Creativity of Desperation

We will soon be volunteering to lead a book club in a maximum security prison regularly. There are over 2,000 men in the castle shaped building where we are looking to learn more about the prison system in America, and hopefully give the inmates a little bit of their humanity back with books and conversation.

We went to volunteer training this morning. There were coffee and pastries provided, as well as mandatory fingerprinting which blackened our fingers with ink.

At this point, Kansas prisons are the largest mental health facilities in the state. This is true in almost all states in the US. Kansas used to send inmates who had higher mental health needs to one special prison, but it became completely over capacity a few years ago so individual prisons had to build more facilities on their campus to take in the overflow of mentally ill inmates.

We were told that they keep these mentally ill inmates in what they call “segregation,” which is a nicer way of saying solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement consists of a small cell by yourself with no tv, radio or distractions except a 1 hour break daily to shower and walk around.

We were also told that solitary confinement was made up largely of younger prisoners, because they were more “skeptical of the system,” and tended to fight it more. By the time men are in their late thirties, they “calm down”, (i.e. break down?). For women, it’s early thirties, because they mature faster.

According to our presenter, the goal is to treat these mentally ill inmates without meds, though no more details were given about this. After an inmate is released from the prison and into society again, the prison is only legally allowed to provide medications for the inmate for up to 30 days. After that, the mentally ill, newly free person is on their own and generally end up in prison again.

We were told that most of the inmates would display anti-social behaviors, taking a negative expression about the law, conventional institutions, values, rules and procedures including authorities. They have negative expressions of self management and problem solving as well as negative attitudes about themselves, and one’s ability to achieve through conventional means because they were not raised in a supportive environment. They will probably also display a lack of empathy and sensitivity toward others.  

Our goals in the prison as volunteer were to provide inmates with verbal rewards and encouragement in arts and activities, while redirecting specific behaviors and modeling pro-social behavior.

“If asked to take a side, whose side do we take?” the presenter asked.

“Neither,” a vocal volunteer in the front row stated.

“WRONG answer, buddy. You’re on staff’s side.”

If we are going to be more than 15 minutes late or can’t make it to lead our book club, we are asked to call the prison and let them know, so they can send the inmates “back to their houses,” (their cells).

We will always pick up a panic button when we enter the prison, in case we need to use it. It is a felony to bring a cellphone into the prison, and contraband also includes tobacco and tobacco papers, correspondence or stamps, and any weapons. If you’re caught bringing in contraband, you’ll do a few years of prison yourself.

“They can find and make their own ones, we’re not giving them to them,” our speaker

On the wall in front of us during the training was a frame with different handcuffs from over the years. On the wall next to us was a frame full of contraband found at the prison over the years: homemade knives made out of garden weed pullers, spoons, hose nozzles, can openers and duct tape, a syringe, a doctor’s reflect instrument. A homemade hammer. Tennis balls full of tobacco and a cell phone in a pork and beans tin can. Creativity of desperation.

“When you hear the word, ‘charasmatic,’ what do you think of?”

“Sociopaths,” said the priest who was in the volunteer training.

“Ha! But right in some aspects. It’s not the big burly guy that should scare you, it’s the super nice ones.


We talked about the prison’s goal to reduce recidivism (the tendency for criminals to “reoffend”). They attempt to do this through helping to teach the inmates skills, as well as to help them to plan their life after prison, and reentry into the world with their Mentor Program.

The presenter went over “Criminogenic risk factors.” These included attitude, family, substance abuse, friends, lack of education, poor employment history, lack of “pro-social leisure activities”, housing and money.   

According to the presenter, a history of similar incidents plus a belief system was what determined our reactions to things. If someone steps on your foot, you might react in a variety of ways, depending on your past experiences and belief system: you could push the person back, ignore then, laugh, smile, walk away, etc.

The prison advocates “thinking for change,” which means changing the reaction that seems natural to you, into something that won’t get you put back in jail.

The prison reported that 60% of inmates want to do their time and get out of prison.

What do the other 40% want?

The prison has about 1-2 fights a day in the cafeteria or the yard. There is a “shake down team” who wear all black and carry a strong mace in their holster to stop the fighting. Each inmate is assigned a number, which will change during their stay according to behavior including how many times they committed their crime, how well they get along with others and attempted escape. The higher the number, the higher the security. Younger men and women start with a higher number, as they are seen as more of a risk because they are more rebellious.

We talked about prison rape, and lightly touched on prison guards abuse of prisoners on pat downs.

At the end of the training, I was looking at the contraband on the wall next to me again. They were making use of what they had, in a dark way.

The man sitting next to us introduced himself during one of the breaks.

“I did 20 years in prison, and am on the right path now thanks to God. I want to give back.”

I thought about how hard it must be to willingly come back to a prison, after you spent 20 years of your life in it. I wondered if I would be able to do it.

Trump’s ban on Muslim refugees and assault on human rights in America and all over the world. 

There’s not really anything you can do about it.

It happened, and it’s going to ruin a lot of people’s lives. End some people lives, and make others a lot, a lot harder and unhappier. And all around, it’s going to make everyone feel a lot less safe and loved.

My friends working in refugee resettlement are losing their jobs. And my friends who are are refugees are being discriminated against, and worse.

So I want to reach out and be there for those that I can.

Casualties of a system. Casualties of a world order that is changing. Casualties who are people who are loved who are beautiful and funny and outgoing and shy and busy and hungry and happy and hopeful and scared.

My optimism is waning, now that I am seeing the real impacts that I beginning to take place. My country is becoming a place that I am not proud of. This world is becoming a place that I did not grow up in. 

But it’s getting harder and harder to be an optimist that things will change for the better and more beautiful in our lifetime. 

I’m not sure how it’s connected yet, but I hope by learning more about America’s prison system I can hear the voices of those that are not heard, and share what I learn. With both of the jobs I’ve had, working with refugees and with domestic violence victims, I never really understood the issues until I met the people. I want to meet the people in prison and make that a reality that I can comprehend. A piece to the puzzle.

I want to help in connecting the struggles. I want to learn how systemic violence and imprisonment has shaped our world;  what we know of it today and what it is becoming.


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