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Prison Welfare

May 7, 2012

October 6, 2010

A Reform Essay


By Davin Douma

             If you’ve ever had a cat or a dog you know that each has its favorite spot in the house or yard.  It is that place they return to most often for a nap, or a moment of tranquility.  All living things do this most basic of acts, including people.  We find a comfortable spot, a place where we feel safe and content, and return to it as often as possible.  Ever wonder why a soldier who hates war can love the military?  Ever wonder why a prisoner returns to prison.  The light of the sun feels good on your face in the morning.

            I used to wonder why I saw the same men in prison over and over again.  I’ve been in prison since I was a kid, literally, and have seen men come and go.  My stay in the joint has been a long one without breaks, but most of the men I have known are in and out every five or six years.  The free-world, life beyond the razor wire fences and armed gun towers, is like a vacation for them.  It’s a trip to Rome, or Paris, and a taste of something exotic and exciting.  But like all vacations it comes to an end.  The money runs out, the fantasy tarnishes.  Although they miss the lights and the sounds and the tastes, it is good to be home again after their adventure is over.  Home is a strange meaning to attach to prison life, but the strength of man’s ability to adapt is also his weakness.

            What is it about prison life that is so enticing?  It can’t be the gangs or the drugs or the violence.  In prison men are brutalized, dehumanized, and degraded.  They rob each other, they rape each other, they create a world of disillusion.  In prison the ethics and morals of the common man are turned upside-down and backwards.  It is the most vile and most aggressive that are revered and respected.  The pecking order is a deadly creation that keeps everyone in their place.  You only move up through aggression and violence.  A swing of a lead pipe or stab of a prison shank.  Character is built in puddles of blood and humanity is discarded like so much refuse.

            Yet, even though prison is a horrible place, it quickly bores its way into your psyche.  In prison were everything is acceptable, the most horrible people can find friends and companionship.  Rapists can compare notes.  Child molesters relive their conquests.  And sociopathic murderers experience the death rattle over and over again.  Perverted humans can find a home in a concrete room with a steel door and ballistic glass window.  Prison is an accepting home that they can not create for themselves in the world beyond the fence line.

            I used to think the enticement of prison was that it was camp for adults.  A place where one has no responsibilities, no expectations, and no effort is required.  I thought that prison was simply easy for people who didn’t want to work, or pay their bills, or meet their family obligations.  Thinking that way was rather simplistic and surface oriented.  There is a lot more going on than that, and a lot less.  It is amazing how much effort the malcontents put into their prison lives.  They have their hustles to make money.  They have their gangs to watch their backs.  They have the manipulations they work on the guards.  And they have the syringe they ply on their families.  Most of these men spend all day and many a night figuring out ways to improve their prison lives.  If they put as much effort into walking the straight and narrow they would be righteous men.  If they put the same effort into business they would be rich.  But rich and righteous are not their goals, just as they are not yours.  The men in prison seek the same thing for the same reasons that everyone else seeks.  They just have a different way of going about it, at a different address.

            The prisoners in their cozy world only represent half of the story of the prison welfare system.  The other half, the half that gave me the key to my more modern understanding, is the guards.  The guards work in the same world but they don’t see it the same way.  Yet, they too have found their place in the sun and like the feel of the warmth on their cheeks.

            If you have no ambition beyond a secure paycheck, then the work of a prison guard is for you.  If you can sit all day and stare at a video monitor, then the life of a prison guard is for you.  If you can mindlessly follow procedure and accomplish absolutely nothing, then the life of a prison guard is for you.  If you can look the other way, then the life of a prison guard is for you.  This is how we see prison guards, but only part of the story.  They are this, and less, and much more.

            Prison guards are not bad people, they are just people like everyone else.  It is the easiest path in life that is most followed.  This is true no matter what your job description says.  If you can be paid to accomplish less you will most often do it.  It isn’t laziness or a lack of caring, it is an evolved survival sense that says the easiest meal with the fewest risks is the best.  Somnambulistic life choices are the common threads of our civilization.  These are the choices made by criminals and cops, prisoners and prison guards.  To expect these people who earn little wages and less respect to do more is like asking a frog not to hop or a cat not to pounce.  It is their nature and we pay for it every day.  If you want better results you must pay for them.  If you want better prisons, you must choose them.

            Prisoners pass on their understanding to their children in quiet and unspoken ways.  It starts with one generation and leads to the next.  Fathers and sons and grandfathers have a tendency to follow similar paths in life.  This simple principle is true of prison guards as well.  A father gets a job and does it for twenty years.  He has a daughter who also gets a job and she does it for ten.  Then her son gets a job and he follows the same path.  Three generations of uniforms in one family, whether behind the fence or watching it, this is not unusual.

            The circle and cycle of prison life hasn’t changed in over two hundred years.  Prisoners keep coming back, and prison guards keep showing up.  Their common thread is the world they have created.  A world of subtle meaning and daylight shadows.  Prison is a place we don’t talk about or think about.  Yet millions of people live and work there every day.  They build their lives like in any other industry, products and producers, creators and consumers.  Is there really such difference between the colors of the uniforms.  Prison guard blues and prisoner grays.  Both groups have found their place in the universe.  Like trees they extend roots and tie themselves to their futures.  Prison welfare.

copyright 2010 Davin Douma

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