prison system

THE SYSTEM HAS TO CHANGE: An Overview of how Being Incarcerated Perpetuates Recidivism: Closed Custody and Maximum Security Prison Edition, by Richard Kirkham

In my last post I broke down how Jails perpetuate recidivism. Now let’s look at what being in Closed Custody and Maximum Security Prison in America looks like, and how that also drives recidivism. Here’s what its like after riding the chain bus to the Big House, the Houskau, the Pen, the Concrete Momma…

Going through Intake in Prison isn’t like in the movies, yet the experience is painfully like in the movies. There’s a few Corrections Officers (C/Os) yelling at you, annoyed by any questions, indifferent to your situation. Every prisoner you rode the bus with is either really tough, delivering their best performance, or obviously scared to death. The process is cold and clinical, and you’re truly treated like a number. Strip, stand there, face here, bend over, answer this, that…

When you’re finally walked into the cell block there actually IS yelling and cat calling, or in some Prisons, a deep quiet scrutiny that almost makes you wish there was. Your celly likely begins telling you its his house, his rules, so you’re automatically under stress and pressure, and it gets worse. Whether the door of your new cell is solid or made of bars, it always closes behind you with a sickening sense of finality that can make a person want to scream.

Regardless of where you land, your introduction into the Prison System is always uncomfortable and often intimidating and frightening. There’s no encouragement, no one to set a positive tone or let you know there are opportunities to fix your life. 

We humans adapt to our environments. Its a natural attribute almost all of us possess. When we are tossed into dangerous or high-stress environments, we adapt very quickly its a survival instinct. When new prisoners arrive at their Prison to begin their time they do what humans do watch, listen and adapt. They learn how things work, how the natives interact. They see what passes for their new normal, what a typical day looks like, and they start confirming. The important question now is: what environments do prisoners have to adapt to?

In Closed and Max Prisons there is nothing but segregation, tension and violence. New prisoners are not only subject to all of the rules of the Prison, but also to those of their fellow inmates. The tables they can sit at, the phones they can use, the workout equipment, the showers, areas of the yard…all are segregated by the prisoners, and crossing those lines can get you beat up, shanked or worse.

Depending on your race you can be forced into “putting in work” (assaulting or stabbing someone) or joining a gang. Sometimes the prisoners who claim you as part of their “car” (group, race, etc.) will force you into mandatory daily workout regimens, and if you don’t comply there will be consequences. There is a constant risk of being assaulted physically or sexually, or extorted, and almost every aspect of a given day (week, month, year) is negative. There is a heavy emotional and mental stress that never leaves you, and this goes far beyond the weight of incarceration that a person would naturally feel.

These Prisons have some positive programming and jobs available to prisoners, but they are limited, highly coveted, and hard to get in to. It can take several months to a couple years to get working or into school. These Prisons are rarely near a prisoner’s loved ones, so even if a prisoner has outside support, visits are few and far between. Phone calls are expensive and phone lines are long, so calling home is not a regular event for most prisoners. Contact with loved ones is minimal.

Essentially prisoners in Closed or Max Prisons are subjected to a pressure so great on a daily basis that the idea of doing something positive to change or grow as an individual never has the opportunity to surface, let alone turn into action. We can sit in self-righteous judgement and say that prisoners need to take responsibility for themselves and correct their own thinking and behavior, but to expect them to change in the environments we place them is ridiculous.

Imagine that you have a plant that is not doing well. It’s leaves are browning and wilting, it has a sickly scent, it’s stalk or stem is limp. So you uproot it and transplant it in a shallow hole in hard, nutrient-deficient soil, in the middle of a field of invasive weeds. The is very little light and almost no water. Would expect this plant to turn it all around and become a thriving, beautiful flower? Of course not. You would expect it to be overcome by the weeds and die from a lack of light, nutrients and water.

You can expect the same from the prisoners we incarcerate in America. Especially the ones in the Closed Custody or Maximum Security Prisons where the conditions are harsh and oppressive at all times. We cannot expect prisoners to come out of Prison better than they went in, not as Prisons are today. I honestly believe that we could lock up REGULAR people with NO major social issues in our Prisons and they would come out on the other side with problems. Prison is torture, and it destroys people.

That’s a very brief overview of incarceration Closed Custody or Maximum Security Prisons in America. It doesn’t really cover half of the problems that they have, but it gives us a realistic understanding of why our System perpetuates recidivism. Before we can work to Change the System, we must first understand it and know why it doesn’t work.

In my next post, I will cover Medium and Minimum Security Prisons, because the dynamics in those levels of custody are different. I am not just a complainer or criticizer, I have ideas for change, and solutions to many of the problems. I simply feel that before we discuss them we need to understand why they are needed.

Wishing you the best in Life, Luck, and Love.

Richard Kirkham

DOC #756060

2 replies »

  1. Richard that is an excellent review of incarcerations from a first hand perspective. As a counsellor working in prisons in the UK I have an understanding as a visitor. I believe in what Angela Davis said years ago. Prisons are obsolete. Keep up the great work and keep writing.


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