i have been watching a documentary series lately with one of my daughters about life behind bars. unlike lots of other series i’ve seen that just exploit the gratuitous violence or the disgusting  predation that happens in prisons, this series actually gives some food for thought around some of the issues faced by inmates and staff alike. so, we’ve watched some of the episodes together and talked about some of the issues that have been raised.

a recent episode sent me straight back to my bleeding heart ACLU days.

by way of background i should confess that i had lots of friends throughout high school in various city and county jails, and some in actual state prisons. my first “real boyfriend” was in and out of jail more than he was in and out of my life.  by the time i was in college i was studying constitutional law and writing criminal appellate briefs for a friend who was an attorney. so, i have a bit of a soft spot for criminals- please don’t confuse this with me thinking that they shouldn’t be justly punished!- and i think you all know how i feel about fighting for underdogs in general… i did, in fact, do my senior internship at the ACLU, and although my politics differ in some key ways now, i am still fundamentally committed to certain core issues.

so, we were watching this episode where a guy is in prison for murder. he did it; he admits he did it. he murdered someone else in prison. he admits that too. he has to pay and he gets that. he has about 99,000 years worth of sentences and he’s fine with that. he doesn’t mind being in solitary (which they now call “administrative segregation” because i guess even wardens finally realized that “solitary confinement” sounds barbaric- even though that’s still exactly what it is…). he has been locked up for about 22 of his 40-something years on earth  and has been on super good behavior for the last 5 years in hopes of transferring to a prison closer to his home.

you see, his only relative is his elderly mother who is so broke that not only is she still working long past when it looks like she should have retired, she is holding yard sales to raise money to pay her electric bill. she can’t take off work to make the 400 mile drive to visit her son where he is currently locked up, but that doesn’t really matter because she couldn’t really afford the gas anyway.

don’t you dare say, “well he should have thought of that before he committed murder!”

maybe his mother should have thought of that before she became poor. or his teachers in elementary school should have thought of that before they allowed him to stay in an abusive home and not get the family any help. or maybe i should have thought of that before i failed to become a lawyer and fight for his rights.

or maybe we should get back to the issue at hand.

because the issue at hand is this: he goes before a review board to see if he has earned the right to transfer to a prison closer to home. mind you, he is not asking to go to a nicer prison. not a more modern facility. not a place that will cost the taxpayers more. he doesn’t care if the conditions are worse or if he has to lose benefits; he just wants his mom to be able to come visit while she is still able to. then he can live out the other thousand years of his sentence wherever they want to put him. and keep in mind, he has been working to EARN this request.

so they look in his file, and he has kept an exemplary record.

except for one small thing. he disagreed with a staff member over the disposition of a certain piece of mail the previous march.  he should have been given a hearing over it, but was instead written up as making a fuss over it. (this is not code for throwing a hissy fit. he didn’t get violent or belligerent. he didn’t act out or break other rules. the disagreeing with the staff member WAS the rule violation. it was their clerical error that it was written up as a violation and not as a matter for a hearing. but once paperwork is written, it’s almost impossible to have it unwritten…)  he spoke to the warden at the time,  so the warden was aware of the issue, but the paperwork remained in his file. so in spite of having a clean record before and since, he was denied the transfer.

right. this wasn’t a case of not wanting to spend money to transfer him. it wasn’t a case of a bed not being available somewhere else. it wasn’t a case of any of a zillion reasons why these things are routinely denied. it was a case of bad paperwork over a misunderstanding. and lest you think that perhaps this report was just biased in some way, i’ve seen this happen in real life many many times.

so he went back to his cell and fell apart. and he starting throwing things against the little window of his cell and he looked like a rabid animal or a lunatic- exactly what you’d expect from someone “like that”- except that’s just it- he isn’t “like that”. you aren’t seeing an animal. you are seeing a broken man. you are seeing a person driven past his breaking point. you are seeing more frustration than a human can tolerate spilling out all over his cell.

but because his entire life is a pressure cooker, he doesn’t “use his words”. he doesn’t express himself through art or interpretive dance; he doesn’t go out and get rip-roaring drunk because he’s locked down in a space the size of my bathroom. he doesn’t go for a run or go dancing or find a “healthy” outlet for his rage. but to his credit, he doesn’t try to kill anyone either- which is probably what i would do in a similar circumstance, especially given that he pretty much has nothing to lose.

and this is what happened time and time again on the show, although it wasn’t meant to be a theme on the show.

and this is what happens time and time again in real life.

there are 89 gazillion rules and a prisoner is expected to obey every single one of them without question or hesitation every single time every single minute of every single day. the odds are stacked so overwhelmingly against him ever succeeding that it’s a wonder anyone ever gets out at all. because once you’re in the system they can quite literally find reasons to keep extending your sentence almost forever.

it’s like impound fees on a car that compound to more than the value of the car even before you’ve had a fair chance to get the money together to get it out of impound.

it’s like those payday loans with 400% interest that starts accruing the week before you actually take out the loan.

it’s like sharecropping and las vegas and i wish i could think of 100 other examples where the odds are just against you from the get-go.

and in the face of this impossible system that degrades and humiliates and torments the inmates,  the staff in the prison is somehow conditioned to act  as is they actually believe that it is reasonable -or even possible!- for inmates to be calm, rational, docile creatures.

do i think people who commit crimes should be locked up? absolutely.

do i think they should pay and we should be protected from them? absolutely.

do i think we should spend as little tax money as possible to house them while they “do their time” so that we can use that money in other more constructive way? sure do.

but here’s what i also know. crazy conditions produce crazy people. that’s just a fact.

23 hours in a cell and one in an outdoor cage would set anyone up for failure- seriously- try staying in your bedroom for the next two or three hours. get a nice snack and watch some TV. but know that you cannot leave. remember that you can’t leave. and that your bedroom is probably way more roomy and way more comfy than a cell. and you aren’t sharing it (or at least if you are, i hope it’s with someone of your own choosing). and you have been out of it all day long. and you really can leave. you want to get up and walk around right now, don’t you?

see?

crazy, right?

so take people who don’t have great social skills to begin with. they don’t play well with others or they wouldn’t have committed crimes against them. now toss them in a concrete box with a million rules and a few thousand other guys with attitude problems and too much testosterone.

i’m a fairly ‘tough on crime’ kinda girl. i certainly don’t want to live in a place where the bad guys get to ride roughshod over the good guys.

and i don’t want our prison system to be a place where the criminals start to look like the good guys…