Growing up in rural Northern California, in a middle to upper-middle class white household, I was always under the impression that prison was something that happened to other people. Bad people, that did bad things; not people like me. When members of our social milieu had problems with the law, it was almost always of the sort that could be dealt with via payments and, when someone did on occasion end up in jail, it was only spoken of by adults in hushed tones and treated as some sort of mistake or aberration. All the way through my early twenties, even once I should have known better, prison just seemed like somebody else's problem.
I mention all of this because I believe that my experience isn't an uncommon one. Our prisons aren't filled with people from privileged middle-class backgrounds, so many of us come of age never having known someone who has spent time in prison. Without that first-hand knowledge, it's only too easy to forget that the people in prison are real people too, with hopes, dreams, fears, and so on. I imagine that anyone who has taken the time to find this site and read our entries is already aware, at least on some level, of all that I've said. I mention it not to inform you, but to remind you- many people aren't concerned about the problems in our prison system, or aren't interested in prisoners' rights, not because they're cruel but because they're uninformed. Not because they're callous but because they don't understand what's really happening.
When I met John*, I simply knew that he was a friend of a friend, that he was decent looking, and that he was interested in me. It was only after we had gone out on several dates that I learned that he was also an ex-convict, recently off parole. He had been in San Quentin not once, but two or three times, for both violent and non-violent offenses, for several years at a time. He had two strikes and was paranoid about going back to prison- afraid he'd get a third strike and be stuck there for the rest of his life.
John was a troubled man in many ways: a rough childhood, followed by a stint in the military that had left scars both physical and psychological, hadn't given him much of a foundation to build on. My friends and family thought I was crazy to keep dating him once I learned all of this but for one reason or another, I did. The really sad thing for me was that it was clear to anyone who cared to look that John was a smart guy with a good heart. Even his violent crimes had been the result of caring too much and not knowing how else to protect someone he cared about. He was also sporadically homeless, unemployed, and prone to outbursts of verbal rage. I thought that maybe if he had some help from someone who cared, he could make a better life for himself. I thought maybe I could be that person.
While we were dating, I was never sure how much I could ask him about what prison was like. I realized then that I really had no idea what life in prison was like. Sure, I'd seen television shows and movies set in prisons but never before had I known someone who had actually been inside and I thought this was my chance to finally know. Whenever I asked, though, he was evasive, shunting my questions aside or laughing them off. Finally, one day he just looked at me and told me that he really didn't want to talk about it. That it wasn't like I'd seen on tv, but that it was terrible and that he'd rather die than go back. I still remember the troubled look he had when he told me he didn't want me to see him that way; I think we both knew that wasn't really possible. One of the most defining experiences of his life was one that was so foreign to me that even in trying to understand, I offended.
In the end, I had to end the relationship. Not because he had been in prison, but because of what prison had done to him. At 34, he was a broken man. He had constant health problems, due in part to the years he had spent with inadequate medical attention, making him seem much older sometimes. Socially, on the other hand, he was stunted. I was the younger by a good ten years but when we went out in public, I was the one that ended up embarrassed by his inappropriate words and actions. When people tried to help him or be friendly, half the time he'd scare them off or drive them away with preemptive rudeness. All those years behind bars had taught him how to fight, but they hadn't taught him how to interact with people. He couldn't keep a job, or a housing situation, or even friends. At some point, he just gave up. I don't know whether it happened while he was in San Quentin, or when he got turned down for job after job because of his record; more likely it happened gradually, as the defeats accumulated and he decided there was nothing he could do to stem the tide. He decided that the system had given up on him, so he gave up on it.
These days I'm a little bit more educated regarding our prison system, a little bit more aware of its many flaws, but I still see men like John on the streets around Hastings every day and I wonder: how many of them have a similar story? How many of them started life with hope and decent prospects, made a few foolish decisions in their youth, and ended up so distrustful of our society, so broken by the system, that they too just gave up? The other day I saw John himself, walking down the street in the Tenderloin. He didn't see me, and I let him walk by without saying anything. I hate to be one more thing that failed him, but I'm only one woman and I realized years ago that the wounds he had were far beyond my lone ability to heal.
*For reasons of privacy, the name has been changed