My life prior to being incarcerated was no different than that of any other typical American citizen. It was unremarkable in every way. And just like most in this country, I never gave time out of my day to ponder the lives of those incarcerated, and the prolonged hardships placed upon them and their families.
In hindsight, I wish I had paid greater attention to their plight. The old adage, the devil is in the details, couldn’t be more appropriate. If you’ve never spent time locked up, there’s nothing to compare it to that’d allow you to be empathetic to a prisoner’s demise. Sadly, I don’t know what’s worse, the illicit behavior conducted by those entrusted with our safety and care, or the public’s ignorance and lack of compassion for those incarcerated, the majority whom will one day reenter society.
As much as society wants to disassociate themselves from prisons and their mere existence, they’re largely responsible for its expansion. The mass incarceration epidemic in America has lost its moral compass. Some would say it never had moral ethics from its inception, thus, it’s lost nothing and only continues the degradation of civil liberties for all humanity. It’s no longer about the people confined but the commodity procured.
The Millennial generation have an opportunity to do something astounding. Where other generations have fallen short, not just in apathy but in what’s just and appropriate. Now comes a generation willing to ask questions, to question authority, and I pray correct the corrosive blight prisons have become.
The truth is prisons are merely a microcosm of society at-large. There are clusters of communities within prison. The poor, middle class , and the penitentiary rich. Within those clusters you have the underprivileged, the illiterate, gangs, the educated, and the privileged. Sound Familiar? No different than in your own neighborhoods, bad things can and do happen to good people. The distinction in disparity of justice should be troubling to anyone with a pulse. If you commit murder, you’re sentenced to decades, if not life imprisonment. If you commit the same act in prison, you’re punished for a couple months, maybe years and then placed back into your enclave. How does that resonate with the civilly mindful?
The judicial branch of our government has become so desensitized to the exorbitant, lights out years being imposed on the convicted. The rationale behind their inordinate prison sentences was intended to be a deterrent, but crime, for its multitude of reasons, persists. Human behavior is very complex. The complexity is exacerbated by social, psychological, and environmental factors. The imprudent action to impugn humanities frailties by imposing draconian sentences resolves nothing. It’s tantamount to placing a bandaid over a geyser and believing you can contain that which is uncontrollable.
Certainly there are social norms, civil discourse, and proper etiquette but what happens when that expected behavior turns to civil disobedience? Nothing until civility turns to criminal intent. What does it all have in common?…CHOICE. Freewill is innately part of our DNA. While we’re encouraged to conform to cultural expectations, every person is one misstep away from being in here with me.
The government and society want to brand prisoners as incorrigible miscreants incapable of change. I have witnessed the polar opposite. The fact is every offender is someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, nephew, niece, cousin, aunt or uncle, loved by their family and not perceived as an animal but as a lost loved one. Always be cognizant of the fact that you, yourself, are but one small mistake from being branded like myself. If civilization would acknowledge its own fallibility, insurrectionists would be marginalized and fundamental change would no longer seem insurmountable.
There’s this misconception that a zebra can’t change its stripes. I’d be remissed if I didn’t remind readers that stereotypes are often untrue, or at the very least only partly true. Rigidity, intolerance, hate, all contribute to societal fallacies. I believe introspection is integral to changing course.
I can attest to the fact that life in Virginia prisons doesn’t consist of daily gratuitous violence. In fact, I’d suggest the opposite is true. Most days enthrall surviving the mundane boring lifestyle we’re forced to endure. Everyday resembles ‘Ground Hog Day’, just like the movie. Everything is so regimented that changes are seldom.
The enormity of the boredom is what often compels one to act out. If greater emphasis would be placed on programmatic activities, it might eliminate the idle hands in the the devil’s playground. Another issue is the scarcity of jobs. Those fortunate enough to land one only get paid pennies on the dollar for their sweat equity.
There’s no emphasis on rehabilitation and most prison staff are apathetic to our situation. They’re trained to take our concerns with skepticism because allegedly all prisoners are master manipulators. The reality is if we treated our prisoners more humanely, few would resort to employing such tactics. It has been my experience that most offenders simply want to be treated with dignity. Respect is a two way street and earned over time.
There’s no quick fix that’ll bring about proper reparations for mass incarceration in this country but regardless of the difficulties that lie ahead, change is inevitable. There are far more decent people locked up than irredeemable. Let’s bring an end to mass incarceration and accept the fact that it’s the prosecutor’s political office at stake if they don’t maintain a high conviction rate, no matter what the cost and to whom.
John E. Hamilton, #1442949
Virginia Dept. of Corrections
Nottoway Correctional Center
2892 Schutt Rd / P.O. Box 488
Burkeville VA 23922