My Prison Journal - Volumes 1-4

Persons With Severe Mental Illness in Jails and Prisons: A Review
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He may go years without receiving a loving embrace, without a kiss. This assault on his identity is a profound psychological trauma. This separation may only be understood by those who have experienced life under such conditions, but it cannot be questioned by any who have not had such an experience. He is reduced to being this number, in a long line of others who have been similarly reduced to numbers.

This separation from his name immediately assails his sense of self. His psyche is traumatized by the separation from his prior existence, even as he must contend with the new consciousness that has been imposed upon his old. This psychological violence is etched into him at once. Immediately upon entry to the prison space he is stripped, literally and figuratively.

He stands powerless as another man demands his clothing.

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As he hands over his clothes, he feels that he is relinquishing a piece of his dignity. He looks around in search of some humanity but sees little evidence of its existence in this alien space. The prisoner undergoes an ontological shift in the prison space which produces new meanings that supplant the old. This shift is forced upon him, but it is also necessary for survival in a world whose values and norms are abnormal.

These new meanings are not only thought, but felt. The clicking, clanking, and crashing of keys, metal doors, and iron gates reverberate through his soul. Click, clank, crash, keeping him off kilter so that he is in a constant state of imbalance, resulting in an anxiety filled with self-hatred and self-pity. The sounds, the nonstop sounds of an institution of unliving grates against the reality that is life-outside-the-walls, a world glimpsed through the barbed wire of criminal injustice. A world of criminal injustice where the unforgiven are sentenced to a sad, hate-filled state of unliving, as if unliving is a state that only they visit.

Every aspect of prison is centered around this often overlooked point. Prison is a site of trauma, a site of psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical harm.

Separation by Bars and Miles:

The prisoner relates to his space as a site where harm is pervasive and continuous. Survival becomes something to be accomplished as opposed to something that is expected. It is his sense of self, his consciousness that is threatened, that must fight for survival. The prisoner identity is imposed through different means. The way the prisoner relates to the prison space is one of unnatural vigilance in his constant attempts to mitigate harm.

He must always be conscious of his surroundings, and he perceives any type of relaxing as putting himself in a position of vulnerability. In this way, his surroundings oppress him. This constant state of oppression changes the way the prisoner relates to objects. He is forced into a cold, new world of brick, old concrete, and steel—all of which is surrounded by the quiet violence of razor-wire fencing whose very existence proclaims that he is dangerous and deserving of punishment. At all times he is watched, never trusted. The cloak of untrustworthiness, which the constant surveillance relentlessly refuses to remove, threatens to undermine his humanity.

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His cellmate is a constant presence. This, too, subtly undermines his humanity. Supplementing the informal surveillance of his cellmate is the formal surveillance of correctional staff whose watchful eye sees everything. In sleep, in thought, and in conversation the prisoner is watched. He is stalked every second of every day. Cameras are set to record movement in corridors and in housing units.

He cannot even use the bathroom in private. Such a right does not exist. His humanity thus affords him no escape from his inhumane treatment.

The loss of this most natural right represents one of the most traumatizing, yet casually implemented, aspects of prison. This makes him vulnerable to the prison and to prisoner ideologies, to societal and to institutional stigmas, and to the coercion inherent in the prisoner identity.


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He knows who he is for a time, but time erodes his notion of self. Prison is an attack on his identity, his consciousness. He must adjust to his new reality, even before he can accept it. He came to prison with double consciousness, and then a new consciousness is forced upon him by his new world.

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Its purpose is to reconcile him to his new reality. The prisoner identity is imposed on all prisoners, but this identity is not the third consciousness for all prisoners. Prison is a space where some semblance of racial equality is almost achieved. The imposition of the prisoner consciousness does not respect race.

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In relation to prison staff, the white prisoner, like the black prisoner, is seen as something other than what he sees in himself. The white prisoner must develop a new consciousness to contend with his new predicament. While the black prisoner is familiar with being perceived as less than, the white prisoner may be new to such a reality. The white prisoner may still enjoy some measure of white privilege. For the black prisoner, his prison uniform replaces his black skin as the mark of his oppression. The black prisoner has forever faced a world that believes him to be something other than himself.

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He developed double consciousness to become accustomed to the two realities that he lives simultaneously. One reality, one consciousness, forever superimposed upon the other. Many come to see their blackness as problematic, reflecting the view that their world has of them. For some fortunate souls, their consciousness of self serves as their citadel.

They are conscious of the way that their world views them without it becoming their view of themselves. In prison, in his new world, the black prisoner must contend with the same formula of potential self-destruction.

Crime and Justice

His identity as a prisoner is socially stigmatized, but as a black man he has been imprisoned by stigma before, imprisoned by the perceptions of his black skin that he glimpses through the veil. Once in prison the prisoner must contend with new conceptions that are intended to define him as other than who he is. His identity is reflected by the coercive relationships inherent to prisons, his uniform which proclaims his inferior and defective status, and his physical surroundings which conspire with space and time to erode his sense of self.

Time and space take on different meanings as they operate, second by second, day by day, to construct a new consciousness within the prisoner. Consciousness and identity are tied to experience. As memories of freedom fade memories of imprisonment are made.

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Because memory is integral to identity, time seems to erode his former identity as the prisoner identity is fed a steady diet of experiences that threaten to shape his consciousness. The body is a spatial object. But it also is the site of lived experience; I feel things not just in my body but as a body.

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Space is experienced differently and uniquely in prison. Yet he is subjected to time and space in a way that is alien to those in the real world. He exists in a world of fictions where remembered yesterdays lead to forgotten todays, where progression is often arrested, and aspirations misplaced. Prison is a space that has been arranged for the specific purpose of repression and control. Because prison is not a natural environment that prisoners enter willfully or that sustains meaningful relationships, his world represents something alien.

He feels the unnaturalness in the air—he can smell the tension, the fear, the breath of a thousand bodies.

And Justice for All: Families & the Criminal Justice System

But none of these things makes sense. He feels unnatural in this unnatural space peopled by so many men, too many men. Their close proximity creates a tension that he feels in every fiber of his body. He fears that he will lose himself to the misery that is reflected back at him from the eyes of other captured souls.