The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Beautiful

It is weird to say that I am sad to leave prison, but as I left on my last day I found myself tearing up a bit.  Most of that is probably because I am just a sap who will tear up at anything.  It is weird how something can be so awful and so wonderful at the same time.  How something can change us for the better, but maybe also change us for the worst too.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I accepted the internship over a year and a half ago.  I thought, oh it is just prison what is the worst that could happen.  Then next thing I know I am surrounded by inmates who are all staring and whistling at me, guards are flying on their way to break up a fight yelling at me to get out of their way, and naked inmates are being walked out in handcuffs.  And I am just a little college sophomore in a little Baptist college from a small conservative town wondering what on earth I had just committed to.  Lori you stupid idiot, did you expect working in a prison to be easy?  It is not like you can just play with puppies all day (oh wait. . .)  I almost quit multiple times, but I am not a quitter.  I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t handle it.  So instead I just cried, because I am a crier.  During my first couple of weeks there one of the trainers took my under his wing and gave me some real honest advice about what I was about to go through.  However the most important thing he told me was, “This place is going to change you. It might change you for the better, it might change you for the worst, but it will change you so you might as well accept that now.”  And he was so right.  This place has changed me so much, and it has taught me so much.

You would think that working in a prison would have made me less naïve. It did, but not in the way you might expect.  It has taught me that the “good” guys are not always so good, and that the “bad” guys are not always bad.  People at their very core are all pretty much the same.  We are all a little  crazy, we are all a little evil, we are all a little good, and we all laugh to keep from crying.  At their very core people just want to know that they are appreciated, valued, and listened to.  Like I said I am a sap, don’t say I didn’t warn you. When I first imagined myself getting changed, I imagined myself ending this internship hardened against all inmates as I saw many of the employees act towards the inmates.  However to my surprise, I came out on the other side of the spectrum.  The more I worked there, the more I saw the inmates as people.  Inmates are often stigmatized by society, holding the view that they deserve the punishment they received and more.  It is easy to stigmatize inmates when they are just a collective group, but that view changes once you have not met the inmates and know their stories.  Knowing the life situations that the inmates come from makes it harder to believe they are getting what they deserved.  I wish that you could have had the chance to meet a few of them, and hear their stories.  They are by far the craziest stories you will hear, and the most unique people you will meet.

That is not to say that it was easy.  There were many times I became extremely frustrated and discouraged while working with inmates. There were some days when I just wanted to give up on humanity, and I found myself changing in a bitter person.  I did not like that part of me changing, and I had to work really hard to hang out to it.  Sometimes we have to fight like hell to combat the things that don’t sit well with our soul.  Not being naïve and not believing that the world is a place is one of those things worth fighting for.  Because if I hadn’t fought for it, well that would have been like not being me, and I was just not okay with that.

Looking back, I asked myself, “If I could go back would I stop myself from ever setting foot inside those walls?”  When I think about how much I have grown from working there, it is hard to imagine what my life was like before setting foot inside the walls.  I vaguely remember my first day and the person I was back before I started on my first day, but I know that back then I had no idea what was in store for me.  I did not know anything about the criminal justice system or what it would be like to work in it.  Here I was a naïve criminal justice major with no experience in the criminal justice field, and for some reason I thought it would be easy. As I said before, nothing about this internship was easy.  It was a constant battle, and some days I did not know if I would make it.  I still have a lot to learn, but as I finished up my last couple of days working there, I know that I enjoyed my time there and I will miss it.

The world is full of adventures to had, lessons to be learned, and memories to be made.  We tend to coast through life waiting for something amazing to happen to us, but we don’t realize that amazing things are happening all around us.  We simply need to open our eyes and take it all in; the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.

Catching the Disease

The amount of germs and diseases at the pen is rampant enough to cause germaphobes everywhere to have nightmares.  I use hand sanitizer like it is my job.  But the worst diseases at the pen cannot be prevented with any hand sanitizer, nor can it be cured with any medications.  Alarming right?  I think so, and what is just as alarming is how quickly the inmates catch this disease, and even more so how long this disease stays with them.  Institutionalization is like a slow poison that seeps into their blood, changing the way inmate’s think.

There are inmates that do not want to get out, because they have nothing to get out for.  They don’t have a job, they don’t have a home, some don’t have an education, most don’t have a family that would care for them, and their friends are normally the reason they ended up in prison in the first place.  So why would they want to leave?  The pen has become their home.  Here they have people who care for them, a warm place to sleep, food, medical care, and the friends that they have made.  If you have seen Shawshank Redemption, think of the old man Brooks after he got released. Many inmates find themselves in Brook’s shoes.

Today I had the chance to listen to an inmate talk about his view of prison.  He has been in prison since he was 18, and he often takes it upon himself to take the younger inmates under his wing and mentor them.  He started telling me about some of the things he had learned about the pen after mentoring younger inmates.  Here is what he had to say, “People think when they come in, that institutionalization happens a long period like 20 years.  The truth is that it happens much faster than that, it can happen in a year.  Before you know it, you become use to the idea of prison, you start thinking that it isn’t so bad.  Then once you get out, you start thinking that what does it matter if you get caught again.  You have survived prison once, you can survive it again.  It is like a diseases you catch that keeps you coming back inside the walls to do more time.  Sometimes the disease runs in the family.  Young men will see their fathers, older brothers, and uncles spend time behind the walls and think they have to do the same.  The family thinking then becomes that you are not a man until you have served your time.”

To me, this seems like a very big problem without a cure.  To be honest I do not really know what can be done about this.  Once again I am not expert on this, I am just going off of my experience so far, but I think the problem with rehabilitating criminals, is the notion that every inmates will respond to the rehabilitation the same.  One inmate is as different from another inmate in the same way that one person is different from another person.  There is a very diverse array of personalities and ambitions among inmates.  Some of them are dead set against change, some of them have plain given up all hope for change, and some of them so desperately want a fresh start but never get the chance for one.  So if the inmate’s are so diverse, then why do we give them a one size fits all rehabilitation plan.  Is it in the name of “fairness” so that each inmate gets an equal chance?  But is it fair that the inmates who will try to change do not always get the opportunity to do so?    The national recidivism rate is 43%.  This means that almost half of the inmates released from prison will end up back in prison.  Like I said, this diseases is running rampant in our prisons.

I do not want you to get the impression that nothing is being done about this.  There are people far more experienced than I who are trying to find a solution to our nation’s recidivism rate.  However, this people have never been in prison, and they have never had to be rehabilitated.  I think that if we truly want to help inmates get to where they need to be to, then we first have to understand where they are and where they have come from.   We cannot help someone if we first do not understand them.  But where does that leave us?  How do we come to understand what they have been through?  I by no means have the answer for this, but if institutionalization happens not long after an inmate steps behind the walls, then maybe it is time we find a cure.