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It's Nelly's World

In Prison

alec vanderboom


The world subverted.


Everything that is known--the foundations of life, what we call "love," the myriad considerations that keep us together and in harmony (for the most part) so that we can function as a society--all of it is turned on its head in there. So that up is down. Love is hate. Understanding is torn top to bottom. "This hellhole," writes an inmate of Attica to me; "this shit storm they call justice and I call hell on earth." The notion of justice, even: all tied up and turned around until it is not possible to read what Webster's has to say about it and believe the dictionary tells the truth. What is true, inside the cellblock?


Your friends become your enemies, and the people who punish you are besotted with their power. Or perhaps it is their powerlessness after all. Who knows anymore.


When we lock up animals, for the crime of being voiceless, we call it a zoo. Depriving a creature of its freedom to follow its biological imperatives--to move, to fulfill basic needs for companionship, safety, food, space around the body, to know who is who--causes well-documented neuroses. Animals take to what are called stereotypies: pacing, cribbing, ceaseless licking, self-mortification. They slowly go out of their minds. They turn on one another in acts of aggression; unwarranted aggression, it is termed. And when the animals are humans called prisoners, these behavioral last resorts are then considered proof of their unfitness to be returned back to the outside. And so on the inside they stay, further ruined for the possibility of freedom.


Yet sometimes, prisoners are let go. Then they become frightened because it looks like the rules have changed once again--the subverted world is quickly turned right-side up once more, hence nothing that worked for them previously (the strange rules of exchange; the hard methods of self-protection; the awful plays of power that pass for the expression of love, as in the forcible taking of the weak, the new, the unguarded) will work out here. It is terrible, suddenly, this freedom. And so, another crime. At least they can go back to the familiar. Recidivism rates are currently around 67.5 percent. That is a number to think about. Think hard. It tells a strange tale, of inside and out.


The institutions are called "correctional." This in itself becomes part of what is subverted: the presumption that inside, things are taught, things are learned. That there is, in the end, hope.


There is not. Because we are not honest about what we are doing here. Is this not then, strangely enough, a crime we commit?


In his book Coercion and Its Fallout, Dr. Murray Sidman, a foremost behavior analyst, writes (in a chapter titled "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," an apt title for any exploration of our prison system),


Ordinary standards of justice are suspended in these citadels

of law enforcement, so even conformity to regulations does not

ensure the avoidance of punishment. The slightest suspicion of

any departure from the rules brings the authorities swooping down

on the whole inmate population. Because constant observation of

everyone is not feasible, accurate assignment of blame for

instigating disorder is impossible. Indisciminately and

capriciously, therefore, they administer the approved measures

of solitary confinement, lockup, ruthless questioning, revocation

of privileges, and surreptitious viciousness. The guards, their

uniforms, the very sound of their footsteps, and all aspects of

the prison environment become signals for unavoidable punishment.

Depression is common among prison inmates. Yet, because it keeps

them "well behaved," it is not considered a serious problem.


It is from (very unfortunate) animal experiments that we have learned precisely what happens when punishment--say, electric shock--is administered "indiscriminately and capriciously." Not knowing when it is to occur, and therefore not knowing how to avoid it, the rat ceases even to try. He dissociates from his fear, from his anxiety; those emotions were designed to assist in preparing for action, after all, and now no action will be of help. He gives up. "Learned helplessness." Or, in another word, depression.


The lie is given. "Correction"? What then is being taught? Perhaps it is merely a lesson in how terribly humans can act toward other humans.


From afar, they are imposing, and dismal. It is clear they are hiding something. They are hiding something big from our eyes. Something we do not wish to see. So that prisons are most of all hiding a truth about what is inside all of us.


Behind these locked gates, these stone and concrete and tempered steel walls, 2.3 million Americans now live. China, four times more populous than the United States, has but 1.6 million prisoners in its jails. (Another way to understand this--those big numbers are almost too big to picture, aren't they?--is to imagine the fact that this amounts to one in every one hundred adults, incarcerated.) And we are getting harsher and harsher, too, in imposing our will: from 1925 to 1975, our rates of incarceration were fairly steady. Then the numbers shot up, raced up, almost as if it were such a pleasure to us that we wished only to jail more and more and more. So that now the U.S. has one quarter of the world's imprisoned people, though we have only 5 percent of its population. One might almost say our best-producing cash crop is prisoners.


It is tempting to ask where this all might end. It is also necessary. Or else we might find more and more of us inside, and only a few beyond the gates, beckoning. If we are willing to keep what is hidden in plain sight a secret inside our hearts, they too will rot. Like the humans whose various pains we are all too happy to forget. It is necessary to look inside. So that we might see how it is that the world turns upside down, reversing all that we think we know about ourselves. It is necessary to look at the walls, the bars, the weapons that are made from objects once innocent, now fearsome in their new shape. Human ingenuity is the one thing that remains unchanged, inside.




Prison photos (c) Andrew Garn