LETTER TO A PRISON VOLUNTEER
Hello Chris, greetings! I took note of your impressions and those adjustments you must be conducting and I know how it feels on that which brings frustrations on our programs in the prison camp. Let me confide something. The prison community is never that place where we can repose our dreams. Any portion of the prison camp does not even qualify as a spot prepared for redemption—from an outsider’s point of view.
When I was a rookie in the prison service and tried to establish rapport with the prisoners, all looking repentant, some confidently innocent, I was aghast to find out from their confessions that they were serving time in prison for a crime they have never committed! That most of those inmates I came to know during my rounds were innocents—-can you imagine that— like newborns. I thought of packing all of them and bring them all to the free community where ideally they should belong, judicially accepted or not.
That was my plan until I realized that I was not dealing with a handful but the entire prison community after all! Either I was taken for a ride at that period of my immersion or some bolts in my brain got rusted.
Anyway, if you intend to promote something in prison, be prepared to be fluid. To be malleable. To be cold and neutral. There are a lot of surprises, changes and unexpected twists. One day the fellow who ardently follows you like a son may be released and in his excitement would forget even to say goodbye to his friends, cell mate or even such close associates like us. Or perhaps, the fellow would succumb to an ailment and fade away under his bed bunk, no body knows except insects and flies, and later the authorities. Or they may opt to be transferred, personally working on it, even paying clerks in offices just to elude someone they have crossed and make it appear that they were being pushed away against their will.
There are a number of instances when a crusading spirit would agonize to find the program he organized a day before become a carcass the next day. Even prison officers could not muster enough intellectual power to understand the sudden transformations every incident happening in an otherwise drab, monotonous, colorless and repetitive environment like prison. While from a distance, the view is simple that even a child could draw it without sweat, it is however not what it seems once we ran into the details.
My dear friend Chris, don’t get me wrong. I am all for your project, I am all for your efforts and sacrifices. But let me whisper this to you: Prison is a grand illusion. What you see are pure shadows. There are no real objects except the very officers you are sworn to dislike. Every movement of prisoners is aimed to deceive even their gods. There is no such thing as sanity, order and stability. Everything is in shambles wrapped in institutionally formatted directives. A human being is never designed without freedom.
Prisoners however must try to act in a manner that should bespeak humanity although in reality they are restricted to act like one. There is therefore a constant struggle between the man in an artificial environment and the man in his element. Should we get into their way, we are bound to get confusion not knowing where we stand in such a situation.
And then we become frustrated. And such a feeling becomes food for prisoners looking for emotional substance. They subsist on the dissatisfaction of others having lived and constantly living in an air of disappointment. Having felt this, we become the lifeblood of the prison community. We have sustained that mindset, that terrible worldview that prison is here to stay and that freedom is illusory, a pie in the sky, something to be wished for.
I say, go on with your crusade; proceed with what you have started. Even if it means you have to crawl back to the first stage. Disregard the changes that keep on turning around, follow every dictate of your environment. You have chosen prison as your workplace, then live under the regime of instability. The discipline that serves to guide your steps are not actually the same discipline you have learned in school. It is the discipline of inaccuracy. The kind of discipline where respect is eked out from every move covered with numerous disrespectful beginnings.
And should you persist in your crusade, count me in. I have been in this business for a long time, a span which took my government to replace three Constitutions already and still I am actively in the midst of the prison community, mind still intact, principles still in place and humanity undiminished in the face of all the inhumanities I encounter in the prison service. The trick, I learned eventually and which prisoners must subscribe too, is to accept reality as it is presented.
Regards and best wishes.