What it gets you:
Knowing the enemy and which is the weaker sex. “I have been around men for too long” to be taken advantage of ever again. She can be afraid and she can be wrong, she can be beaten and, apparently, caged, but only for so long. There is no further margin of error, and the learning curve which takes some of us decades, an entire adulthood, or longer than a lifetime, seems to have been eclipsed. She knows which COs beat their wives, sleep around, are powerless in their state-sanctioned power (nearly all), are powerful in their understanding the tenuousness of their position in this microcosm of social control (perhaps one or two; they’ll resist the least when their backs are literally up against the wall). She knows what they do behind the barbed wire, bulletproof plexiglass, office doors, and cell walls. The white officers are simply reproducing constructions of whiteness well-remembered from the outside world, playing a part which is now one with their identity, worldview, and even faith. The Black and Brown officers are no longer confusing to her, either. They are “dogs,” “rottweilers,” and she speaks to them in the language she knows they understand: “grrrr…arf arf arf!” Hers is a look reserved for a special kind of dismissal—ain’t got time for any of that, where time is the main currency and there is at once an endless supply (inside) and an unfair and diminishing ration for all that ought to and must and will happen (outside). The keepers are the animals here, they’re the underclass. It gets you knowing who exactly is the enemy, clear as day and without exception, only degree of danger.
Long arms and longer lashes. The tighter the confines, the harder fought the power; the more stifling the controls, the brighter burning the heroine. Boredom and confinement might make you forget, for an instant or far longer, that you are a person and a (wholly undernourished) soul: bring your tired dramatics and petty relationship games to this woman at your own peril. Clout is making sure you’re last in the food line, you don’t get your linens cleaned, no one speaks to you for days on end, commissary is suddenly out of necessities, or, should you press the issue, something more…corporal. For the keepers, the stick being out of the question as the State still has the upper hand (at least regarding the body) in here, the carrot becomes the only recourse. If the women officers have any pretense of heart or shred of empathic dignity left in their traitorous beings, then perhaps they appreciate friendship, being considered “on the level,” it makes their jobs less drudgerous and may make their sleep easier, allowing them to forget the despicable business in which they are engaged, that is, reproducing patriarchy and gender- and race-based enslavement at the behest of a master which would just as soon throw them beneath the same wheel, given a reason or opportunity. The officers who share this happenstantial biological commonality with the inmates are subject to the false-but-never-saccharine wiles of women with relatively little to lose through momentarily suppressing their rightful hatred to exchange a pleasant word. The men, as mentioned above, remain men. A coquettish flip of the hair, a knowing batt of an eyelash, drawing upon the playbook which once extracted remuneration for services, all the same affects, gestures, tones, and caresses—literal as well figurative—operate in this universe. You get a reminder of what you are capable of.
Grown up in the face of every incentive not to be. If it seems incongruous to have it noted, as someone closer to forty than thirty, by a 24 year-old how much they feel they’ve grown, then just imagine being that 24 year-old and saying as much. It’s difficult, to say the least. It’s banal, and simply untrue, to assume that this place makes one “grow up fast,” or whatever other cliches might originate in the minds of creatives and content makers who have no firsthand (or even secondhand, as the case may be) experience. People don’t grow up because they’re caged, threatened, starved, deprived, oppressed, discriminated against and criminalized; people can be every damn one of those things before they ever up inside, continue to be them during, and emerge again being equally so with the added albatross of a record which will hound their every move like a shadow. Any growing up occurs due to the person themselves, and perhaps the company they keep and how they keep it. The incentives not to grow are many: avoiding hurt when those you care for—inside and out—disappoint you, living up to what is expected of you by your keepers, trying to find some bliss in ignorance, making it easier to pick up where you have left off when you get back out, the last of which might make it seem like less time has passed and less has been stolen from you while inside. So grow up at your own peril. Forge relationships, cling to them and give them meaning, be hurt when disappointed, try to learn, and steel yourself for the next one while remaining open to its possibilities. See through the whims and weaknesses of professional race and class traitors and bend them as much as you are able to keep yourself safe and in some relative modicum of comfort. Be ready not to accept but to command the reality into which you will reemerge, not soon enough, but soon.
What it damn well doesn’t get you:
The culture you want, and that which you learn you need. There is no one to show you what to read and how to read it, no matter how much time there is to do it. There were no performances, no theater, movies, concerts, readings, galleries before entering, and there certainly are none here. There is the vacuum of somehow better understanding how little you had and got to do before you entered, and how much more there must be outside of which you’re only dimly aware. She played the cello, drew bow to strings and felt the resonance of the body against her hands and throughout her body. She’ll act in Shakespeare, desperately absorbing the lines totally divorced from context or instruction, perhaps just the way they were designed to be learned those centuries ago. She’ll defy every empty, self-contradictory platitude which holds that this is a place of rehabilitation rather than one of class control and publicly sanctioned extension of slavery. All the culture she ought to absorb on the other side of this experience should reinforce that her life was worth living, and thus worth defending.
Automatically radical, all our prayers to the contrary. The prayer is perhaps one for silver linings which cannot exist without tailors to sew them in. Everyone who enters prison should become Mumia or Angela or Huey or Marissa or a Soledad Brother or Sister, dismantling the system brick-by-carceral-brick from within and then from without. But that ain’t how it works, any more than Black and Brown and poor white folks don’t become cops or workers organize and seize the means of production. Class consciousness takes on an entirely different register when your class is prisoner, and no longer discriminates, or at least in quite different valences, according to where you’ve come from and what you know. The responsibility of political education in this case falls to two white people from working-to-middle class backgrounds, who struggle to keep the lights on but will not go hungry, and will likely only be in front of judges on behalf of others or standing between vulnerable co-conspirators and aggressors. If my heart sinks when she confuses communism with totalitarianism, it soars when she instantly comprehends what seems to take so many so long: this place does not need to exist if workers take care of each other, fighting alienation and distance from one another. You can understand there is a better way far before embarking on the journey of figuring out how to achieve it.
What it takes from you:
Every damn thing it can. It’s nearly limitless, and almost unchecked, and very few (though some very motivated) have a care in the world about it.
What you keep from it:
Your heart, stupid as that sometimes sounds. If you make your heart inviolable to it—this almost insatiable, disgusting beast of punishment—eventually it seems like it gives up, which should give anyone who has ever needed it, hope. I wonder if she sees in my watery eyes the reflection of the heart she has protected from it. I wonder if she knows the unconscionable strength that has been required of her, or if it has become routine and does not mandate the same force of effort. It actually doesn’t matter either way, at least not for the purpose of this brief guide. What I see is a heart which has protected itself, so I am forced to conclude that is what you keep from it: you let it control your movement, your sleep, your diet, your communication with the outside world, your relationship to the inside world, because you have to. You keep your love and the sense—nay, the certainty—that you’ll overcome and supersede it the moment you pass through to the other side of the barbed wire and evil brick for the last time. It’ll be high heels and the life you now understand, if there was any doubt previously, that you deserve.
(This is the 6th visitation reflection from AH, from a visit on 1/3/2018.)