He was thrashing and screaming, throwing himself at the bars. It reminded me of a caged animal. Watching it made a knot form deep in my gut. I could barely choke the sight down. All I could think was what did a human have to go through to end up here? What had he lost? What had he given up? What had to be taken from him in order for his very humanness to slip through his fingers?
I spent a week working in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU pronounced shoe) and that was more than enough for me. The SHU is were those who have lost everything go. It is where we put the inmates we want to forget.
The philosophy behind segregated housing is that you take everything from the inmates and then slowly reward those thing back as they behave. Only you start taking things and pretty soon you take their dignity, then their humanity, and what are you left with? A ghost of a human thrashing around in a cage like an animal. Let me tell you – it isn’t pretty.
There are some who think that prison is too soft. There are also some who think that it is too harsh. To be honest I don’t know where I stand on the spectrum, but I do know what I saw. Prison should help rehabilitate one’s humanness, not rob them of it.
In my last post, I talked about the day that I finally stood up for myself. Ever since that day, the inmates started to take me more seriously, and dare I say even respect me. A couple months later I would have a surgery to remove a cyst from my jaw. I came back in pain, barely able to talk. But I also came back to find lots of get well notes waiting for me in my box. No matter what kind of trouble they got themselves into, I never once believed they were bad people. These notes proved to me that I was right.
The hardest thing for me about working in the prison was actually not the inmates themselves, but rather the way that everyone on the outside talked about them to me (hold on let me climb onto my soap box). I was told over and over again by so many well meaning people that the inmates I worked with deserved to be there.
The sociologist in me was screaming. It is easy to judge and stigmatize inmates when they are a collective group. It is a lot harder when you know them as individuals who come from backgrounds that would turn even the best person into a criminal.
Sometimes we have to fight like hell to combat the things that don’t sit well with our soul. Sometimes we have to speak up for those that can’t talk.
I want to shake those people and tell them to open their eyes to their life free of hardship and then ask them again if they want to point their judgmental finger. Maybe I should, but I don’t. Mostly because I use to have similar thinking, and I don’t know how to explain everything that I have experienced while working in a prison.
I don’t know how to explain to them that there is a difference between doing bad things and being bad people. I am allowed to believe this – to be this naive, because I am not naive. I have seen the worst and still believe in the best.
If you have your health, if you have your family, if you have safety and have the luxury of enjoying a semblance of freedom, then you owe it to those that don’t to make sure that they know that there are people in the world that give a damn about them. Not a group or country that pretends to care about them simply to gain something for themselves, but by people who realize that beyond governments, religions, ideologies, and agendas, there is a commonality that cannot be exploited. Not by greed, nor tyranny, nor terror, nor the propaganda of powerful nations. That people simply give a damn about those that, were the world spinning differently the day they were born, might have been them.” – Matthew Good (Originally post on Of Whiskey and Words)
Photo Credit: Sean Kernan
**** I was talking to a good friend who I asked to give me feedback on my blog. He told me, “Its good but I am left feeling like I want to know more about you.” Huh I guess I didn’t realize people would care about that stuff. So I decided to write a series of memoirs about my life experiences, because I some how find myself doing things like catching chickens in Africa or running to stop a fight among inmates.
Thank you for reading, and please feel free to comment below. If there are any stories you have that you would like to share, or any stories from my life you would like to read about please let me know.