(Part 4) Dehumanization: Incarcerating Family

(Part 4) “T” – Dehumanization

“It’s wild” are the first two softly spoken words in an early May interview by a prisoner who is identified as “T” in this series.

T has been incarcerated for over 10 years, Ventress for the past several of them. He speaks low. His voice is strikingly calm. The discussion wanders from topic to topic, often focusing on the living conditions of the prison, always returning to its impacts on family.

Prison is hard for both officers and prisoners, T says, but “It’s hardest on the inmates, because of how crowded it is. We’re all right on top of each other, all the time. You know? You don’t get to breathe, really … It’s a real mess. It’s a miracle that we ain’t caught something. You know. We’re jammed in here like bunnies in a pen.”

Asked what these conditions have meant in the context of the pandemic, T says that “People are frustrated and scared. Most of them don’t know what to expect, and just hear all these different rumors. That can make an impact on a lot of people, the rumors every day. ‘Oh, I heard this,’ ‘Well, my folks told me that.’ It’s aggravating.” There are “all kinds” of rumors, says T.

First and foremost, he cites rumors about the various organizations pushing Governor Ivey to let nonviolent s out early, because if coronavirus “did make it in here, which has happened in some prisons, like, it’ll be catastrophic.”

He adds: “We’re so close together. Guys don’t take precautions. You know. When they cough, sneeze, they don’t cover their mouth or nothing. It’ll get right on you. That causes problems. You know?”

Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) recently confirmed that safe social distancing is impossible in Alabama prisons in an email response to questions about a different article.

T broadens his observations, reflecting on how these conditions are increasingly problematic and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I feel like they can’t put a value on life, no one’s life,” says T. “You know. And they dehumanize people that are in prison. Okay, so [prisoners] made a mistake. They don’t make mistakes? People outside of prison don’t make mistakes?”

In prison, he says, “They treat us like animals. You know. I feel like a lot of guys act the way they do because of the way they are treated. Treat a person like a human being, talk to him like a human being, and then they act like one. But when you treat them like an animal or a dog or something, then they act like a dog.”

He pauses, then notes, “You’ll hear this term from a lot of people in prison: ‘Dogs live better than we do.’”

T says life in prison reminds him of a war movie he saw many years ago about a “POW camp overseas in the Korean War…This is sort of like living in one,” he says.

“Most of the time, the food we eat in here – we don’t even know what it is,” he adds.

After a pause, he adds, “The guys complain about a lot of things in the prison, but the most important thing is this: Getting ourselves together, and getting out of here. I try to – you know – encourage people.”

T reads the Bible to pass his time, which “keeps me sane,” he says, “keeps me calm. In this camp, there ain’t really much to do. So, mostly, [prisoners] are going to either read or watch TV, and that’s mostly what people do.”

T has been able to access his free weekly phone call during the pandemic, and uses it to call his family. He has always stayed close and in touch with them.

“Family – I think – is really emotional,” T explains, “especially…because most of the time, most people, when they have a loved one go into prison, they are also in prison, too. We’re in here, worrying about what’s going on with them out there. And they’re out there, worrying about what’s going on with us in here. There’s danger out there, and a lot of danger in here, too. You know. You have people fighting, all kinds of things. I think that’s part of it. That’s part of all of it.”

Families hear about “a lot of officers that will pick on certain inmates” and other problems within the prison, and remain caught between the experiences of their loved ones in prison and the public narratives put forth by the ADOC and others. “See, you have to have a – like a – a vision – when somebody’s telling you something.”

He explains: “Most people won’t believe a man in prison, but they’ll believe the person outside of prison. But people outside of prison tell lies. And then you get a man in here playing things or acting crazy, and that’ll impact somebody else [who is not acting crazy].”

T continues, “Or, if an officer and an inmate get into it, and the inmate winds up dead, then it raises a whole other issue. It ain’t often that happens, but officers will do things or inmates will provoke them to do things, and [the officers] always say, ‘He was a threat.’ So, he can just walk up and slap me and it’s just okay? I’m supposed to just turn the other cheek? He can kick me, and that’s okay? I don’t think that’s right.”

T says he’s seen these types of interactions between guards and prisoners many times over the years. They don’t happen to him, he says, because he just walks away when officers “start talking crazy” to him.

Returning to the impact of prison-life on the families and loved ones of prisoners, T touches on the various financial burdens.

For married prisoners, he begins, “It has an impact on his household. You know. It takes away an income. He’s got no way to provide for them in here. So, even though they’ll make you work in here, you ain’t going to get paid nothing. That’s free labor. And they say that [prisoners] must have a job all the time.”

Some examples of these jobs are “dorm cleaner, mowing lawns, picking up trash,” none of them paid positions.

T also notes the high cost of prison products for families seeking to help imprisoned loved ones with “hygiene, or to eat something that they know what it is. Let me put it to you this way: chicken meat don’t grind up like hamburger meat. They have these boxes that say ‘Chicken Meat,’ and it’s ground up like hamburger. I say, ‘Man, you believe that’s chicken?’”

Primarily, T says, the most important thing families can do for prisoners is to “keep them company,” but there are also “things we need that we can’t get in the prison, like deodorant, decent soap to take a bath. You have to make sure you have your hygiene products,” especially now, the cost of which “depends on how much you need.”

Such expenses, which prisoners’ families and other loves ones on the outside usually have to buy if prisoners are to have them at all, are for things like “deodorant, shampoo, and soap, just things you ain’t going to get on a regular basis” for free from prison staff or administrators.

“And if you go ask [prison staff] for something,” T adds, “they act like it’s coming out of their pockets, and then they go up and down the aisle talking crazy to you.”

T says that, years ago, he saw an Alabama prisoner beaten for asking for a bar of soap. Officers “will cuss you out, pick on you for no reason, write you up. They’ll write you up for anything. Anything. You walk out the door and forgot to tie your shoes, that’s a write-up.”

T wonders, “What lesson can [prisoners] learn from that? That people are going to dog you every time you go somewhere?”

Outside of prison, he continues, “I can go to the mall and my shirt doesn’t have to be tucked in, as long as I’m neat and decent. I’ve seen people wear all kinds [of clothing] to the malls, to the movies. You are not teaching [prisoners] how to be civilized. You are teaching them to be aggressive toward people because people are aggressive toward them. That’s not right…They don’t give [prisoners] any respect. Respect is out of the question.”

He concludes: “So that’s why guys act like they act. If you treat them like humans, they’ll act like them. I’ve been to a camp where they do practice that – talk to you decent, so guys talk to them decent. They respect each other. But when you get into State prison, it’s a whole new ball game.”

T believes that 45 to 65-year-old prisoners should not be expected to sleep on the top bunks of the prison’s beds. Older prisoners “got no business climbing up and down the top rack, and then there’s 30-year-olds on the bottom rack. I think that’s backwards.”

But prisoners are ignored or ridiculed by officers if they “say something to them about, ‘Well, I can’t climb up and down. I’m tired of jumping off, hurting my knees and my legs,’” says T. “And I’ve seen youngsters walking around with broken bones, and it seems like every one of them got a top rack. That’s crazy.”

T adds that he knows a 19-year-old in perfect health living on a bottom bunk.

“I’m an elder,” he goes on. “I’m 55, and on a top rack. That’s disrespect. So, they don’t care nothing for my well-being. They don’t care about wrong and right.”

The family members with whom T has remained closest throughout his time in prison are “my children, my mother, and my sister,” he says.

He has two children. They are in their 30’s, as of this writing. His mother is in her 70’s. T was also married to and divorced from the mother of his children, but prefers not to discuss their relationship.

“It’s been hard” for his kids to have their father in prison, he says.

“A lot of times, kids – you know – children do things – well, mine are doing things now that I didn’t see them do when I was out there. So, I think it’s harder on them that they don’t have that guidance. They don’t have that person there to influence them.”

Like X earlier in the series, T insists that consistently communicating is the most important thing prisoners and their families can do to support each other through a prison sentence.

“Communicating,” he explains, “is the best thing to do – you know – so you get to hash out issues. You get to talk about things that you can’t talk to these people about. Family are going to listen to you better, and give you better advice … You can actually talk to family better, because you can trust them better, and you can open up more about how you feel. In here, you can’t show feelings. So that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Toward the end of the interview with T, the discussion turns to how prisoners experience the deaths of their loved ones who are on the outside, and what it is like to grieve while locked away.

Like everyone else, different people in prison “show different emotions” in response to death and grief, says T. “Some people act out, pick fights with people.” Others “say things like, ‘I don’t care,’ or ‘I want to die, too.’”

And “People like me,” says T, “don’t do anything. You know. I be like, ‘Well, it’s just something I’ve got to deal with, just a thing that happened.’ I’m a person that holds a lot of my emotions in. And it’s hard, of course. You want to grieve and mourn over the death of a family member, or a personal friend, or an inmate will pass away, and it’s the same, just like you lost a family member. You know. We deal with each other day in, day out, every day, all day long.”

T’s most painful loss while serving his sentence, as of this writing, has been the death of his cousin. They were best friends. Before prison, T recalls, he and his cousin “used to hang out every evening when I got off work. We’d just go out and drink coffee, conversate. He just died a few weeks ago. I’m still trying to – um – figure this out.”

T’s cousin was a year younger than T. He served a sentence in a federal prison and died “not long after he got out,” says T.

“So, I didn’t get to see him after he got out. You know. So, it’s taking its toll on me. I get up, and I try to pray, and try to move on during the day.”

T reiterates what G said in an earlier article in this series, that it is difficult to impossible for Alabama prisoners to attend services of their deceased loved ones.

“They only have the security to take you to the wake,” T explains. “They don’t let you go to the funeral anymore. You have to go to the wake, and it’s just you and the person [accompanying you].” Asked how much it would cost to attend a wake this way, T answers, “One guy told me it was $1,800.”

Further, he adds that he’s “never wanted to go” to the wake of a deceased loved one because he “would never want to put my family through that” financially.

Asked if it’s even possible for prisoners to have or make that amount of money on their own in Ventress, T simply answers, “Exactly.”

He elaborates: “That’s where the anger comes in. That’s when you have to encourage a guy – you know – keep him from doing something silly. [Prison staff] don’t understand unless it’s their loved ones. But they think we inmates have no feelings. Truthfully, whether you believe me or not, they really think we are animals. Y’all created this environment. You created an environment where you packed in all these different cultures and characteristics into one place, and they’re on top of each other all day long. They have mixed emotions. Some people got money. Some people don’t. That’s also where the financial burden comes in.”

As noted in Part 3, ADOC Spokeswoman Samantha Rose responded via email to a request for comment on questions about Alabama prisoners’ claims regarding the financial aspects of attending the services of deceased loved ones outside of prison. Rose confirms what prisoners in this series describe.

The ADOC permits prisoners, writes Rose, “with approval from their warden, to pay respects privately to a deceased loved one” for “one hour.”

Rose confirms that “inmates are not permitted to attend funeral/visitation services or visit/socialize with family and friends” for “security concerns,” and that prisoners traveling “offsite to pay respects privately to a loved one are responsible for the associated financial costs.”

Rose explains that prisoners apply for an “escorted visit” with a deceased loved one by submitting “a formal request to their respective warden.” If approved, “security detail and transport arrangements will be coordinated by the ADOC.”

In response to whether prisoners are cuffed around either the wrists, feet, or both at any point in the process of visiting with a deceased loved one, or if they are allowed not to be cuffed at any point, Rose answers, “The level of security and/or restraints required to safely and securely transport the inmate offsite is dictated by the inmate’s security level,” but does not comment on the security measures in place specifically during the hour in which the prisoner visits with the body.

Rose also does not respond directly to an inquiry about whether there are any types of organizations, programs, or government assistance services in place for prisoners seeking to attend the services of deceased loved ones who cannot afford to do so. She also does not comment on whether the process has always been the way it is now, or, if not, when it changed.

On the financial costs of the process to prisoners, she adds, “Correctional officers assigned to transport an inmate to and from the funeral home/visitation site are not removed from their post or standard duties in order to accommodate these requests, and as such are paid an hourly rate by the inmate that is equivalent to the hourly rate paid to them by the ADOC.”

Rose does not offer an average or estimate of the cost of these visits, adding at the end, “The associated financial cost of this activity to the inmate is not static, can vary widely, and is dependent upon factors unique to the individual including the number of security personnel required to safely and securely transport the inmate and the length of travel to and from funeral home/visitation site.”

T believes there are some ways in which imprisonment “is even harder” on the family and loved ones of the prisoner than the prisoner himself, he says. 

“Now, [families] are trying to make sure you are financially supported in prison. Now, that’s a burden on us, because we’re looking at it like, ‘We’re taking food out of somebody’s mouth out there that they need.’”

T elaborates on additional financial burdens on prisoners and families.

“If a guy gets money – his family might send 30 or 40 dollars, okay – then he is going to try to share with those that don’t ever get anything. So, now it’s a burden, because it might be too late before he needs 30 or 40 more dollars, because he forgot to get something for himself trying to help this other guy. But he wants to help the other guy, because the other guy can’t get no money on his own. It’s a mess. This is a super mess,” he says.

The most intimate, crucial, recurring topic of conversation between friends in prison, T says, “especially [among] a lot of the older guys, is family. You know. They want to be able to go out and do for their families. They want to be able to provide that support, and they can’t. In here, you can’t. No way to do it. So, I think, for grandparents and parents living in prison, it’s hard.”

The interview ends as they all do – the automated voice of Securus Technologies ends the call at 15 minutes, in the middle of something important.

Perhaps calls would not be timed so strictly if the prison had more working phones, but they probably would be anyway. It’s always strange, almost incomprehensible, to think of prisoners’ calls with loved ones ending just as abruptly as their calls for these interviews. One never really gets used to the startle of being hung up on so relentlessly, surgically, robotically, every single time.Sometimes, the only thing that seems to always work perfectly in Ventress Prison is the robot voice of Securus Technologies, cutting off the few calls prisoners are allowed, on the prison’s few operational phones, at exactly 15 minutes. Even on calls in which the prisoner himself cannot hear or be heard clearly throughout, one voice with three messages is always crystal clear, never early or late, at the beginning and end of minute 14: You have one minute left; thank you for using Securus Techonologies; Goodbye.

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