Looking out: Prisoners are human beings, too

October 24, 2001

Looking out

Prisoners are human beings, too

The average prisoner must deal with an atmosphere of unbridled violence so pervasive in US prisons that s/he must be prepared to physically defend his/her very life every moment — not just from assaults from fellow prisoners, but from equally violent assaults from the "corrections staff" as well. Rapes are common. Even the assistant warden of the prison in which I am was caught in the act of sodomy with a prisoner here.

Society recognises the special needs of soldiers who have been psychologically and physically brutalised by various stressors of combat, as they make their way home from fields of battle suffering from shell shock and worse. Prisons in America are little more than battlefields situated on domestic soil.

With few exceptions, each prisoner is emotionally and mentally the victim of a kind of intentionally administered shell shock. No actual mental health treatment is available to prisoners during or after long-term confinement. People with the power and authority to make treatment available do not even think it is needed.

I remember the young man in the visiting room who did not even know why he was angry with his own mother. Recognising where that anger could lead, America must make appropriate changes in its prison system soon, before it is too late for all of us, both in and out of prison.

The practice of being vindictive and vengeful towards prisoners is little more than a kind of razor-sharp prison administrative boomerang being slung upon the very society that prisons are meant to protect.

Combined with continual concerns about violence is the prisoner's experience of loneliness — lots of it. For an example of the effects of this, let us consider the mail and some consequences of not receiving any.

Mail is the most important thing in a long-term prisoner's life. Getting a letter is the high point of the day. In America, where prisoners are killing themselves and each other as a consequence of boredom and isolation, a letter gives the message that someone cares. If a picture is included, it offers visual access to a world wherein there is something other than drab, uninspiring concrete and steel to look at.

Photographs, when taken expressly for my benefit, tell me that someone gives a hoot whether or not I get out of practice of using my gift of sight.

I am in constant hope that I will get a letter. As mail is passed out here, which only happens Monday through Friday, I become a man filled with anxiety. After all the names have been called and it becomes obvious that I am not one of those who received a letter, a dark, bottomless pit of depression opens up and I fall in.

At the next mail call, if I do get a letter, I stop falling for whatever length of time its content allows. If I do not get a letter the depressive cycle is repeated again, only with a bit more depression that day than there was the day before.

Obviously, I do not care much for Saturdays, Sundays and holidays because there is no chance of getting a letter.

I am sure there are those in free society who will say, "Well, hey fella, prison isn't supposed to be a nice place. Take your punishment like a man and shut up!" But in truth, confinement of one's physical body is, in and of itself, supposed to be the extent of the punishment. The judge did not say: "I sentence you to harassment, beatings, emotional terrorism and/or cultural and community alienation."

Under the present criminal justice system, most men and women are, in reality, sentenced to total human abandonment and complete dehumanisation. Society ought to not be surprised prisoners are angry upon release. Prisoners are human beings, too.

Society would do well, during the time its errant members are incarcerated, to contribute to all prisoners' positive social, mental and psychological growth and development.


[The writer is a prisoner on death row in the United States. He welcomes letters commenting on his columns (include your name and full return address on the envelope, or prison authorities may refuse to deliver it). He can be written to at: Brandon Astor Jones, EF-122216, G3-77, Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, PO Box 3877, Jackson, GA 30233, USA, or email <brandonastorjones@hotmail.com>. Jones depends entirely on donations. He welcomes contributions in any amount. In Australia, please transfer or deposit money directly into account #082-631 53 096 4691 at the Australian National Bank, Ltd. This account, under the name A. Frischkneckt, is entirely dedicated to receiving donations for him. US readers: please make a money order or cashier's cheque payable Del Cassidy, Jones' trustee, and send it to him at 142 Wilmer Street, Glassboro, New Jersey, 08028. Jones is seeking a publisher for his collected prison writings. Please notify him of any possible leads. Visit Jones' web page at <http://www.brandonastorjones.com>.]

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