Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Topsy Turvy

[This was written on May 22 while in prison]

If I needed any further evidence that the world I currently reside in is upside down, this surely cinches it:

Today a black guy called me a "nigger."

Later, an old fat white guy called me a "moron."

So how was your day?

Yesterday, my birthday, was a good day. I finally met the first inmate who read my blog on the oustide and then reported to FPC Pensacola (I will write about this separately). His comments were very encouraging. I can't tell you how many times I have considered terminating this "project." Just the day before a guy I respect told me I was "dangerous" because of my commitment to tell the candid (mostly) truth about my experience in prison. [That was in reference to my decision to write about being assaulted.] The main point I want to make now is how quickly your emotional state can switch in here.

One moment you feel like you're finally getting your groove and the next you feel like you haven't got a clue. Ther are 700 guys here, each with his own issues, stresses, backgrounds, personalities, etc. It is impossible to expect consistent, predictable behavior from such a social organization.

Most inmates seem to deal with this by withdrawing to a very small network and they limit their significant interactions to that group. In other settings, they might as well be zombies. They literally disconnect from their surroundings to avoid potential conflict. They are trying to do their time as invisibly as possible.

For example, at work, once the tasks for the day are assigned, most guys just go do their job (or, not, depending on the person!) and speak as little as possible. It can really be quite a moribund environment. Someone like me, who has only 3 months, and treats this experience as something akin to a once-in-a-lifetime exotic safari, and therefore approaches each day somewhat cheerfully, can be an irritant.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to see other guys snickering at me while I work because I, well, actually work. I don't really care; I am not trying to "adapt." (However, I don't deny that if I had more time, I might take a different approach.)

Today I asked one of the black "street" guys I worked with if he enjoyed laughing at me while I worked. (He didn't know that I had noticed this, but this is an example of where I ask a provocative question that may lead me to a place I really don't want to go!) He smiled and said I had a "funny personality." I replied that "my personality works OK (I think!) on the outside. I guess I just haven't come up with my 'prison' personality yet." I think he took it as an insult.

One of the facts I am discovering is that, beneath the civil and friendly veneer that seems so apparent when you first arrive, there is a lot of anger and depression in here -- an "edginess" that can erupt unpredictably at the slightest and most innocent of provocations. Disputes that would be relatively trivial on the outside risk escalation into something more serious in here.

I have developed a pretty thick skin to insulting and aggressive remarks directed at me at what seems like increasing frequency. You really need to have a strong sense of self and remain grounded otherwise you feel like you are riding in a bumper car at a carnival, being knocked all over the place from every direction. I can see why some guys can begin to lose their mind... it can be disorienting, a kind of mental motion sickness.

As for the black guy that called me a "nigger" (a remark that was provoked by what I thought was a relatively mild comment of mine), I asked another black guy I respect what it means when black guy calls a white guy a "nigger?" He smiled and paused and then said it means nothing... it's just an insult. Ok... whatever.... still a first for me.

As for the old fat white guy that called me a "moron," that was in the context of him listening in on a group discussion several of us were having in the room about providing advice to people entering prison. He interjected that he wouldn't pay two cents for what I had to say (!), that I was a "moron" and that I might have a lot of "book" smarts but I have zero "street" smarts. Well, I am glad he had a chance to get that off his chest. Venting seems to be a popular sport around here. [By the way, there were several incidents like this later where he would, seemingly out of nowhere, verbally attack me. It was quite odd.]

In any case, it was just another routine topsy-turvy day in The Rabbit Hole.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bill would you agree that living in a crowded dorm environment caused such an imbalance. I mean I know its prison but it seems that some people go out of their way to insult or look for trouble? why is this? If you are a non violent inmate and just trying to do your time then why aggravate another inmate? opinions are opinions its better to be quiet...then to insult.