November 27, 2012 3 Comments
Blogging from inside of prison is emerging as a means of speaking out for some who are incarcerated. It is an interesting phenomenon because prior to its existence the majority of people had no idea what was happening behind prison walls. These blogs, which provide an understanding the prison environment and provide a look into the lives of people society has all but forgotten about, just might be the kind of spark needed to bring about a change in the way people are treated in the justice system.
I previously wrote about Nyki Kish who is housed in a maximum security unit at the Grand Valley Institution in Canada. Nyki writes about her experiences in prison in a way that is both poignant and raw. She draws the reader into her experiences, sacrificing the small semblance of privacy that remains within the confines of her mind just to give people an opportunity to see the world as she does – from inside of a cage. Nyki’s blog, titled This Wall is not Infallible, is here.
Communicating with the public, from within a prison, is a risky endeavor. Those who speak their mind or candidly describe their experiences subject themselves to various kinds of abuse. Before Damien Echols was released from prison after signing an Alford Plea he would frequently write about his life in prison. In his writings he relayed everything from his spiritual beliefs to various forms of abuse in his prison.
Months before his release he wrote:
The unrest is spreading. There were two more fights yesterday, smaller ones this time. It’s going to continue, and get much worse, unless someone steps in and stops the abuse going on. It gets worse and worse by the day. The people running this place have turned it into a powder keg. When I was a kid, we had a saying, “It’s time to fight, fuck, or go for your guns.’ That’s the feeling in the air here now. The more the administration covers it up, the more dangerous it becomes because people realize they must go to further and further extremes to draw attention to the abuse. That makes it more dangerous for me, since my case is so closely watched by the media. If one of the inmates were to kill me, it would draw notice to what’s going on here. And I have no desire to be a martyr.
When Damien wrote the above he had no way of knowing that Arkansas prosecutor Scott Ellington would later agree to accept an Alford plea on behalf of all three men, know as the West Memphis Three, incarcerated as teenagers for murders that occurred in 1993. Though prison personnel did not appreciate his public candor about conditions in the prison, he spoke out and suffered the consequences until his release.
I am intrigued by the few who have bravely overcome their fear of retaliation in favor of educating the public on the realities of prison life. When I learn of people who blog from prison I find myself drawn to each posting like a moth to a flame. Granted, I have been privy to negative prison experiences in private correspondences, but speaking generally in the form of a blog is riskier for those incarcerated. For that reason alone it is noteworthy.
At some point I came across the blog of Steven Farris. He was incarcerated, in Mississippi, shortly after his 16th birthday in 1998. Steven’s blog, titled The Writing on the Wall, is different from others I have read because he writes with a rare kind of humor. In one post he wrote about one of the men he was housed with:
One time I saw him “washing” his laundry. He had put a shirt in his sink, jammed the button so the water kept running, and then shuffled back to his bed. Every 30 minutes or so he’d come shuffling back over to the sink and -with just his index finger- poke at the shirt he had in there. After about the fourth time he did this, I asked him what he was up to. He replied that washing machines have an “agitate” cycle, so he figured he’d do the same. I told him he’d probably have to agitate a bit more vigorously if he expected his shirt to get clean. He said, “If I did this to you, wouldn’t you get agitated?” I had to admit that I most likely would. As an aside, when he finally took his shirt out of the sink, it was green. The water at Parchman isn’t the best.
I contacted Steven to discuss his blog in more detail. I have decided that instead of truncating his responses I will provide them in a kind of questions and answer format. The portions in bold represent my questions to him.
Q: What motivated you to start the blog and what was your original objective when you starting writing entries for it?
A: Back when I first got the idea to blog I was still housed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary’s maximum security unit – Unit 32. The National Prison Project of the ACLU had stepped in and was representing state prisoners after a recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, and after their victory for the death row prisoners housed at Unit 32 the Associate Director of the NPP, Ms. Margaret Winter, asked me to be the representative for the class and I agreed. She kept me informed about what was being printed in the newspapers, and though I was glad to see it getting media attention…there was something lacking. Family members of prisoners were wanting to know what was really going on behind those walls. The more I learned of blogging, the more I felt it would be perfect for giving updates as to what was happening in Unit 32. I saw – and still see – a lot of potential there.
My initial objective was to give an insider’s view of the Presley v. Epps case. Then my objective was to make general information available concerning problems my family and friends encountered and how we solved them. I hope to continue growing the blogs and tailoring them to meet the needs of this niche audience. PrisonInmatesLife is the first blog we set up and it is focused in its content. My personal blog, The Writing on the Wall, was created so I could express my own opinions on matters – and because I enjoy writing. I find that people enjoy The Writing on the Wall more than PrisonInmatesLife, which is understandable.
Q: In your blog articles you talked about having detractors. Do you find the feedback regarding your blog is more positive than negative, or vice versa?
A: Overall, I think that the feedback is more positive than negative. I’ve received some information that leads me to believe that people are having difficulty posting comments on a couple of posts and I will have to look into that. The reason you see so many negative comments on a couple of posts in particular is because the Harmon clan are all in law enforcement, so their brothers and sisters in blue rallied to Mr. Harmon’s defense. I understand that and believe they are entitled to their opinions. The reason I wrote the posts that received so much negative attention is because Mr. Harmon used every excuse he could think of to get himself into the media. And every time he did, it upset my family and friends. He was doing it to no positive purpose, and when he made such an issues of my transfer it was the final straw. So I set about showing him that I have a voice too. Other than his law enforcement friends stalking my blogs, the feedback has been positive and really supportive. Especially via the Facebook page for PrisonInmatesLife that my loved ones admin for me.
Q: What are some issues relating to the justice system, and prison, that you feel people on the outside need to know?
A: From youth court, through juvenile detention centers, to county jails, all the way to state prisons – the justice system is a trap. Once you become caught in the web of the justice system, you’re never free. You are monitored; it is next to impossible to get a good job; it is difficult to even find a place to live if you’ve been to prison. And there is nothing just about the justice system. It’s nothing more than politics. Even the judges are elected in what amounts to popularity contests for adults. When you get to prison it’s not about rehabilitation. Prison is solely about punishment and warehousing prisoners. The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate. Think about that. Treat the sickness, not the symptoms.
Q: Describe the first year you spent in prison. How did you adjust? What were some of the harder things to adjust to?
A: My first year was spent in denial and daydreaming the days away when I wasn’t sleeping. I was housed at Unit 17, where the gas chamber is located and where they filmed scenes from the movie The Chamber, based on the book of the same name by John Grisham. We were locked down 23 hours per day. Monday through Friday and 24 hours per day Saturday and Sunday. Even though it was long-term segregation we all had recreation time together on the unit yard with the guys housed on the tier with us. I never had a problem with anyone trying to do anything to me or take advantage of me physically, even though I was still 16 at the time. I had to deal with mind games and things of that kind, but I learn quickly.
I adjusted because I had to. There was no alternative, in my opinion. Most of my time was spent locked in a room about 5′ by 9′ in size. I’ve always had an active inner-life, spending time in my own mind. I also spent time writing to family and friends, writing poetry, teaching myself to draw. The hardest thing to adjust to was – and still is – not being able to be with my family or be there for them. It was always difficult to lose control of making even some of the smallest choices in my life for myself. I’m really self-reliant, so having to depend on others is hard for me.
Q: How does your prison experience now compare to your experience in the beginning?
A: After 14 years of doing time inside the Mississippi prison system, I am a veteran. I know how to navigate the system and do my time with the least amount of problems. No matter where I go, someone will know me. All my business is good business. I have an established reputation as a convict, and people come to me for advice and help. But what has prison done to me? Yes, I’ve learned and applied it positively. No one does prison time and does not develop some form of prison mentality though. I’m just now learning how to let people be close to me. I don’t volunteer personal info. I have to work hard to not be suspicious of other people’s motives. What would I have been like had I not been incarcerated? That might be a future topic on my blog.
Q: In reference to the practice, how do you feel about the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole? Do you believe it is justifiable or not?
A: Since I’m serving a sentence of life without parole myself, my opinion is going to be a bit biased. Aside from that though, I feel JLWOP or even sentencing a juvenile to life with parole and only allowing them parole eligibility at the age of 60 or 65 is pure idiocy. What society is saying is that they have given up on these juveniles, that they either can’t be rehabilitated or they aren’t worth the effort. Conversely, even though they can justify in their minds that they are sentencing these juveniles as adults, they don’t feel these kids are mature enough to make adult decisions. You can sentence a kid to serve life without the possibility for parole, but they can’t buy tobacco or liquor, vote, serve in the military, own a pistol, marry without permission…But you can hold them to adult standards. Anyone else think that’s a bit hypocritical?
The United States only recently stopped executing its children. There are three countries that have not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child: Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States of America. Why, Melissa? The U.S. is supposed to be a model for the rest of the world. The U.S. which has the largest population of professing Christians also still has the death penalty, life without parole as a sentencing option for its children, and the largest prison population.
There’s something wrong with this picture. None of it is justifiable.
Q: How would you describe yourself to a person who doesn’t know you?
A: I am probably the worst person you could ask to describe me. I am my own worst critic. So…I recruited my friend, Melanie, to assist me in this task. This is what she wrote:
“I would describe you as the truest friend I’ve ever known…You are loyal, compassionate, kind, and a comfort to the people around you. You are fierce in your standards and beliefs and since you speak from your authentic core, your words and bonds are the things that other can count on to guide them in the right direction…Truth above fluff. I see you as forthright, diligent, highly intelligent, approachable…cultured, dynamic, and well versed. You are eccentric and I love those two qualities about you…Freakin’ hilarious is more like it. You are a champion for the oppressed, you forgive those who wrong you and you serve mankind and are your brother’s keeper – even to the point of your own detriment and peril.
“Sometimes I think you are misunderstood and that may just be because you are very internal. You are brave and bold and if you were a color I would paint you orange with red streaks at the edges and soft blue in the center. I think you have a humble calmness that exemplifies your spirituality, and you definitely have an aura of light around you. You are one of God’s healers and vessels. I think you can be profound and pensive…you can be moody though, too, if you let yourself fall too outside yourself or distance yourself from those who care about you. If I had to name bad things I think you can push people away to much in order to protect yourself…You can also not give yourself enough praise. I think you are a rare find in this world, and I think anyone who comes across you in their life’s path if forever blessed.”
Q: What is important to you and what are you passionate about?
A: Foremost, my relationship with my creator and my loved ones is important to me. Because of my beliefs I feel that serving others is our duty. That’s important to me. I am passionate about learning, about becoming a better person, about realizing my full potential. I think Melanie did a great job describing what is important to me and what I’m passionate about so I won’t rehash that.
Q: Is there anything else about yourself, prison, the legal system, or anything else you want to share with people?
A: Yes…I like long walks on the beach, sunsets….Joking aside, people need to realize that the problems with the justice system aren’t going to disappear. Ignoring what goes on behind prison walls won’t make it go away. Businesses like C.C.A. and G.E.O. that profit from warehousing prisoners are the same ones lobbying for “tough on crime” and “truth in sentencing” laws. Politicians, judges, and prosecutors – many own stock in these companies or others associated with the prison industrial complex. And guess who puts these people in power? You, the voters and taxpayers of this great nation. I love this country and feel it’s the greatest in the world. We’ve got some serious problems that are getting worse and need to be dealt with. Get informed. Get involved. Show that you care about the U.S.A. and your children’s future. We’re all connected and you’re sorely mistaken if you think otherwise.