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?
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.
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 …
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.
“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 Bostic‘s 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
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
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.
– 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.
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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