[Prison journal]: Sixth and final entry
Today was ‘officer appreciation’ day at JCI, and also my last day of the semester. When I arrived, I sat for a few minutes in the parking lot to gather my thoughts, but was abruptly brought back to reality through a near constant crackle of gun fire just off into the distance and led in cadence through a PA system. When I finally entered the facility, I was met by a new woman doing intake, and was happy to avoid my usual, unpleasant encounter with the CO who typically ‘greets’ me. The new woman seemed wholly unfamiliar with her job as the sole searcher of visitors and staff.
When I walked through the yard towards the school, I overheard the guards talking about a “9-1-1” which had just ben called in “echo” building, the one adjacent to the school. Apparently several prisoners were involved in a fight that required CO involvement. They joked because apparently both prisoners were in wheelchairs and so the emergency order was not seen as urgent. On this walk through the yard, I also saw a group of COs roasting animal flesh on a BBQ, apparently in celebration of their day of appreciation. In what can only be seen as inconsiderate, mean-spirited gloating, the guards roasted their meat near enough that its smell enveloped the yard of prisoners, but just on the other side of a chain link fence. So hoards of prisoners, including the 300+ Muslim men leaving prayer services, were surrounded in plumes of smoky flesh air. Yum.
When I finally got inside the school I felt a sense of relief. I had made it past the initial search and through the yard, which has its challenges. As I went past the medical center (i.e. the assembly line to distribute drugs through bank-like teller systems), the library and finally into the school, I tried to pay extra attention to the sights and sounds. I saw a number of men in long Muslim robes pace around, I saw three men who kept an intimidating posture towards me; I heard them exclaim “bang, bang” as I went past which I took as a threat towards either myself or my ‘escort.’
Inside the annex ‘office’ I sat with the prisoner-student committee and chatted. We have about 30 minutes of this each week. People come in and out, they get hot water, they shake my hand, they trade in stamps. I signed the students’ certificates, chose my Magna Cum Laude trio, and completed some other end of the year tasks. When class was ready to begin I was excited. I had to clean the board from its previous user. As I wiped away large declarative statements about ‘Jesus is all to all’ and ‘God saves his children who believe’, and replaced them with the cross of the ‘non-violent sociogram’, I felt proud.
The class was very active, as the students got behind the sociogram activity fast. They had a lot to say about tactical and strategic effectiveness, and we revisited many of the classic debates about violence (e.g. can violence be directed at property, does the success of a strategy make it less violent…). The students were more animated then I had ever seen them. They debated each other with vigor, and challenged a great deal of the material. The atmosphere was very playful, with groups trading words back and forth, as for example, a tattooed neo-Nazi argued that self-immolation was non-violent and effective, while a much younger BGF soldier argued the opposite. It went on like this for over two hours. In general, they were fans of product contaminations scares, the sabotaging of machinery. Those were the only two big areas of agreement.
When time was nearly up, the student committee came in with the certificates that I had signed. They thanked me, handed me my certificate (made out to Dr. Loadenthal!) which they had all signed yearbook style, and then the festivities began. As [- NAME REMOVED -] read each students’ name out, he would pass me their certificate, and I would walk over to them, pass the paper with my left, and with my right hand below, shake their hand and say a few nice words. After the first five, I had a rhythm, and I felt as through I should have been wearing robes and watching them wave to their families below.
Although they were only graduating from a single class, for some of these men, this is the first and last positive achievement they have encountered. It is certainly the first time they have been given a certificate which includes their name to celebrate an academic accomplishment. I could see that some of the men were more affected by this than others. I myself was strongly moved by their kind words, firm handshakes and words of thanks.
After we were finished and the certificates were distributed, the students left and only the stragglers left, one of my few white students came up to me. He asked how old I was, and when I said 31, he asked me if I knew whose hand I had just shaken. I said that it did, it was William Horton. While the student expressed a bit of strangely-timed starstruckness, I realized that I had forgotten William was in the class. Not that I had forgotten him as a student, but that I had forgotten him as a subject of such great infamy. Although it sounds cliché, I realized in that moment that I had forgotten his crimes and more importantly, formed an understanding of William as something more than a fear mongering tool, a political ploy and a racist construct. I realized in that quick instant that the man who stood before me as a slightly elderly, but still menacingly large and quiet person, had escaped his constructed alter ego and become just another discussant.
To play on yet another cliché, I truly feel like I learned more and took more from my time that JCI then the students I “taught”. Sure they gained some facts, terms and dates, but I gained something much more fundamental, something that I’m still too close to describe, but something that I know will stay with me.
As I walked out of the building and into the yard, I saw [- NAME REMOVED -] and [- NAME REMOVED -] from the committee, and [- NAME REMOVED -], a BGF youngin’ who I always felt was a bit unhappy with the politics I was pushing. I saw the three men, and they thanked me again. In what may be our last words shared together, I said, “I hope to be back here soon, and to never see any of you when I do.” I hope they got the intention. I do hope to return, and while I would love to see the faces that shout my name from across the yard, the voices that first called me doctor with respect and sincerity, I hope they all escape while I type these words.
Without a doubt, nothing is more clear to me: Fire to the prisons, each and every one!