by Laura Magnani
The first time I visited a prisoner, I was in my early 20s and working for the Friends Committee on Legislation of California in Sacramento. When we told the prisoner that two of us wanted to visit, he distanced himself from the idea as much as possible: “I know you are really busy. You shouldn’t really take the time. I’ll understand if you can’t make it.”Once inside the gates, all conversation between my mentor and me ceased. It immediately became obvious that this was some foreign land built on assumptions far different from the ones I had previously known. We waited in a room next to the visiting room, where you weren’t allowed to bring a book, or newspaper, or anything that could help you meaningfully pass the time. Time is what there was plenty of there. When we were finally escorted into the visiting room, our friend found his way to our table, reached out his hand, and said, “Thanks for coming; I haven’t had a visit in 13 years.”
Years later, in a federal women’s prison, I facilitated a women’s group, one of whose members decided to throw a birthday party for herself. She invited a few friends and sat with them on her bunk, surrounded by a few candy bars she was able to purchase from the commissary. A guard came by and saw this scene, broke it up, and confiscated the candy. He gave no particular reason for this action. They were breaking no rules, but he just thought there must be something wrong because they were enjoying themselves in prison. Or maybe he was just having a bad day. The system allows him—even encourages him—to take out his pain on others. The women had absolutely no recourse, and they knew it.
To me, the beast is the embodiment of the evil of a system that operates as an intense harming force. We are all in its belly, drowning in its toxic juices as it swallows up our resources and delivers up more dangerous people into a world that is trained to hate them and block them from thriving on the outside.
I work on prison issues, so the beast that I want to unpack is what goes on in these very hidden institutions. There is a very high level of violence, engaged in by the keepers as well as the kept. Distrust and suspicion are the ruling factors, not sometime things people learn to engage in after they’ve been betrayed. People in prisons are constantly confronted with decisions: kill or be killed; show gentleness and vulnerability at your own peril; demonstrate leadership and you risk indefinite isolation and other punishment. The environment is so toxic that surviving is a constant struggle, and the chances of achieving something like wholeness are remote.
I know it is uncomfortable to stay in this place. But we can’t find our way out without knowing what we are dealing with. I want to focus on two features that I think illustrate the toxicity of this beast’s belly: racism and the use of solitary confinement.Read the rest of the Friends Journal article here.