Commentary

Prisoners are Essential to Incarceration

David Abraham, May 9, 2023

Movies and TV shows often depict prison life, but many of these portrayals are incomplete or even inaccurate. Films such as American Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Life, and Get Hard, as well as shows like Oz, Orange Is the New Black, Prison Break, 60 Days In, and MSNBC’s Lock Up, may offer parts of the reality of prison, but they do not provide a complete picture. While these movies and shows satisfy Americans’ fascination with crime, they do not provide the truth about prison life and leave many gaps in understanding.

Mainstream news stations often rely on the Department of Corrections’ Public Relations department to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, much of what is shown on the news highlights the most disturbing aspects, such as stabbings, riots, officers being fired for bringing in contraband, and the ongoing struggle against contraband. Positive programs within prisons are rarely given attention, and the worst-case scenarios are continually portrayed as the norm. Escapes are infrequent and riots occur when prisoners are mistreated and subjected to extreme social pressures. Stabbings are also the result of these pressures, which are exacerbated by the prison environment. The contraband trade within prisons is no different from the black market in society and is a problem that will always be present. These issues are often created by the lack of incentives and hostile living conditions within the prison system.

Social media posts from prisoners can also provide a glimpse into prison life, but they may not always consider the potential consequences. These posts may show prisoners dancing, rapping, displaying their status within the prison, or even cooking food. While these posts provide a realistic look into their daily lives, they often lack information about the poor conditions and gross negligence that are also part of the reality of prison life. Cell phones are wielded by men who have the money to maintain them and the strength to protect them. These posts can be a double-edged sword, offering a unique perspective on the prison experience, but at the same time, they show a limited view expressed by the limited few.

There are various ways to form ideas about the realities of prison life, but none can fully capture the experiences of men living inside cells. They sleep on steel bunks, often without proper mattresses, eat state-provided food, and take showers when their officer sees fit. Despite attempts to convey what life is like behind bars, these depictions fall short of the true experience. Only those who have lived through the conditions of prison can truly understand what it means to be incarcerated.

One of the biggest misconceptions about prison life is that prisoners spend most of their day confined to their cells with only a short period of recreation time. While this may be true in some cases, there is a working class of prisoners who play an essential role in keeping the prison functioning. They cook food, clean dorms, wash pots and pans, take out the trash, maintain the buildings, and even teach classes. These prisoners are crucial to the smooth operation of the prison. Meanwhile, prison staff are responsible for maintaining order, supervising the working prisoners, allocating resources, distributing supplies, and ensuring the safety and security of all within the prison walls.

The working class of prisoners carry out their duties without any pay and with minimal incentives. Incentives to work usually revolve around avoiding the monotony of a life of idleness or finding a way to earn a few dollars by selling items from the job to other inmates. In some cases, prisoners may be motivated to work near women or “street people.” The only tangible incentive is what is referred to as “good time” – a reduction in their sentence for good behavior, something only non-violent prisoners are eligible for. Despite the lack of tangible rewards, even those with violent offenses or life sentences can be seen performing tasks such as cutting grass, cooking lunch, taking out trash, cleaning showers, and other essential duties that keep the prison functioning.

The relationship between the prison staff and the prison population is complex and interdependent. Although staff members may be trained not to trust prisoners, they rely on them to carry out many tasks throughout the day, such as cleaning and maintenance work. On the other hand, prisoners depend on staff to maintain order, unlock their cells, and provide them with necessary resources. In some cases, these lines may become blurred, and prisoners may even assist officers with tasks like counting or enforcing rules. Over time, it’s not uncommon to see prisoners teaching or instructing officers on how to do their job, further highlighting the interdependence between staff and inmates in a prison setting.

In conclusion, the culture of prisons can vary widely from one facility or dorm to another, and what is acceptable in one may be taboo in another. However, despite these differences, one universal principle remains: the codependent relationship between the prison population and staff. It is this relationship that shapes the prison culture, and it is reliant upon them. While movies, TV shows, and social media may provide some insight into prison life, they can never truly capture the experience of those living behind bars. Only those who have experienced the conditions of prison firsthand can fully understand. Ultimately, it is through understanding these complexities and the codependent relationship between staff and prisoners that we can begin to make progress in addressing the challenges facing the US prison system today.

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