The Way I Feel

Mar 11

I am a 36-year-old Black Man that has been incarcerated for 11 years straight. Throughout those years I have unequivocally concluded that, no matter how well behaved I have been throughout my sentence, my captors will never view me as anything but a means to an end. A dollar bill, subhuman or just frankly “the other”. This inhuman prejudice is something I see and feel on a daily basis from the guards, the healthcare staff, the teachers, the parole officers, institutional heads and even some inmates for God’s sake. I don’t want to paint all the above with the same brush but realistically they are all complicit. For every good apple, there is a dozen rotten ones. So I think it is fair to say “the bad apples ruin the bunch”.

I feel as though I work harder than most, regardless of my incarcerated circumstances. I have always maintained two jobs throughout my sentence. Over the past 9 years, I have gone to school half days and fluctuated between a number of prison jobs (cook, cleaner, woodworker, metalworker, vocational training courses etc…) for the other half of the day. Over the last seven months I have been working at the institutional gym 7 nights a week cleaning and organizing weights for all the inmates and not to mention “all the institutional staff members” as well. After I complete my responsibilities at work I also get math tutoring from a friend 3 to 4 nights a week. I get paid $50 every two weeks for my gym job, so lets be clear, I don’t work for the money. It’s more about the perks from the job, the extra time to work-out and receiving my math tutoring.

Regardless of all the adversity I have been forced to endure over the past 11 years, COVID-19 has certainly heightened tensions for the prison population on many different fronts, whether it’s the lack of movement for an inmate, less yard time, less phone time, no in person family visits (we are only allowed video visitations), no escorted or unescorted temporary absences and more. There is also the fact that most of the staff members that work here are bringing their personal problems to work and using the inmates as some sort of catharsis. There is also the long list of sanitary restrictions that many staff members are not inclined to adhere to. This leaves the inmate population, once again, at the behest of staff members’ daily whims. Sometimes we are even forced to quarantine for 14 days just because a staff member says they were in contact with a COVID-19 positive person from outside the institution. A lot of the time it turns out to be a false alarm. When this happens the inmate is almost always subjected to remain in quarantine/segregation irrespective of the false alarm.

As a matter of fact, most times, the staff member returns to work days before the inmate is even considered to be released from quarantine. It is impossible for an inmate to introduce COVID-19 to the institution, it can only be brought in by the institutional staff members. Some staff refuse to wear PPE at all times, and if an inmate dares to say something to them, you can rest assured that inmate will be subjected to reprisals including extra cell searches and/or trumped up institutional charges.

I have somehow, by the grace of God, been fortunate enough to maintain my community and family support while building much more. In the past few years, I have been actively working with a Senator, multiple community activists and some not-for-profit organizations. We all share a similar vision for prison reform, prisoner support networking and prisoner release planning. I previously laid out a realistic release plan for my case management team to no avail. They continuously reiterate the same spiel year after year saying, “you need to be gradually released due to your entrenched criminal values.” But then they tell other inmates, “you need to be gradually released because you have been incarcerated for too long  and you are now institutionalized.” So on one hand they tell us we need to do more time to be adequately rehabilitated, yet the more time we do the more institutionalized we become. Do you see the theme here? To be frank, all that talk is just that: talk. Inmates are a business, a means to an end. Inmates pay their bills so why would they want to let their money go?

Even though I have exhibited the necessary changes to warrant my release, the parole officers and the parole board operate with a level of impunity that most lay people in the “free world” could not fathom. My release plan was accepted by an open transition house. This essentially means that the transition house (halfway house) that accepted me viewed me as a minimal risk to society. Yet the parole board denied me essentially because they could. They used erroneous information and cited past criminal charges I was not convicted of. When I challenged the parole board’s decision I was told by the parole board’s appeal division that the parole board could use any information that was ever before the courts, whether a conviction was entered or not. Where is the justice in that? A court acquits me for trumped up charges that crooked cops laid on me, only to have those same withdrawn charges used against me multiple times in the future. Throughout all of this, I have consistently maintained respect for my captors regardless of how they treat me and how I feel as a result of that treatment.

Sometimes if a guard or institutional staff member does something simple like, respect the sanitary measures or respond promptly to a written request I’ve made, I find myself thanking them and feeling tremendously appreciative, when fundamentally they are just doing their jobs. I remember asking myself a while back “why do you thank these people for doing the bare minimum? Especially knowing that their job includes keeping you imprisoned?” That’s when I realized I was exhibiting symptoms associated with Stockholm syndrome. I also made correlations between colonialism and prison from the perspective of the oppressed. The similarities are eye opening. Prison is essentially modern day slavery. What other large institutions do you know that pay their workers $1 to $6.90 a day (before taxes) ? Facts. And not to mention the markup that CSC applies for products made by desperate inmates that have no other options for survival. To illustrate this, I challenge anyone reading this blog post to research the prison Corcan industries. That should be enough to drop your jaw.

There are an abundance of reasons for my thoughts on this subject, maybe I will elaborate through upcoming posts. Let me know what topics you all want me to delve into.

Real talk,
From a real inmate,
Doing real time,
In a real systemically racist system.

Christophe Lewis

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