Sometimes I forget I was in prison, even though I spent nearly a quarter century there. Maybe, I just get caught up in the day-to-day concerns of my life out here in the “free world.” My past is the reason people listen to what I have to say at all. I am not downplaying it or hiding it. In fact, I speak and write about it often.
Someone told me recently that prisoners are the most hated people in America. It certainly seemed true when I was in. How else to explain what happened to us? There is a callous attitude towards those in prison, even kids. People make jokes about prison rape. It is accepted in our society that cruelty and horror are the lot of those who break the law. Some people even imagine that it is just.
There is something in us that tells us that people deserve what they get, but I don’t believe that is true. Accountability is important, as is taking responsibility. The current system, with its cruelty and neglect, does nothing to foster these. I guarantee you that when those men attacked that boy and slit his throat, he did not feel more connected to the people he had harmed. He was not moved to feel remorse or develop a desire to right the wrongs he committed. If he has done those things it is in spite of the system. We have to ask ourselves what we want from incarceration. If we want change in people it has to be developed within themselves, and a safe environment makes that a lot more likely to happen.
Why is this difficult to see? I am not sure. Maybe, like me so many years ago, people just don’t know what to do when confronted by evil. Maybe it is the way society protects itself, by imagining that the people on the other side of the fence are different, that they deserve what happens to them, that they are not quite human beings. This is not true. They are sons, brothers, fathers and friends. They will be back with us in society. By all means, justice must be served. I only wish to add, let it be a justice that holds people accountable, while at the same time giving them a place where they can heal themselves and connect to their own humanity.
Those in prisons and jails are, and will always be, human beings, despite what they have done, or what they are told, or what we believe. That wasn’t always easy to hold on to when I was on the inside. The message that we were animals, or worse, was constant. Our whole world seemed to scream it at us. I saw many men who forgot their humanity. Somehow I was able to remember it, and now I remember those still on the inside. I invite you to join me.