What if the Monster is Human? – Truth and Effects of Prison Life

There come certain moments in life when we change our whole perspective on certain things, not just a little bit, but a full 360 degrees. One of those moments has come to me ever since I started being a pen pal to inmates and truth and effects of prison life became known to me, for real. It struck me that recently someone told me “I can’t tell you anything about your articles, I don’t know anyone who’s an inmate and I’ve never been an inmate.” I thought, the point of these articles is so that you will know. We lock up monsters – figuratively speaking – like the bad guys from novels and children stories, but what if the monster is human?

What if he has emotions? What if he is redeemable? What if there’s more to the story (and there usually is)?

What if we never gave him or her the chance to redeem him/herself? What does that say about us?

What if the Monster is Human? - Truth and Effects of Prison Life
Photo by Ono Kosuki on Pexels

How Just is Justice?

Only a year ago, when I didn’t know any better, I never stopped to think about inmates and the kind of existence they have, and it never occurred to me that punishments that are drawn out for decades, a whole life, or even more are not really punishments but just a prolonged pain that one has to wake up to every single day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

prisoner on bed, dispairing

I feel it is necessary to insert a disclaimer here – like I did in my previous posts – before I go on. Although there are certainly violent people in prisons and others who feel no remorse at what they have done, this post is obviously not about them. I am writing this article for the 20,000 innocent people that are locked up in US prisons (and more in the rest of the world), and for the insanely high amount of inmates who were over-convicted and who should have received much lower sentences for what they did or were present at. (see my article Why Miller Turned Killer, a book review)

In novels and fairy tales the villains always get their deserved punishment or a just karma, and that’s it, they’re dealt with, and the heroes live happily ever after. However, real life is not like a novel.

Victims don’t always get much justice, families suffer, and the perpetrator often turns out to be not that much of a villain but a human being who perhaps met the wrong people, suffered mental health illness, or spent a lifetime of abuse at home, or who lost his family in a tragic accident, or whatever more there could be. I am not one for giving excuses, but there is never a black and white scenario. Despite that, the punishments seem to be entirely based on black and white scenarios.

That Moment When you Realize you can Relate …

shocked

Have you ever seen the episode of “Pyro Joe” on the Netflix show I am a Killer? When he started talking about his childhood I cried, for all the pain and abuse he had endured. Coming from an abusive childhood myself I could relate to what he said and how it made him feel, although what he went through was a lot worse than what I went through.

Joe’s words “When I was on death row, for the first time in my life I slept in a real bed” stuck with me. He was better taken care of on death row than at his parents’ house … That was something I didn’t forget. (His sentence has now been commutated to life)

It is hard for me to imagine my pen pals’ lives. Recently, one of them had been having a hard time due to several lockdowns (when they are kept in their cells for an indeterminate time, hours or even days), and his family was unable to send him money for the commissary due to some personal issues. The portions of food he received in prison were small and he often went hungry. He didn’t write much to me in that week. Every time he stops writing, I always worry that things are rough again.

My other pen pal just wrote me that from now on outside people can’t send books anymore. I mean, hang on a minute, aren’t books a good thing? Why would a prison prohibit friends and family from ordering books on Amazon or Barnes and Noble for the inmates? That doesn’t make sense to me at all.

despair

“Without u I would be lost in here right now, not in a good place mentally, no hope.”

Reading that phrase affected me to such an extent that I decided to finish and publish this article.

Is this what we really want inmates to go through? Punished every single day for the rest of their lives, every single frigging day? Yes, I am angry now. That one phrase I quoted above made me sad and angry at the same time. Do you realize that in this way not only the inmates but also friends and family are punished, which is something I – as a pen pal – am beginning to understand now.

I have 6 pen pals and I’ve been writing with most of them since the end of January, and obviously a bond grows in time. I care about them now, and I worry when I don’t hear from them.

Truth and Fiction

In the synopsis of Bobby Bostics book Life Goes on Inside Prison there was another quote that stood out for me. It says:

Many people have stereotypical views of prison and they should know and understand what goes on inside of these places. After all, prisoners are still human beings. Free citizens should know what takes place after people are convicted of crimes and sent to prison.

There are many innocent and many over-convicted inmates in prison, and there are also many monsters running free, abusing over and over again (my neighbors are a prime example of “good upstanding citizens” who have happily abused me just because they thought they could).

The world isn’t fair, but what is considered “a monster” isn’t always a monster. They’re human beings who made a terrible mistake. They know they can’t undo what they did, and they want a second chance at life.

Take a Look at Yourself

shame

Isn’t there one action you took in your life that fills you with shame and you wish you hadn’t done? Are you that same person now? I know I have such a memory and it isn’t nice to remember, is it? We are lucky that we are free. Others had their freedom taken away for it. I will not go into details about what was done and who is evil (which is a relative term, isn’t it?) and who is not. I am talking about human beings who were either over-convicted or are innocent and who deserve better than this.

The One Thing we Never Think of Concerning Prison

self-reflection in prison
photo by Rodnae Productions on Pexels

I read somewhere that one thing prison movies never show is the loneliness behind bars. Cut off from the rest of the world, losing people, sometimes even family. Prison is a place for self-reflection which the many daily hours of boredom and being alone provide.

Being a pen pal can be of an enormous benefit for an inmate. Your friendship can keep their spirits up and let them know that they are not alone in this.

How Truthful are Prison Movies?

– Prison movies always tend to focus on the crime, the sentence, the violence and prison gangs, and ultimately the release back into society if that is included in the story, but the loneliness and boredom are hardly ever a part of the film.

– When entering prison, it isn’t always like the movies where a meek guy walks in and is immediately beaten up by hardened criminals. Of course, there are some of that type in there, but most inmates are nonviolent offenders who just made a mistake and are paying a hard price for it.

– Rehabilitation programs like they are depicted in Orange is the New Black are unfortunately fictional for the most part. Prisons are focused on punishment alone and not on rehabilitation. wrongfully imprisoned

– The most violent inmates suffer from mental health issues. (source: ranker.com)

– Most inmates keep to themselves. Prison riots, gang warfare, revenge, and all that exciting stuff that is shown in movies is just that, stuff for movies. Although those things may have happened, it is not as common as the film industry is trying to make us believe.

– Prisons have libraries and they also provide jobs for the inmates where they can earn up to $45 us a month, money that they can use for the commissary, phone calls, or emails.

– Hygiene is not as great as it’s depicted in Hollywood prison movies. Although prisoners are given a bar of soap, showers are not taken every day, and deodorant may be a rare luxury. Movies always show handsome hunks or gorgeous women entering prison and remaining hot and attractive during their “exciting” stint there, but in reality it is very much the opposite.

Final Thoughts

It looks like once they are behind bars the system is solely focused on punishment and not on rehabilitation. Imagine how much could be accomplished if the focus were on rehabilitation? Imagine how much could be achieved and how much pain could be avoided for victims, perpetrators (and their friends and families) if mental health were taken more seriously and money went into mental health care instead of private prisons?

Although this is a difficult topic, and some of you disagree or have harsher opinions about this, even want to insist upon an eye for an eye every single day for the rest of someone’s life, I think that we can all agree that justice is still lacking in many ways and courts are failing people.

Movies and series are misleading. CSI, Law and Order, CSI Miami, it’s all fiction, it doesn’t happen that way.

Things have got to change. We must evolve to something better.

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Comments

  1. Hi Lila. As you imply at one point in your post, this can be a very controversial subject. I have no direct experience myself but my Portuguese wife is a nurse. We met in the UK where one of her regular jobs was supporting medical needs in a couple of prisons in the South of England. Her experience was (keeping this simple) that there were two types of prisoners. She met a small number of inmates from a high-security prison with mental health challenges, most of whom were disrespectful, abusive and potentially violent. Others were mostly repentant, accepting their position, admitted their mistakes and were respectful. Naturally, she preferred to work with the second group and always tried to learn something of their backstory in order to better understand them. She found that by giving those who were willing to communicate a little more time than most visitors shared, she made a difference to their state of mind. She helped several prisoners through successful appeals. The points that you make about loneliness and the general lack of effort toward rehabilitation reflect her experience. It seemed to her that a lot of lip service was given to the concept of rehabilitation, but there was not a lot of practical implementation. I hope your efforts to increase awareness of this international problem make a difference.

    1. Hi Richard,

      Thank you for sharing your wife’s experience here with us. Like your wife did, pen pal programs were created to also make a similar difference to the monotony of their existence, being there for them and giving them friendship.
      It’s indeed an international problem and things have to change.
      Thank you for your comment. It is smuch appreciated!

  2. You are doing a good thing the one thing prisoners look for in the mail and a visit, they look for the mail and see if their name is called when they do get mail. The pain is behind closed doors and will not be shown the loneliness of the prisoner. The main thing is that life does not stop on the outside life for the prisoner, it keeps going and they must deal with it. There may not be not visits or there may not be any commissary for hygiene they may need, or even food. When you have a loved one in prison you are doing time with them you feel their pain and are locked up with metaphorically speaking. There are so many innocent prisoners that get convinced on a daily basis and nothing we can do about it most of the time.
    We appreciate the article being dedicated to prisoners and how they are wrongly accused most of the time and dont even hear anything about it at all. I will be back soon to read more good articles.

    Cheers,
    Mathew&Deloris

    1. Hi Matthew and Deloris,

      You are so right when you say when you have a loved one in prison you are doing time with them. The restrictions imposed on them hurt their loved ones too. I feel that now that I am pen pal with some of them and started caring about them.
      Thank you for your comment!

  3. Every time I think about innocent people being locked away in prison, it makes me feel sick in the stomach. I really do appreciate this article, because this really needs discussion and positive changes.

    The point about abuse was relatable for me as I experience this in my job. I see it in their eyes. I see it in what they write and what they say. You are so correct, years later some of them end up in prison. Not because they are “bad people,” they just needed help to overcome their circumstances.

    For me this is an emotionally charged article, providing an excellent platform to continue the discussion about life in prison. Thank you.

    1. Hi Josephine,

      It is indeed an ongoing discussion and movement, and I hope that one day soon we will see positive changes. Abuse during youth has consequences and it takes years to get over it. When you don’t get the help you need you may end up in the wrong company or making wrong decisions. I am not making excuses, but I believe that if children did not have to deal with abuse from people they were supposed to trust, their lives would be different as adults.
      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Interesting article and a subject that is rarely ever touched on and without a doubt is a controversial subject.

    I really feel for the people who are wrongly convicted, I can’t imagine having to endure prison for something you did not do. I also believe that for some crimes the sentence is much much too hard and is based on old ways of thinking.

    I also agree with you that the focus should be on rehabilitation. Having said that I would lean towards the rehabilitation with the goal of an early release being for lesser crimes. In my opinion there are some crimes that are too severe for the person to be allowed to enter back into society. However that does not mean they should not be treated with dignity and be allowed to live as good a life as possible while incarcerated.

    I live in Canada and I do believe the prison system here does have more of a rehabilitation focus then the prison systems in most other parts of the world.

    Most of the sentences here do not seem to be as harsh as other places I hear about.

    It would be interesting to see studies on people who were in prison, rehabilitated, and then paroled and what percentage commit a crime again.

    I admire you bringing light to this subject.

    Best Regards

    1. Hi Rob,

      It appears that the justice system in the US is much more focused on punishment than justice systems in Canada and Europe where there seems to be more focus on rehabilitation. The majority of people who have committed a violent crime will not do so again by the time they get released, having grown out of the violence, yet many of those people remain locked up.
      Some crimes are indeed excessively severe and that of course needs a whole different approach, there is probably a higher risk with earlier release. However, most inmates are non-violent offenders or people who are accused of murder 1 when it was actually self defense, or they are innocent. Many of them will not re-offend when they are released back into society, according to reports I read.
      Thank you for your valuable comment!

  5. Hi Lila. We know so little of other people, of what they think, what they went through, how their life was. Yet, we are often quick to judge, even by just looking at people.

    I am guilty of that too, of course. For instance, I hate tattoos and have connected them in my mind with violence, so whenever I see someone tattooed, I have to remind myself that the image is not always representative of the inside.

    That’s why I like reading your articles. They give a different point of view and deliver always food for thought. Thanks! What I was wondering (sorry if it is in the text after all, but I didn’t see it), if you write with 6 pen pals, how often do you write each of them?

    1. Hi Hannie,

      I think we are all guilty of judging someone without truly knowing them. I have done it too.
      With one pen pal I write every day via email – we talk a lot! 🙂 And we are both enjoying this correspondence. With my other pen pal I write a few times a week, but lately it has been less, and I think that that is due to some difficult circumstances he is going through. I noticed that every time things are difficult for him he stops writing, and when things are looking up again he writes to me again. So, not hearing from him always leaves me a little worried. My other pen pal from that same prison is new and we will write via email, and I will be teaching him and the other one I just mentioned some German – they both want to learn 🙂 I’ll send them a book and I will record pronunciation via the email app which allows 30 second videos.
      My other three pen pals have to send letters via normal mail, so it takes 2 or 3 weeks for their letters to arrive. I can email them back, but the prisons where they are staying doesn’t allow them to email, so they have to use good old super slow snail mail.

  6. Hi Lila,

    These article you write about prison and prisoners are so interesting and important to me. I have a cousin who is in prison for 14 years, I won’t say what he did. But, I am hoping that he is being rehabilitated and not punished. I am hoping he has found his true self. I am hoping he is working on himself every single day and when he leaves prison I am hoping he will have a new life purpose.

    I didn’t know my cousin very well and he didn’t really know me either. But, I feel like I should visit him because I want to know how he is being treated. His Mum, my Aunty says he is ok. But, I would like to see for myself.

    I believe prisoners do need to be rehabilitated as the actual being in prison for a number of months/years is the punishment. So, it would be better for society that when these prisoners leave prison, they are no longer a harm to us. If they are punished more than rehabilitated, then they are more likely to want to get revenge by harming others.

    Thank you for sharing and keep these interesting and important articles coming.

    All the best,

    Tom

    1. Hi Tom,

      True, being in prison for years is enough punishment as it is, which is why rehabilitation is so important. It would indeed be better for society and for the released when they return rehabilitated and/or with a learned skill and/or degree instead of having anger at the poor treatment they received and perhaps lashing out at society again because of the perceived unfairness of it all. I hope that positive change is coming.

  7. Hello!

    I’m glad you took the comment you received and turned it into another great article to share things with us that we wouldn’t normally think about or question.

    I, too, have watched I Am a Killer and many of their stories left me gutted. It’s awful, especially for those who are wrongly convicted or those that had traumatic childhoods, to think that while we are living freely they are stuck in a repetitive cycle of even more trauma and unfair treatment/living arrangements.

    I recently started a new Netflix series called Worn Stories, and there is a mans story where he was once a prisoner and now works with a program that picks people up once they are let out and helps them transition back into reality. The man he picked up in the episode was in prison for FORTY years. I just couldn’t imagine how difficult his transition was and everything he endured during his time there.

    Thank you for talking about things that are difficult, but need to be talked about.

    1. Hi Haley,

      Being released after 40 years myst be like a culture shock. So many changes that have happened in society … The transition can’t have been easy. When I talk or write to my pen pals there are sometimes also certain things they mention that we do not use anymore, for example a disc. Now we use flash drives and most computers don’t have an entry for discs anymore. And this is just a tiny example of changes that pass them by. The man who is helping released prisoners transition back into reality is doing a wonderful job. I think I’m going to watch that program too.
      Thanks for your comment!

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