of who gets the virus.
While certainly not as grossly unjust as it was prior to the 1980s, incarceration is still an incredibly dehumanizing experience, and given that people are incarcerated for years at a time, imprisonment in the United States often permanently scars a person to the point that many prisoners no longer feel like people at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying we are victims, and I’m not forming my conclusions based on the sense of entitlement that is so pervasive in American culture. It goes without saying that prison is punishment for criminal misconduct, and my actions warrant that punishment. I can accept that. I have developed into a man who can acknowledge the fact that my act of egregious violence not only cost another human being his life, but ultimately harmed everyone involved, including the victim’s family, my family, and the community at large. I am not denying that, nor am I blaming anyone else for my situation.
However, the commission of and consequences for a criminal act, especially an act of violence, doesn’t take place in a vacuum, right? I mean, in the same way that there are identifiable social and psychological ramifications for criminal activity, there are many social and psychological variables that influence and shape the reasons why a person commits a crime. Redemptive justice should look to identify and treat the highly individualized social and psychological deficits in those who engage in criminal activity in an effort to redeem the human beings behind the acts and prepare them for reintegration into society while simultaneously disciplining them with proportionate punitive measures. Unfortunately, prisons in the United States are neither redemptive nor restorative. They are overly punitive and dehumanize the already troubled human beings confined within them.
One example, a situation with which I am dealing currently is an increased emphasis on the enforcement of property rules on my unit, which is completely understandable because things have grown lax in recent years. I live on an incentive housing unit and we all had too much property stored in unauthorized places. However, the one in charge of communicating this elevated enforcement to those who run the units is less than approachable.
One day, he came to the unit after we were called to chow. We returned to chaos and intimidation — I entered my cell, and the folders I had on the table were thrown to the floor, my papers scattered, the blanket on the end of my bunk thrown to the middle, and as I surveyed the small room where I live, I could hear him threatening to move people off the unit when they simply tried to explain that this unit offers less storage space than other units. While this seems like a relatively innocuous incident, it is emblematic of a larger reality.
Another crucial aspect of being human is feeling warmth and love. The incarcerated are almost never shown warmth and love, and we rarely show it to each other. It is generally viewed as a weakness within prison culture, and the staff are trained to put on a persona that lacks any degree of warmth or compassion when dealing with us because it is believed that showing concern and warmth will reduce their authority, even though there is an argument that holds warmth would increase not only the authority and credibility of the staff, but also their safety. In an environment as cold and unfeeling as prison, it can become difficult to express warmth at all after a while. It just becomes so foreign, and if we are unaware of this dynamic, which most of us are, then it can become uncomfortable to receive it as well.
Every human being is unique and has a need to express his or her individuality, but in prison, our ability to experience and express our own individuality is limited. Communication is stifled. Staff rarely listen to or even allow us to explain our side of a given situation, believing we are trying to manipulate everything to our advantage. We are treated as if we are all the same, cattle to be exploited for profit by both the state and the private companies that do business within the prison system, rather than the unique human beings we are.
Meaning and purpose are also crucial aspects of being human. People need to feel like they matter; they need a reason to wake up, to put one foot in front of the other. The “Will to Meaning,” as Victor Frankl put it, provides the impetus for growth, the drive to become a better, more actualized person. While certainly not comparable to Frankl’s Nazi internment camp experiences, the dehumanization of contemporary incarceration still works against the will to meaning. The effects are simply more subtle and, therefore, more insidious. In fact, the prison system has no vehicle or mechanism either to express why meaning and purpose are so critical for rehabilitation or how to help the incarcerated find meaning and purpose in their lives. When humans are treated like their lives are meaningless, it becomes too easy to believe the lives of others are meaningless, too.
The punitive aspects of prison are out of balance with the stated mission of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the current reality of the prison system is that it more often than not produces people who come out more broken than when they went in. They feel disrespected, frustrated, empty, alone, humiliated, and unloved. Academic and vocational training is limited in both scope and availability. Substance abuse or sex addiction treatment programs are literally non-existent, even though 75% of the incarcerated in Oregon are in for either a drug offense or sex crime. Although I’m not a sex offender, I was drunk when I committed an act of violence against another man, and I had a history of drug and alcohol abuse at the time.
Cognitive dissonance involves a psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. The idea is that one cannot hold competing beliefs and attitudes for long — it is inevitable that a person will eventually take one position over the other. I feel like when this manager looks in the cells and sees pitchers full of ice water or colored sugary drinks, folders, books, and other evidence of human presence, it causes a psychological conflict for him because he does not view us as human. He wants no human possessions to be visible on the tables and walls — only steel and brick. He wants to see an animal in a cage, rather than a man in a room, so he reacts with venom, intimidation, and vitriolic rhetoric.
Problems of dehumanization are paradigmatic and systemic. Take for example the man in charge of pushing the elevated enforcement of property rules on my unit: It is not the enforcement of the rules that is dehumanizing. It is how he treats people as he enforces them. The lack of flexibility, nonverbal intimidation, and verbal threats reveal his cognitive dissonance regarding the incarcerated.
He is not the only one. Many administrative staff hold these views of the incarcerated, and because of the paradigm with which they do their jobs, subordinates adopt similar views, making it a systemic problem. I don’t blame them too much. I’m not sure they even understand the ripple effect they have on their world, but the consequences go far beyond themselves.
Constant dehumanization, experienced everyday in a thousand different ways over a period of years, amounts to socialization. The negative and abusive patterns of treatment during incarceration socially conditions the incarcerated to view themselves as less than human, unlovable, and undeserving of empathy, thereby reducing their capacity to empathize with those in society. In fact, gang members, sex offenders, and drug addicts who desperately want to change their lives find little in the way of guidance or counseling — when they are in that liminal space between their criminally-oriented past and whatever their future may hold, the only consistent message prison offers is that they are less than authentically human.
Sure, in this environment, we all have the choice to grow… or not, but the criminal justice system certainly does not highlight the better choices one could make. Nor does it show the incarcerated person how to purposely and positively alter his or her decision-making patterns in order to realize genuine change. This method of “rehabilitation” does not curtail criminal behavior or reduce the recidivism rate. Unfortunately, current models of incarceration and systemic dehumanization actually work to increase criminal thinking and antisocial behavior patterns. But…at least there is nothing on my table now.
In the movie Shawshank Redemption, one of the incarcerated characters, Red they called him, went before the parole board. He had been in prison for over 30 years at that point, and one of the members of the parole board asked him, “Do you think you have been rehabilitated?”
Red responded. “I don’t know what that means…. I know what you think it means, but to me, it’s just a politician’s word, a made up word so people like you can have a job…” The setting of this scene is the United States in the mid-to-late 1960s. While it is undeniable that the criminal justice system has come a long way since the 1960s, I still relate to that scene.
I have been in prison since 2001, and I don’t blame anyone else for my incarceration. I am in prison as a direct result of my violence, my selfishness, and my irresponsibility. Yet, I have grown and matured in virtually every conceivable way, and I have made some observations about rehabilitation during my journey.
One of the stated missions of the criminal justice system is the rehabilitation of those convicted of criminal activity while holding them accountable for the harm they have caused. The concept of rehabilitation involves returning something back to good condition. Synonyms abound: overhaul, renovate, re-condition, restore, but it seems none of these truly capture what goes on in America’s prisons.
Without question, there are some programs that positively impact the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of those incarcerated, such as ABE/GED programs, a few basic cognitive-behavioral classes, and even some rudimentary mental health groups. However, none of them wield the depth or intensity to be considered authentically rehabilitative.
The greatest impediment to genuine rehabilitation taking root in the criminal justice system, in my opinion, is not only the ubiquitous tension between correctional staff and the incarcerated men and women whom they supervise, but also the fact that its magnitude is usually kept hidden — it isn’t ever talked about openly, making any solutions extremely enigmatic.
I certainly don’t hold it to be completely the fault of correctional staff. Without a doubt, they have a difficult, stressful, and often dangerous job, and they deal with some of the most unreasonable and violent personalities the country has to offer. The complexities and risks involved with being a correctional staff member do not escape me. I do question, however, whether the adversity and subjugation of the incarcerated escapes those who profit from them.
Genuine empathy and compassionate concern are transformative, not only for those to whom they ar given, but also for those who feel them when serving others. However, they cannot be applied legitimately to a correctional setting without an elevated degree of mercy from those who administer and enforce the rules, regulations, and orderly operations of a correctional facility. Unfortunately, mercy is often misunderstood, and within that misunderstanding lies the fundamental reason for the great gulf that exists between the incarcerated and those who staff correctional facilities.
Currently, much of the criminal justice system does little but warehouse and manage those convicted of crime, rather than treat the substance abuse and violence surrounding most criminal activity. This has created a growing underclass in the United States. During incarceration, “otherness,” “uncleanness,” and “inferiority” are internalized, and after release, pervasive disenfranchisement reinforces them. Mercy is too often perceived as letting someone off the hook or reducing consequences, to pull one’s punches, so to speak. Yet the true nature of mercy involves such a depth of compassion that one is moved to action on behalf of another. Holding those of us in prison accountable for our actions is both redemptive for us and demanded by the communities from which we come. Consequently, mercy requires justice — but the kind of justice prescribed by mercy is restorative, not corrosive.
Correctional staff are trained to put on a persona of authority and superiority when dealing with inmates and assert their authority at every opportunity. This maintains a social gap between themselves (essentially those who represent mainstream society) and the incarcerated, creating strawman stereotypes that make it incredibly easy to generalize the most negative notions of the worst incarcerated person to all incarcerated persons. “These guys are lazy, dirty, manipulative, untrustworthy, and dangerous.” These are statements made regularly about inmates by staff.
Instead of feeling empathy for the moral and social gulf that separates those who have lived a criminal lifestyle and those who have not, instead of learning more about the individual nuances that may provide insight into a given inmate’s behaviors, the situational assessments needed to do these things are too often abandoned in favor of what is easy: subjectively reconstructing the image of every inmate, replacing the diversity of motives and experiences with a singularity of favored presuppositions, a subtle form of rejection that affords correctional staff a feeling of superiority, which becomes intoxicating. This social distance facilitates thinking of the incarcerated in abstract, depersonalized terms.
Sure, we are not tortured — in fact, we are provided for quite well. But we are not treated with the dignity that might condition us to believe we could ever become contributing members of society. We often encounter an insensitive ear and a closed, even locked door when searching for redemption, intensifying the anguish, pervasive loneliness, and utter despondency of being separated from everything we know and love, and everything that knows and loves us.
However, the incarcerated are not blameless. Far too many incarcerated persons view their incarceration as an injustice, believing themselves to be victims, unfairly imprisoned. They operate with an obnoxious sense of entitlement, failing to acknowledge the wake of material and human carnage left as a result of their careless, selfish actions. They will spew anger and venom at correctional staff for the smallest, most inconsequential directive or request, however legitimate. Many inmates push the envelope, looking to manipulate every situation to their favor and even defraud their way into some sort of advantageous special treatment, and when their goals are thwarted, they will flip it, making the correctional staff into the bad guy. Some will even be violent, seeking to harm staff members in any way they can. Far too many incarcerated individuals are perpetually disrespectful, legitimately dangerous, and constitutionally unruly, shirking the authority of staff members at every opportunity.
This seems to be the result of the incarcerated doing the same thing the criminal justice system does to us: Inmates often dehumanize and objectify correctional staff, viewing them not as people with lives and families and a job to do, but as obstacles that keep us from doing what we want to do.
The bottom line is… no one is innocent in the creation of the tension between correctional staff and the incarcerated. These stereotypes are fundamentally inaccurate. All inmates are not irredeemable — some of us take responsibility for our hurtful behavior and are honestly interested in becoming people who do not hurt others in the pursuit of our goals. And neither are all correctional officers full of hatred for the incarcerated. Some are wonderful people genuinely interested in helping those inmates who are committed to becoming productive members of society.
The criminal justice system is broken, and the primary reason, aside from the obvious overcrowding as a result of draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws and a failed war on drugs, is a vicious cycle of animosity between inmates and staff. And it makes it worse that we do not talk about it. Solutions to problems are not found in the dark. If we could all just give each other a break, accept each other as equals with regard to our humanity, and show compassion, things could really change for the better.
This past Friday, I was taking advantage of this amazing opportunity to take a CPR class. The lieutenant instructing the class actually spoke about this problem. He intimated that for many years he had seen only blue (the color of our uniforms) rather than our humanity. I was literally stunned! I was not offended; I was softened. We all know how we all feel, but when it’s brought into the open, it loses power. This staff member’s vulnerability earned my respect and afforded him a level of credibility that I have not often experienced in almost 20 years of incarceration — simply by acknowledging his struggle to see us as human beings.
I related to his words quite deeply because I deal with the same problem. For the past few years, I have felt my bitterness toward staff, this ball of galvanized disdain in my gut at which I have been chipping, trying slowly to process away my feelings by working to humanize the correctional staff. It has not been easy, but the admission by that lieutenant not only made it a little easier; it made my struggle feel normal as well, bringing me into the fold of society again, even if only just a little. I hope in the future we can do more to break down the barriers between us — after all, we are all human. Understanding that is what rehabilitation means… isn’t it?