Monday, October 19, 2009

Words From Within Walls

In the course of working on the blog, my correspodence has become more varied than it used to be. Among other things, I get, and treasure, mail from inmates, former inmates, and their families. Sometimes, inmates provide me with accounts of, and perspectives on, their life in prison, and I wanted to share a few of those with readers.

Justin Paperny blogs about his incarceration experience, and has also written a book, titled Lessons from Prison. Paperny has recently been released from a federal prison camp, where he was sent for his part in a Ponzi scheme. In the book, he tells of the misguided decisions that led him to prison in the first place, but also of his transformation within walls. In the blog, and in the book, Paperny describes a daily prison routine that is very different, and in many ways calmer, than that of an inmate at an overcrowded state prison. An undercrowded institution, the federal prison camp allowed inmates to pursue some of their interests; in Paperny's case, what proved particularly effective and redemptory was his exacting exercise and fitness routine, which put him in a better place to examine his life choices. The book really drives home the issue of personal responsibility, which sometimes gets lost amidst social and environmental concerns, and is particularly important in the context of white collar crime.

A completely different (and no less interesting) resource is a blog by Reginald Wheeler, who has spent more than 25 years in prison for a robbery. As appears to be the case from the first post on the blog, Wheeler's fate was decided by sentence enhancements on a robbery, and his blog is incredibly reflective on the long prison years that followed.
Among other things, he writes:
But I'm not writing this to get sympathy. Sympathy is not what the young people need to be feeling.
They need to be feeling and understanding fear, confusion, shame and determination.
They should feel the fear of doing something foolish, which lands them nowhere.
They should understand the confusion about how something could happen and how they would survive if they made the same choices I made.
And they should try to understand the shame that I feel -- the same of knowing that I let so many people down.
Now I know that I'm better than that.Finally they must learn determination in a way I didn't learn it -- the determination wish I had known: the determination not to throw my future in the toilet like that.
As I simply size up my milestone, I can only acknowledge that I had to deal with the pain of this hurtful milestone because I didn't respect, appreciate or fulfill life's normal milestones -- births, graduations, weddings, etc.
It's a simple lesson that I've had to learn: If you don't respect and embrace life's good offerings, you will struggle through and feel the pain of life's bad offerings.
These two very different experiences have made me think of something we don't usually discuss on the blog. Our focus is mostly on the social, political, and economic concerns that surround the prison experience; by speaking about the problem in broad terms, we do not mean to argue that choices, and personal responsibility, are not available. We simply draw attention to the many ways in which the common understanding of choice and personal responsibility does not apply to the prison experience. That is not to say that the choice is inexistant, and that any of us should not feel the obligation to be the best person we can be -- even under the most exacting and limiting circumstances.
I wish that prisons could be, for many more people, institutions of growth, understanding and reflection; I wish that conditions were such that personal responsibility could be assumed and learned, and that better conditions were provided that would allow a broader array of choices for exiting inmates. The system we currently have does not provide these options for a large number of inmates. Overcrowding is not only physically constrictive; it is also soul-deafening. Reflection, remorse, and resolutions to do things better should be part of the prison experience; but they are one side of a coin, whose other side requires providing our prison population the tools to engage in these important processes.
Stay tuned in the next few days for a book review of Sunny Schwarz's Dreams from the Monster Factory, which recounts her experience creating restorative justice programs with the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, which is an interesting attempt to reconcile between the socio/institutional deprivation and the attainment of personal responsibility.

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