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The Trouble With Prison

by KENNETH E. HARTMAN

In his Republic, Plato’s allegory of the cave describes how the limited perception of man leaves him measuring the world with only the distorted reflections of reality.  The trouble with prison, as it is perceived, is the shadows are further distended by a variety of prisms that bend reality to suit a host of preconceptions, special interests and self-fulfilling prophecies.  The end result of this shape-shifting is a system that produces failure as a matter of course, that pretends to protect the mass of society, and that destroys whole communities in its voracious appetite.  The trouble with prison is prison.

I serve the other death penalty – life without the possibility of parole – for killing a man in a fistfight when I was 19 years old.  In that I will never get out, I am freed to speak a more direct and unfiltered truth than those who must convince a panel of unsympathetic officials they should be returned to the real world.  My 29 years of direct experience, coupled with a powerful thirst to come to grips with my own personal truth and gain an intellectually valid grasp of this world, have taught me a series of lessons.  While I do not claim to have unchained myself completely from the bonds of ignorance, I believe I can read and interpret accurately the tortured shapes on the dull concrete walls of this particular cave.

People are put in prison because nothing else works.  This is the foundational misperception that supports the prison edifice.  The truth is far less simple.  There are prisoners whose lifetime of dangerous behavior leaves prison as the only choice for society.  But these are a tiny minority in the sea of pathetic misfits and perennial losers walking the yards.

Most prisoners are uneducated, riddled with unresolved traumas and ill-treated mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, and self-esteem issues that are beyond profound, bordering on the pathological far too often.  The vast majority has never received competent health care, mental health care, drug treatment, education or even an opportunity to look at themselves as human.  Were any of these far less draconian interventions even tried, before the descent into this wretched cave, no doubt many of my peers would be leading productive lives.  Nothing else works is not a statement of fact; it is the declaration of an ideology.  This ideology holds that punishment, for the sake of the infliction of pain, is the logical response to all misbehavior.  It is also a convenient cover story behind which powerful special interest groups hide.

Prison employees benefit by our failure.  This startling fact contains within it a monstrous truth.  These well-organized government workers created the victims’ rights movement, a sad shill for the prison-industrial complex.  Using the handful of politically active victims of crime to obscure their actual agenda, propositions are passed, laws are changed, and policies that could prevent victimization in the first place are suppressed.  Both of these groups, working in tandem with the corporations that supply and construct prisons, pour millions of dollars into the political process to achieve a system guaranteed to fail.  But this failure by any other measure – high rates of recidivism, high rates of internal disorder, growing prison populations serving longer sentences – results in greater profits to the corporations, increased membership in the unions, and ever growing piles of dollars to buy still more influence.

After reading a small library of books and studies on the subject, along with my direct experience, it is clear only three rehabilitative programs have proof of success.  Increased and enhanced visiting to build and maintain family ties, higher education, and quality drug and alcohol treatment constitutes this golden triad.  It is not a closely held secret that these work to lower recidivism and, thus, prevent victimization; rather, this is well known.  Nevertheless, the special interest groups lobby incessantly against all three.  In my 29 years, visiting has deteriorated from a slightly unpleasant experience to a hostile and traumatic acid bath that quite effectively destroys family ties.  Higher education is virtually nonexistent but for those few with the substantial resources needed to purchase it.  In those rare cases where innovative ways have been found to bring education back into the prisons the special interest groups have mounted vicious campaigns to terminate the programs.  The opposition to drug and alcohol treatment, much more widely supported in the body politic, is subtler.  Using the proven method of compulsory participation by the least amenable, those programs that are instituted are crippled in the normal chaos of prison.  All of this opposition stands behind the banner of protecting victims’ rights, as if only the desire for revenge by past victims of crime matters, over even the potential losses of future victims.

With recidivism rates well beyond two-thirds, the assumption for all prisoners is that of failure.  It is written into the policies of prison that force parolees back to failed situations, that site prisons far from the urban areas most prisoners come from, and provide no after-parole assistance.  When I first came into the California state system in the late ‘70s, a parolee received a decent set of clothes, a bus ticket and $200 in cash.  Today’s parolee receives a sweat suit unsuitable for a job interview and $200; out of which is deducted the cost of his bus ticket and decades of devaluation.  The parolee, having received no real substance abuse treatment, no serious education or training, no useful mental health counseling, and holding barely enough money for a short stay in a flophouse, is cast back out into the real world to swim or, more likely, sink.  The aid that would make the transition more likely successful is denied, ostensibly, to save money.  The pennies it would take to reestablish the parolee vanish next to the fifty thousand a year it costs to re-incarcerate the parole violator.

Yet again, sadly, it becomes clear on close inspection that without our mass failure the gears of the prison-industrial complex would stop.  Jobs would be lost, rural communities devastated, and the flow of political contributions would dry up.  From the perspective of those who depend on our failure to sustain themselves, our success would be a disaster.  In my state, an admitted extreme example, on any given day about half the prison population are parole violators, a majority of whom have broken no law but rather violated one of the vast web of confusing and devious tripwire rules they must navigate around on the other side of the fences.

Failure is expected, a bad enough thing, to be sure.  Worse, failure is celebrated and lauded.  The primary rationale of parole divisions is to lock as many ex-cons as possible back into the prisons.  There are gang task forces, and drug task forces, and absconder recovery units, and high control teams, all of which operate on a presumption of failure.  These black-clad, helmeted law enforcement platoons prowl the alleys and back streets of the inner cities hunting down parolees.  They justify the over-application of picayune rules as preventing the assumed major crimes the parolee is bound to commit, eventually.  After the high-fives and backslapping are over, parole officers content themselves with their sense of exacting a frighteningly prospective form of justice.  The now current convict heads back for another year or two of dehumanization for forgetting to report he moved or talking to his cousin also on parole.

The prison system dresses itself in a cloak of respectability by claiming to protect society from the “worst of the worst.”  At a certain level, this is true.  There are some irredeemables, those who should not be allowed to prey on society ever again.  The trouble with this assertion, and the direction it has taken, is there just aren’t enough worst of the worst to justify the concrete and razor wire empire, not to the extent it has grown.  The definition of who fits into this excluded class has expanded dramatically over the years, along with the borders of the system.  Now, along with the serial predator is housed the serial drug addict and the serial shoplifter and the serial loser, all serving extraordinarily long sentences on prison yards devoid of even a semblance of rehabilitation.  This in the name of protecting society.

Policies are enacted that are purposely brutal by staff who have been trained to view prisoners as less than human, to believe that their real role is to exact revenge, who see us in all ways the enemy, the dangerous other.  This message, that we are not fully human, is pressed into us every moment of every day in a multitude of ways from the mundane (being forced to wear pants with “PRISONER” stamped on the leg in neon orange lettering) to the profound (being prevented from conducting a business or owning property).  This results in a diminishing of our consciousness to that of the unwelcome alien.  From inside this dark recess, it is near to impossible imagining rejoining humanity.  As one state senator in California observed, “If you were to set out to design a system to produce failure, this would be it.”  It is not surprising this elected official represents an area that has disproportionately suffered due to these policies and was a professor of psychology before assuming office.

Whole communities have been decimated, literally, by the policies of the system.  People of color, the poor and the dispossessed, are represented in numbers far exceeding their share of society.  It starts on streets patrolled by an occupying force of police who view these people as less than, as suspects first and foremost.  Arrests are made for the most trivial offenses, for the little acts of rebellion and frustration not uncommon to young people everywhere.  But down on the occupied bottom of society there is no call made to mommy and daddy.  No well-dressed lawyer will show up in court with a privately contracted psychologist to explain junior’s learning disability.  A bored, too often hostile, public defender will convince the youth to take a plea bargain that 20 years later becomes the first strike in a life sentence for boosting a ham.  Once a name has a criminal justice system number affixed to it, the move from possible suspect to probable offender is complete.  In some of the worst off communities, every third or fourth man, and a growing number of women, carry a number on their shoulders.

As the mass of people in this country who labor to carry a number grows so, too, does the harm caused and exacerbated by the prison system.  No longer a tiny fringe of malcontents and unrepentant thugs, we who have sprung from the electrified fences and gun towers, from inside the racially polarized and ganged-up yards, who have spent a significant portion of our lives locked into tiny concrete boxes bending over and spreading our cheeks, are a growing segment of the real world.  We have spouses and children, parents and siblings, and our influence on the collective consciousness is solidifying.  It is seen in the glorification of violence and the fascination with acts of irrational and pointless rage that fills the media and dominates the lives of prisoners.  It is heard in the adoption of jailhouse terms applied to schools put on “lockdown” and street cops “kickin’ it with the homies.”  It is felt in the tighter ring of controls that encircle the lives of free people in the real world, a disturbing reflection of the world of prisoners.

Prison is insatiable and unquenchable.  It devours everything in its path and swallows whole anything that attempts to deter it.  All these years I have spent inside I have observed just how effectively the system crushes its opposition.  The well meaning and good hearted eventually surrender to the overwhelming force and terrible despair.  Not least of which, that pouring out of the desperate flailing of prisoners ourselves as we beat our heads against the walls of our internal exile with a maniacal ferocity.  We internalize the separation and removal, the assumed less-than status, and hold up the idiotic and vainglorious pride we pretend to like clowns’ make-up to hide our shame.  Some of us profess to be immune to the battering we endure; many of us deny it happening in spite of the obvious bruises.  In the end, the vast majority of us become exactly who we are told we are: violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting ourselves like conscious adults.  It is a tragic opera with an obvious outcome.

The talk lately making the rounds in political circles, among the power brokers and well heeled, is of reviving the idea of rehabilitation.  The past decades of exploding costs and terrible outcomes, particularly as schools and old folks homes are closed to bridge budget shortfalls, has allowed the concept of using prison to correct, to heal and restore, to be taken seriously again. This is a good thing.  It is long overdue.  But it is an idea that will have to battle powerful forces determined to diminish it into a shadow without substance.  It will face the added complexity of implementation managed by guards and administrators, teachers and counselors who fundamentally reject the notion that prisoners are capable of being restored.  Along with this uphill climb, dragging along the recalcitrant, will be the added obstacle of the special interest groups defending their world of failure.  The simple truth is the less of us the less of them.  If we stop coming back their world will collapse.

Still, the greatest struggle to effect change will be convincing the mass of prisoners, the millions of men and women who have been brainwashed into believing they simply cannot become better.  At the head of this mass will be the seeming leadership from our own ranks, those who have used the status quo to achieve a perverse success.  They are the drug dealers and negative leaders, the phony writ writers, the whole group of profiteers and self-servers who will seek to undermine positive change because in it they glimpse the end of their domination of the dysfunction.  That they aid and assist the special interest groups, the organized revenge groups and the corporations profiting off of our collective misery is obvious.  Heedless, they will seek to maintain the failed system through acts of atavistic violence and jackass resistance.  They might succeed in stifling change, and not for the first time.  This is the modern world of prison, constructed after 25 years of surrendering to fear mongers and manipulators.  It is a fearsome mess.

The trouble with prison is, indeed, prison itself.  The way prison is managed and envisioned.  The idea that by humiliating and brutalizing damaged people some possible good could result is simply a falsehood, a lie perpetrated by interests who benefit from failure.  It has never worked.  It is not working now.  It will never work.  No amount of money poured down society’s communal drain will buy success.  No minimum number of broken bodies and tortured spirits will purchase rehabilitation.  No pyre of burnt offerings, no matter how large and hot, will somehow result in better people walking out the front gate in their gray sweat suits.  The problems are systemic and resilient.  Nothing short of radical and sustained reform will be enough to overcome the resistance of a system built to fail.  It may not be possible, but to not try is to condemn thousands upon thousands of our fellow human beings to a witches’ brew of victimizations, in here and out there.  To not try would be an act of cowardly capitulation to bullies and thugs.  To not try is to become like those who have erected this system, who keep it going, who must somehow sleep with what they do.

KENNETH E. HARTMAN has served over 29 continuous years in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence.  He is an award-winning writer and prison reform activist.  His memoir of prison life “Mother California” will be published by Atlas & Co.  He was instrumental in the founding of the Honor Program at the California State Prison-Los Angeles County.  He is currently leading a grassroots organizing campaign, conducted solely by LWOP prisoners, with the ultimate goal of abolishing this other death penalty. He can be reached at: prisonhonorprogram@hotmail.com or TODP@live.com. (See also www.kennethehartman.com)

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