Prison Pen Pals


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Prison is far more than an epidemic in America.

It's a virtual death sentence for a lot of people, literally as well as figuratively. Many people die in prison, from many causes: from something as simple as having a life sentence, to being killed by an inmate or a CO, or by suicide, or by any number of illnesses.

But more than the literal sense, the figurative sense is that thing that causes the most damage, not just to the individual convicts themselves, but, in the long run, to society as a whole.

Prison kills lifestyles. Prison kills relationships. Prison kills hopes, dreams and aspirations. Maybe it's meant to, as a form of justice, or maybe it's a warped form of justice that isn't just at all. In any case, it exists as it does now not because of any politician, but because of the people. The people are the ones that see criminals as dangerous, and it's the people who choose the politicians who make these draconian laws that put a 13-year-old boy in prison until he's a grown man, then release him without any transitioning, and expect him to operate as a full-grown adult without any problems. It's the people who allowed this to happen because they fear something they don't know. Boogeymen. Because of this fear, a 14 year-old boy is forcibly restrained, maced, hog-tied and placed on solitary confinement for months at a time.

How would I know this? I was that 13-year-old boy who went to prison and got out on his 19th birthday with no halfway house, no home confinement. I was that 14-year-old who was maced, hog-tied and put in the "hole" for 4 months with no celly, and allowed recreation one hour a day in a cement "rec area" no larger than my cell, with only a pull up bar for rec material.

This form of "justice" that is supposed to preserve and protect society has made more criminals than ever before in the world's history, of all its nations in all its years. But it's we the people who suffer most, because the vast majority of these "criminals" re-enter society with no sense of having paid for any crime with a just punishment, and are often embittered, vowing to get back at some vague, faceless authority who represents this clueless creature we call the American Justice System. It's we the people who put that in place, and we the people who made these people who they are, and we the people who will ultimately pay the price.

Prison kills hopes, dreams and aspirations. It kills any naive thought of a return to a simple lifestyle. It kills relationships. Never again will I have a conversation with my mother, who died 6 months after I was incarcerated. Never will I know the joy of being a father to you young girl, getting to watch her grow up into a young woman, being there for her as she learns to navigate life's troubles. That opportunity is forever lost to me when this system both unintentionally and without remorse severed the tie that bound a father to his little girl. She turns 12 in a week or so. I haven't seen her since she was a year old, and has no idea I even exist, because this system allows that to happen.

Prison kills Hope, with a capital H. When once we were young people who hoped for families, a respectable name for ourselves, we are now forced to become leeches sucking the lifeblood of the ones we love so we can in turn call them, write them. We become unintentional burdens to our family because the wonderful 13th Amendment means we are not allowed to support ourselves while we are incarcerated. Our family oftentimes begins to resent us, because in a place where the first BOP budget cuts are from the Inmate Pay program, we are paid $8.00 a month or less at times. A pair of shoes costs no less than $35.00 at most prisons, and postage stamp prices are rising, and phone calls are $3.15 for a 15-minute phone call. Take into account shampoo, soap, writing utensils, paper, envelopes, and, if you're lucky, some ramen noodles, and $8.00 is woefully inadequate. But because of society's (read: the People's) beliefs about convicts are less than merciful, and the 13th Amendment, this is still seen as too good for most of us.

Where is the hope when there is no dignity, no honor? How are we supposed to become men of means when we are never shown how to achieve--let alone handle--the means itself? How are we supposed to become productive, law-abiding members of society when dogs are treated better than us? (And I mean it, we have a dog training program here, and they get more opportunities than us to lead better lives.)

The worst thing prison does is severs the ties to the community without any help in trying to repair them. Friends disappear, family fades away into memory if you're down long enough. All my siblings are younger than me and make no efforts to contact me. Any contact has to be initiated by me.

One way it severs is it causes you to become something less than real, an abstract thing that can become dangerous if it gets too close. I lost a very good friend because she believed it was wrong to be talking to me when she had real people who needed her. And that's who we become to those who once loved us: abstractions, and they can only love us in an abstract way. Because life goes on, but we are not allowed to go on with it. That friend? We used to be romantically involved, and when we first got back in touch with one another after eleven years, it was like no time at all had passed: our connection was still there, and we were talking on the phone like we used to, laughing at the same jokes, calling each other the same names. There was definitely the potential for more romance, and indeed, it seemed to be heading just that way, and it was intoxicating.

She wound up ghosting me for a couple weeks, figuring things out and "coping," as she said. I couldn't blame her. And then one day, blocked, from email, from phone, all my letters sent back. No explanation, until last week, when I got a letter, with this as the opening line, "I'm stopping all communication. I don't want you or me saying sweet nothings to each other. It's stupid and pointless." Her reasoning, she went on, was because she has a boyfriend, who despite his very real, (VERY...troublesome) flaws, "loves me, and he tries." Nowhere was her feeling for him mentioned, and indeed, on the phone she seemed less than content with him. But regardless, she owed him something more than what she was doing with me. So sorry for even starting this, "I must be f***ing crazy," she said. I doubt she knew at that time the feeling that that phrase would cause in me, that feeling of inadequacy, that thought of, If she's crazy for talking to me, what does that make me? We had once loved each other, after all.

All this goes on to prove my point that prison kills. I don't know if things would have worked out differently had I not been locked up, and I'm not going to speculate whether they would have or not. But what I will say is this: I would have had a different way to fight back, because that's what prison does: it takes away every resource you ever thought you had, makes you less than nothing, and you don't get to fight back. It's become a part of the fabric of prison life, or die. You become a convict by necessity. If you don't you will not make it out. Either someone will get you, or you will get yourself. That's the most dangerous aspect of prison to the incarcerated person themselves.

Mass incarceration is an epidemic to some. For those of us on the inside, those of us who have no resources, no loved ones who care because they've died or moved on, what can we hope for? I've been locked up since I was 13 years old. I got out when I was 19, only to be picked up when I was 21 for a crime I had several different alibis for. I'm 32 now. I've been locked up for almost 2/3 of my life--well over half of my life has been spent in the Federal Prison System. Society never gave me a chance to prove myself. I hold no resentment over it, but I hold little love for society for that same reason. Someone voted for the people who passed these laws. I have 15 years left. My daughter will be 26 or 27 when I get out. Maybe she'll know who I am by that time, but I have no one to tell her.

Until then, I am an abstraction, a prison number. I only exist on the payrolls of the federal prison worker who "looks after my safety," and in the vague memories of my siblings, all of whom are younger than me. Few even remember me in any true sense, some have never met me. Until next time.
- Federal prisoner

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