Prison Book Club: Attempted Dehumanization

Reading Harry Potter in Maximum Security: Week 7

Jim, Lee, Josiah, Tyler, Noah, Anthony come into the room and sit with my friend Carp and I in a circle around a table. Six of us are inmates in a maximum security prison, and two of us are able to walk freely out of this prison after our weekly hour and a half book club. If the inmates weren’t wearing their mandated jeans and t-shirts with their names stitched onto their chests, you wouldn’t be able to tell Carp and I apart from them.

A few weeks ago we finished the first Harry Potter book in the series, and last week we started the second book. Most of the guys are already halfway finished with the second book, and are really enjoying it. This week the book club barely touches on discussions about the book however- we talk about the prison system in America and the people held within it.

Though unplanned, this organic discussion is eye opening and invaluable in understanding the prison industrial complex in America. Throughout the hour and a half, Carp and I secretly hoping the room isn’t bugged, and security won’t walk in to find us “conspiring” against the prison system with the inmates. But really, if the people within the prison system who know it best are not allowed to criticize it, how can it ever be held accountable?

Intentions

Before class begins we usually catch up and talk to the guys about life as they slowly come in. The guys talk to us about books they are reading, and they tell us that the way we carry ourselves make us approachable to talk to, and we treat them as equals.

They say that a lot of the people visiting the prison do not act this way, and have different intentions that prisoners are wary of. They are curious about our intentions though, as they can’t seem to figure out why we would want to spend our time talking with them every week.

We tell them that we decided to volunteer at the prison to learn, because we had no idea what we were going to see inside and we wanted to find out. We also let them know that we are interested in studying criminal justice reform, as is a lot of the younger generation today.

In line with this topic, I ask them if they had a chance to tell the American public anything about the current criminal justice system, what would they say?

“Unfair,” Lee states in one word. Lee, a white middle aged man goes on to say that the prison system in America targets black and brown people, and keeps bodies in prison to earn money. The others in the room agree.

Motivation to Keep Imprisoning

It’s common knowledge within the prison walls that the Department of Justice actively tries to keep recidivism up (encourage the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend). Why would this be- isn’t prison supposed to be a place for reform? Apparently things get a little murkier when money is involved.

The private prison system in America was kicked off along with the War on Drugs in the 1980s, and these private corporations make a lot of money off people being locked up, paid for by American tax dollars.

Though the money is flowing in, the inmates who have been in prison for decades told us that programs for reform have become increasingly less accessible. For instance, if you didn’t have a high school degree twenty years ago, completing a G.E.D. used to be mandatory in prison but now you have to wait in line to join the course. The same waiting line goes for vocational programs, and when you finally get a chance to take the classes they are usually not taught by qualified educators. The inmates said that a lot of the time it’s prison guards who teach these classes. This way, the prison meets its quota for providing the classes in order to continue receiving funding without having to spend money on teachers. The inmates said the Department of Corrections is continually asking for more money, but the inmates’ conditions never improve.

In addition to the lack of tools given to inmates to start their new lives outside of prison, laws are also being constantly put into place to make getting back into prison easier once you’ve been in the system. The inmates told us that people who are unlikely to offend again are given less chance of getting out of the prison system, while people the criminal justice system knows will reoffend immediately after leaving prison have an easier time getting out. The idea is to keep as many people coming back or staying in prison as possible.

Legislation is influenced on state and national levels by these for profit prison corporations to make sure their prisons stay full, and as funded as possible. Many more laws are designed for small time offenders while not so much for big time offenders (who are likely already in jail for most of their life).

In addition to being paid by American tax dollars, private prisons also take money from the prisoners for “room and board” if the inmates choose to work a job while in prison.

Many of the men in our book club are working minimum wage jobs for private corporations on the prison campus. For those that work, the prison takes half their income to pay for their “room and board,” (i.e. their cell). Regardless if they are working a job and paying this money or not, their conditions are exactly the same in their cells.

“My cell is still just as cockroach infested as my neighbors is, even though I pay half my paycheck to the prison,” Lee explains.

Inmates are also taxed like all other citizens in America, though they are not allowed to vote. In addition to this, inmates have responsibilities to their family and friends on the outside, and will send their paychecks out.

“If you’re human, you want to help take care of the people in your life,” Lee says.

 

Dehumanization

And what is the prison’s secret to continuing this cycle of violence, crime and imprisonment? In our volunteer orientation class earlier this year, the prison explained that maximum security is not merely to hold the most dangerous inmates, but also to break down the younger and more rebellious inmates. From what we heard from the inmates, it looks like the prison is accomplishing its goal.

Tyler explains to us that they are not allowed to talk to the prison guards, they are only able to listen to their commands and cannot ask them how their weekend was like one human being to another. There is a hierarchy in the prison system, and the inmates are constantly reminded they are the bottom rung. The only human interaction allowed to inmates is with each other (with the exception of volunteer led groups like book club). Since prisoners are only allowed to associate and speak with one another, they lose practice talking to people on the outside world, and people who are not involved in the prison system.

“We’re not allowed to associate with the guards, or talk to them like real people. We’re only allowed to talk to fellow inmates in prison. And that becomes our world, and the only way we get practice communicating. Then when we are let out of prison, we are told not to interact with fellow ex-cons. But those are the only people we know how to communicate after being in prison for so long,” Anthony states.

Lee, a middle aged man who had been in prison most of his life told Tyler and Anthony that he was shocked at the guards’ attempts at dehumanization as well when he first got in, but now he realizes it’s all mind games. It’s all mind games to keep you in the system. He tells Tyler that the guards treated him horrible when he first got in, and he tried his best to be nice and agreeable. They continued to increase their poor treatment of him, until one day he finally broke. And after that, they left him alone and didn’t harass him anymore.

Tyler, a charasmatic and agreeable young guy, says he can identify with Lee’s story. He says that he has tried to do everything right since coming into prison, and he’s tried to make nice with the guards and inmates as well. Yet, the way he has been treated in prison has constantly defied this effort he’s putting out. He said that he was moved to this prison, which is four hours away from his family, for no reason. Then he was moved from minimum to maximum security during his time at this prison, because the prison is going through a transition phase as they build a new prison. And his name constantly gets wiped off the book group list, so the guards are never reminded to let him out each week, and he has to remind them. Tyler is currently buried in legal books, and is determined to fight his way out of prison legally.

Lee said that everyone who gets in thinks they will fight their way out of prison in the beginning. To the newer guys he says,

“Good luck. We all thought we would be getting out soon when we first got here. You’ve got to have hope that you might get out some day, but you’ve also got to learn how to live in here. This is a society of its own in here, no matter how restricted it might be.”

From our once a week experience with the prison guards, I can see what the prisoners are talking about. I try to smile or wave at the prison guards as we walk past them, but they never respond. It’s only the inmates that smile and wave back at us. And it gets to you, it definitely makes you feel like you’re unwanted when these guards ignore you. I can only imagine what it’s like to get that treatment everyday all day.

From what I can see, if you treat a person like they are less than you, this will only increase violent and deviant behaviors. It’s not a way to attempt to pull people back into society, but a way to brand them as being separate from humanity. It’s a way to keep the prisons full, and to make money if that happens to be the business you’re in.

Lee mentions that we haven’t even gotten to Harry Potter discussion today, but we let them know that this is their time. That Harry Potter is merely the vehicle that we’re using for them to be able to talk real with one another and with us, and to explore and reflect on their lives.

We continue a group discussion led by the inmates, as they talk to each other about their experiences, and how to make the best of their time here. They mention how this space is a space for them to be real with one another, and that they don’t normally talk about this sort of stuff in everyday contexts in prison life. This is a space for reflection.

They said that’s why this book club is so important to them, because they are able to practice communicating with people from the outside who treat them like a human. They understood why not everyone feels comfortable coming into a prison, but they also let us know that it goes the other way around also. The inmates get a lot of people doing “tours” of the prison, looking in on their cells and their bodies and speaking to them as if they are better than them and making them feel less than.

The inmates commented that their time in prison has increased their skills in observing human behavior and intentions. They let us know that the way that we carried ourselves and structured the book club dynamic was immediately approachable for them. Carp and I’s actions, speaking style, the way our faces were relaxed, and our choice of clothing were all part of making them feel we were coming to them as equals.

That was Carp and I’s unstated goal going into this prison volunteer program. And it was so validating to hear that we had gotten that across. That we had helped to make the guys feel human. And it’s so sad to me that a huge institution in our country, a leading country in the imprisonment of people, makes a practice of dehumanizing those who are the ones who maybe just need someone to pay a little bit more attention to them and give them a little support.

Smiling, they ask us if we were scared to come to prison the first time we had book club. I’ve got to be honest with them, because that is the relationship we’ve established with one another. So I say, yes. They laugh and say it’s not what you see on TV, is it?

 

Perspective

Everyone in book club is in a different place in their journey through the prison system. Some are on their way out in a few months, some are have been working on their court cases for years with the belief that they can get out, and some had begun to make peace with the fact that they were never getting out.

The different ways the inmates write stories illustrate these different perspectives. Lee writes a story of looking out his window and thinking of what’s going on outside while Jim writes a story of looking at his wall of bars. Lee is still working on his court case and trying to get out like many others, while Jim has given up hope of getting out and is now trying to build a life and a community with the people here in prison.

Noah tied the discussion back to Harry Potter, speaking about the theme visibility played in the books. Harry grew up being invisible, and then suddenly was one of the most visible wizards in his world. Harry is constantly struggling between whether he would rather be visible or not, and Noah parallels this to life in prison. How most of these men grew up not having status in society being poor and minorities, and now they are branded as “criminal,” and given headlines for a day and then tucked away into a life of being in and out of the prison system.

Convictions

Jim asks us if we know what they’re in there for, and we say we were told in the volunteer orientation not to ask. Jim still decides to tell us what he’s in prison for, and it’s exactly what you’d expect a convicted person in maximum security to be serving time for. But then at the same time, he is still the inviting “Hagrid” of our book club, who always makes everyone laugh and feel welcome and always thanks us sincerely for coming to book club. There’s a duality to these men’s stories. They should not be defined by their crime, but neither can they disown it- it’s a part of their story.

We ask the guys how killing and murder are viewed in the prison. Noah said that sometimes it felt like living a double life in prison:

“You’re sitting here eating lunch with some guys who are really great, and treating you well. But you know that they also killed a lot of people.”

 

Lee explains the difference he sees between murderers and killers to us, in a conversation that the inmates are obviously much more comfortable speaking about than Carp and I are. It’s a component of many of their lives and their friend’s lives here.

“People sometimes murder to get what they think they need, but a killer does so out of instinct and makes it a part of their identity,” he explains.

So what does society do with a killer who likes to kill? Can you rehabilitate them?

Most of the inmates know about the warnings the prison had given us before coming in to volunteer. The prison taught us not to trust the prisoners, and let us know that the prisoners would definitely try to manipulate us, and we had to be on our guard.

“But people in general are manipulative,” I say at the same time as Tyler, and we laugh.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in prison or not, people in general are going to try to look out for themselves and ensure self preservation. It’s part of what makes us human. And watching out for that manipulation also comes with the territory of being human. Carp and I didn’t walk into this prison expecting the men to be saints, but we also shouldn’t walk in expecting them to be maliciously deceptive. We should expect them to be human.

Why is Max Prison Book Club a special space? The guys we have met are honest and talk real with us, and we with them. We have developed authentic human relationships and bridged this seemingly huge gap that society doesn’t think can be bridged. Two civilians and six convicts. A couple naive idealists and a handful of people who might have committed murders. A group of human beings sitting in a circle around a table and talking about Harry Potter.

It is an accomplishment for people to sit down and have a conversation and learn from one another in any context, but especially in this one. These people we have been told are so different from us, the people society doesn’t want to deal with, they are still worth so much more than sitting in a cell all day wasting their lives away.

This is not to say that bad things don’t happen, or people don’t hurt other people. You should always watch your back and protect yourself, but you should also realize that people who commit horrific acts are not necessarily horrific people. They’re not to be written off by you until you sit down with them at a table and talk to them and learn about their life, and they about yours. And who knows, you might make some new friends.

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2 thoughts on “Prison Book Club: Attempted Dehumanization

  1. Amazing — I knew that the corporate prison system was designed to incarcerate people but I didn’t realize how much the system has been rigged to promote recidivism…especially, the problems with G.E.D. and training. That’s appalling and totally immoral. Thanks for exposing it.

    Liked by 1 person

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