Disclaimer: I’m aware all of my evidence is anecdotal and doesn’t necessarily prove me right – feel free to offer counter-sources as I’m always open to changing my mind or at least having a discussion.
When you think about prison you probably get an image of a group of burly men or rough women sneering and generally disrespecting authority and everyone around them. Maybe that’s true to some extent but people often seem to forget that those in prison are still people. They want, they dream and they get lonely. Really fucking lonely. Mail time is the best part of many inmates’ days – their name gets called out and it’s official, they have a connection with the Outside. It’s still real and the walls around them are just that – walls. It’s not the only thing in existence for the few minutes it takes to read their letter.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that people are sent to prison for a reason. They’ve done something illegal and it’s a punishment partially designed to keep people safe on the streets. I’m not for a minute trying to plead for you to see inmates as a group of people who’ve been wronged.
I do think inmates have as much right as other people to build human relationships though. That’s why I started writing to an inmate in Texas last June. I found his profile on an inmate pen pal website and he seemed pretty interesting so I wrote to him. He responded a lot faster than I expected and we’re still writing now – I’d even consider C a friend at this stage. The same goes for P, the other guy I started writing to. He’s in Nevada. I read up on writing to inmates before I did it and the most common piece of advice I found was to make sure your pen pals aren’t in the same facility as it can cause fights if they’re the possessive type.
Writing to C and P has been eye opening. It gave me a real insight into prison life; every single aspect of your existence is controlled. Want food? Wait until meal times and hope it’s edible (prison food sounds like it really challenges the definition of ‘food’). Need to shower? Not until you’ve waited 3 days. People say being locked up isn’t enough for many crimes but honestly it sounds like hell on earth to me. You’re trapped in a box all day, every day, other than trips to the exercise yard and depending on the prison maybe meal times. In some facilities you’ll be thoroughly searched (including cavity search) for contraband every time you shower or go to/from the exercise yard. Even toilet paper has to be purchased through the commissary (assuming you have anyone to send you money). I’ve heard a lot of people saying it’s ridiculous that inmates get a tv but in the time I’ve written to C and P I’ve quickly learned that it’s really important that they have something to do with their minds. If not from a sympathetic standpoint, from a pure common sense point of view. If you lock somebody in a room 24/7 with literally no entertainment s/he is going to be absolutely incapable of reintegrating into society if/when s/he is released. Imagine being unaware of anything beyond the year you were locked up in when you were released? P was amazed when I told him about Blu Ray and he just recently discovered MP3s exist. He’s fairly up to date on politics and such because of the tv but he’s otherwise really behind the times.
At best you’d be confused and struggle to find your place in the world. At worst you’d panic and do anything to get back inside. It sucks but at least it’s familiar. You know how things work, how to behave and you get meals and a roof over your head. I’ve been of the belief that prisons need to take a more rehabilitation focused route for a while but writing to C and P has really confirmed it.
I’m not saying prison should be pleasant – what would be the point otherwise? But I do think making a person feel consistently worthless for 20 years is bound to lead to them being unable to function when they’re released, creating the revolving door culture we have in many societies.
I’m interested to see other peoples’ perspectives on this. Is the level of punishment vs rehab in prisons right or does it need to tip more one way or the other?
The main thing that prompted me to write this was the reaction I get when people find out I write to inmates. A lot of people seem to think I somehow think these guys should have been given a free pass for what they did, when really I’m writing because I feel they’ve already been judged by the system and there’s no need for me to judge them any further. Is that really so weird?