Honor In Prison by Stephen Newman

Today I’m here to talk about honor. My Oxford Dictionary, which I’ve owned since June 23rd of 2010 (according to the prison stamp inside the front cover) defines “honor” as:

n. great respect, a mark of this. privilege. honesty or integrity.
v. treat with great respect. keep an agreement.

While my dictionary is in rough shape, appearance-wise, after 8 lonely years in my prison locker (next to socks, diet cokes, fingernail clippers, mints, and a water bottle), its thesaurus has never let me down. Some synonyms for honor include: honesty, integrity, ethics, morals, high principles, truthfulnenss, trustworthiness, and reliability.

In prison, honor is everything. If an inmate isn’t true to his word, he becomes nothing. At least…that’s the theory.

Prison-life bends all the rules, and twists society’s norms like a Twizzler. You see, in here, actually acting honorably isn’t that important. The important thing is that you let everyone know that you’re an honorable person, that you can be trusted. Outside of prison, the saying is true: actions speak louder than words. In prison, however, words speak louder than actions. A lot louder. I put it on my word.

Behind these brick walls, an inmate has to “put it on his word” in order for something to be deemed a true statement. If someone said, “I overheard the Lieutenant talking in the office today, and he said that next month they’re going to start selling PlayStations,” it would mean nothing. Nobody would believe it. But once that inmate added, “on my word,” suddenly the other inmates’ ears would perk up. They would now have to believe his story. He put it on his word. In prison, an inmate’s word is all he has.

But let’s suppose the story was even more unbelievable. Let’s say he heard that they would give out FREE PlayStations with 20 games included. Sometimes, just hearing that it was “on his word” might not be sufficiently convincing. In this case, the inmate would prove his “honor” by taking it to the next step: “word – I put it on my sister, on my kids life, on everything I own, I’m not lying to you, Dawg.”

The point I’m trying to make is that people in prison don’t become honorable by their actions — by their truthfulness, their integrity, or their morality. They become honorable by being vocal about how honorable they are.

Mr. Manley is an instructor at the ICIO school, just downstairs and down the hall from my cell. He is also my supervisor for the RazorWire, our Orofino prison newspaper. I see him almost every day. Mr. Manley tells all of his students that “the school abides by a ‘culture of honor'”. Signs are posted in the school hallways:

“We have a culture of honor. Speak softly. Don’t use profanity. Act like your mother is here.”

I don’t know what the signs say. I’m not an investigative reporter, I’m an inmate blogger. You get the jist.

In the April edition of the RazorWire, Mr. Manley wrote an editorial titled, “You Are Honored.” Manley writes, in part:

“The bottom line is this: you are honored every day by many people investing their lives trying to make life good for you. Correctional officers, programming staff, and facility adinistration are just a few of all who labor together to help you establish good habits that will help you succeed outside. They ask (and sometimes demand of) you to behave certain ways…all for your own benefit. Do you feel the honor? If you don’t, take a reality check, and then grow some gratefulness. Many places in this world hold totally different realities for offenders.”

I’ve been in three different Idaho prisons over the course of ten years. And while I admit that there are some staff members (like Mr. Manley) who still believe in the justice system, and who have a strong desire to help inmates better themselves, there is an equal number of staff members who have a little (or a lot) less honor. Take, for instance, the time I was waiting in line to pick up a book from the property office, when a Sergeant shoved me out of the way and said, simply, “Move!” Or the C.O. who stated to the inmates in the dayroom that he intentionally doesn’t carry pepper spray (O.C.) because that way, if inmates are fighting, he’ll have an excuse to beat somebody up. How about the staff member at ICC who, when we complained about not being able to get toilet paper, responded with: “If you don’t like it, don’t come to prison.” Or the Sergeant who appearantly doesn’t ever read the “Culture of Honor” sign at the school, and curses like a sailor. I heard him at the school saying, “Fuck this, Fuck that bullshit.” Mr. Manley never corrects him, like he does to the inmates. Apparently the Culture of Honor only applies to inmates, not staff.

I could give you a million examples of non-honrable situations I’ve encountered. Manley wrote that if I don’t feel the honor, I should “picture being thrown in a dark, wet dungeon until I’m dead…like ‘they’ did back in the day…”

Just because I’m not writing this from a dungeon doesn’t mean that by default I am thereby treated with respect and honor. I’ll be the first to admit that there are plenty of decent, good human beings who work in the prison system. At least 30 percent of the staff here treat me with respect and kindness on a regular basis. But none of these 30 percent have ever made it a point to tell me how honorable they are. They show me by the way they act. Likewise, the inmates I truly trust and respect — the ones who have integrity — none of them ever have to “put it on their word” for me to believe them. I believe them always because I know them to be honorable, not because they swear to me that they are.

Over the years, many creative writing instructors have gently reminded me to “show, don’t tell.” It’s too bad that same doctrine doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to honor.

I’m honorable, and I put that on my word.

Stephen Newman
DOC #90843


1 reply »

  1. Sometimes the louder you shout, the less you have to say. I grew up with a dad who had a terrible temper, he would shout and scream and swear at us every single day . Did it get my attention? Nope. I learned to tune him out and switched off. Another interesting post, thanks.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s