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(Part 1) “Don’t Let The Time Do You”: Alabama Prisoners on Learning, Mental Health, and Friendship

“G” has been serving one continuous sentence in adult male Alabama prisons since age 16, for around four decades. He has been transferred through almost every prison in the State while doing time, and is currently incarcerated in Ventress. 

In August, G discusses learning, communication, relationships, mental health, and other aspects of prison life with HTR

“I kept them books, man – you know what I’m sayin? – and started reading,” says G. He was illiterate when he arrived in prison as a child, and realized in his early 20’s that if he wanted to learn to read, he’d have to teach himself. 

“And, like, a lot of words I didn’t know, I’d ask somebody, ‘What’s that word mean?’ You know? And they seen when I was tryin to learn how to read, so – you know – people started helping me,” he recalls.  

G says self directed learning can teach communication skills and help a person stay psychologically whole while doing time. “Lack of knowledge is the worst thing in the world, man. You know what I’m sayin? And a lot of these guys, man, don’t wanna learn nothin, because they got nothin, nothin but time,” he explains. 

“So, why not pick up a book and try to read it? To learn to better yourself? You know? Not only if you’re in here, but in society, too, because ain’t nobody gon hire you on some job if you can’t read, or if you don’t know what’s going on, man. So, how you gonna hold out a job if you can’t read?” he adds. 

G “already knew that [reading and writing] skills were important” during his childhood before he got to prison, “but was just refusing to get them,” he explains. 

“But then – you know – the older I got, the more mature I got. So, I felt like it was time to learn things I needed to learn, because I’ll be going back to society one day,” he elaborates. 

He pauses, then continues. 

“I don’t want to be out there, man, in society, and can’t read a book to my lil cousin or my lil niece or my lil nephew or my father. You know what I’m sayin? If they ask me to read a book, I wanna be able to read it to em,” he says. 

Learning to read, write, and grow other skills became a day to day reality and project in prison for G in “the late 80’s, bout 87’, 88’. Like I said, man, I started readin books, just books on different times, different length books, and westerns and stuff. You know what I’m sayin? Just different books, man. I just kept readin and readin and readin and readin. So, now, I can read damn good, probably anything,” he says. 

Asked if it was difficult to teach himself to read and write, especially while in prison, G continues, “Well yeah, man. It was hard. But it was something I wanted to do. So, I kept at it. You know? And the hardest part was a lot of words I didn’t know – they used to frustrate me. I’d just put the book down, but I’d think about it later on, go back, man, ‘I ain’t gonna let this word defeat me. I’ll find out what this word means.’ Then I might go to somebody that I know, ‘Hey, man, I need you to help me out with somethin: Tell me what this word means.’ And once they’d tell me, when I’d see it again, I’d know it.” 

Teaching himself to read this way took G “about a year,” he says. 

Asked how becoming literate changed his life, “It was something I knew I needed to do, something I needed in life,” G reiterates. 

“See,” he continues, “You need every skill that you can learn, because – you know – when you get out there in society, man, the world’s gonna eat you up if you ain’t ready, because – see – time is moving out there. It ain’t moving in here for us.”

He adds that in prison, “Skills are something you’ve got to want. If you ain’t want it, then you ain’t gonna get it.” 

Asked what might cause a person to never want such skills, G replies, “It could be numerous things. Some people just give up on life. Some people don’t care – you know – whether they live or die. Some people, they just don’t care.”

“Do you see a lot of people give up on life in there?” asks the writer. 

“Yeah, this prison, there’s a whole heap of em,” answers G. He pauses, then continues. “See, one thing about me is, like, I don’t care how long that they keep me locked up physically, they’ll never lock me up mentally. I’ll never lose my mind in here. You know? That’s what keep me going, is my mind. You know. I got to have a strong mind to be able to deal with this stuff, nowadays especially,” he explains. 

Asked to elaborate on why people stop wanting to live, G says it’s “different things. Some, maybe they had a death in the family, or maybe they seen one of their friends get killed or something. You know. It’s just different things, man, that make people give up on life, man, but not me. Man, I ain’t gonna give up on life.” 

G discusses the connections between drugs, mental health, and the lack of resources, activities, education, and freedom in the prisons. 

“For a lot of them guys, man, those drugs is the most hardest thing in the prison for em,” says G. 

Asked which drugs, G answers, “Well, they’re on different kinds of drugs, man. They’re on spice, flakka – they’re on drugs that I never even heard of. Back in my day [the 1980’s], you had cocaine, heroin, booze – you know – different known drugs. But now, I don’t know what this stuff is, man. It ends up killin some of em. And all of em on it, White and Black.” 

“Flakka” was the likely cause of an outbreak of illness among 10 people who took the drug in a Shelby County halfway house in 2018, one of whom died. An AL.com report describes the drug as “a synthetic drug, somewhat of a newer version of bath salts. It delivers an instant high that can last from several hours to several days.” 

A 2019 incident was widely covered about a K-9 search dog, who was killed after sniffing out synthetic marijuana, which is known as “K2” and “Spice,” in Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama. The Washington Post reported that the drug “can be laced with more potent narcotics such as fentanyl,” and noted that, “In 2018, a rash of overdoses were connected to synthetic weed” in several States, “some of which was found to contain rat poison.” 

Asked if he’s observed a general cause of addiction within the prison, G explains, “It’s because there’s nothing to do. There ain’t nothing to do.” 

Asked what causes people to “lose their minds” in prison, G reiterates, “Well, there’s nothin to do, man. Just sittin around all day with nothin to do … and you can’t get nobody to think of something … But if you could go to trade school all day, or if you could work in a kitchen all day, if you got a job that keeps your mind off of all type of negativity, then – you know – your mind can function right.” 

G worked on a farm when he first came to prison. In the 1980’s, G recalls, “We had the farm, trade school, autobody, woodshop, electricity – you know what I’m sayin? – we had different skills that you could learn. But it was only at certain camps. But they don’t have that now. So, man, a lot of these guys, they don’t got nothing to do.”

Prisoners also used to get a dollar a day and six magazines. “Yeah, we don’t get that no more either,” he adds. 

Another factor contributing to mental health issues, drug addiction, suffering, and giving up in the prisons, G explains, is that “they keep guys locked up so long, man, all their family die off. So, they really ain’t got nobody in the streets. So, that’ll make em give up. You know? They don’t care whether they get out or not … because Alabama, man, they so low down, they keep you locked up.”

Asked what it’s like to see people reach the point at which they no longer care whether or not they are in prison, G replies, “Well, it’s sad, man, because I don’t want to see my people fall like that, White or Black, man. I feel like every man deserves a chance, regardless of what he did in life. You know? There’s no crime that makes a man deserve to be locked up for the rest of his life.” 

He adds: “If you got a life sentence, and you did six years, eight years – you know what I’m sayin? – let the man out. You know? Give him a chance to go back out there in society. Don’t keep him locked up 15, 20, 30 years. You know? His momma dead. His daddy dead. All his folks done died off. So, what do he got? He don’t got nothin. So, he don’t care.” 

He pauses, then continues. “I mean, I’ve lost my momma since I’ve been in here, and I’m an only child. Like I say, I got other folks out there that love me. You know. Thank God for that, because that’s what really keeps me going. You know?” he says. 

Asked what it’s like to be around people who have lost their will in this way, G responds, “If you’re around them every day, man, you can’t help but get used to being around them. You know? I just look at em, man, and if I can help them, I try to help them, and if I can’t, I just go on – you know – keep on moving.” 

G elaborates on the history of the rise in mental health issues within the prison system during the time he’s been incarcerated. “What really messed that up – see – when they closed down a lot of mental institutions out there in the streets – you know – a lot of people started catching cases and coming to prison, and – you know – the prison ain’t equipped to deal with mental health issues,” he says. 

Asked what resources would help improve mental health in the prisons, G answers, “They should have people in here that’s qualified to deal with these mental health people. You should have to go to school and get some training for that.”

John Sharp’s article on how the State’s diminishing resources for people suffering from mental illness impacts law enforcement and incarceration, which was focused on a jail in Mobile County, was first published in 2016 as part of a longer series on Alabama’s mental health crises for AL.com. Sharp writes that “law enforcement and corrections officials across the State” are “reeling from cuts in mental health funding,” leading to “more corrections officers being attacked; more psychotropic drugs being issued; and fewer hospital beds for the severely mentally ill.” In response, the “Sheriff’s Department in Mobile County is now looking to expand its jail to handle inmates with mental illness,” the report said. 

Sharp notes that “70 percent of 40 sheriff departments responding to a survey indicated they were holding someone in need of mental health services. Of those 40 counties, 65 percent said they had trouble finding services for at least one inmate with mental health problems. More than half of those who responded said they were not equipped to deal with mentally ill individuals,” and “sheriffs say the burden for mental health care too often falls to deputies and jailers.” The State shut down a wave of psychiatric institutions in 2013, and AL.com reported in 2019 “nearly 20 hospitals have closed across the State since 2000.” 

Asked when he noticed an increase in mental health issues in the prisons, G elaborates, “Like in the early 2000’s, a lot of the mental institutions were closed down … You know. They closed down, because they didn’t have the money to fund them. You know. So, now, if a mental health patient catch a case, they send him to prison. These people here are not equipped to deal with it.” 

Further, G discusses the role of friendship, both generally in prison and in relation to mental health. 

“You can be friends to some of em, but you can’t be friends to all of em. You can’t be a friend to everybody. You know what I’m sayin? Not everybody’s friendship material. You can’t be my friend if you wanna hurt me. If you wanna kill my family, if you kill me, you can’t be my friend. I don’t need no friends that wanna kill me,” he says. 

“Do you feel you have good friends in there?” asks the writer. 

“Yeah, I’ve got a lot of good friends,” G answers. He pauses, then continues. “You know? I wouldn’t say ‘friends.’ I would say ‘associates,’ because I just met em in prison. You know. I didn’t know nothin about them till they came to prison. But … (trails off) So, we’re not friends, but we’re associates, because – you know – we’re around each other. You know what I’m sayin? A friend is somebody that you knew, growed up with, been around all your life. You know what I’m sayin? Y’all think alike. That’s what a friend is – you know what I’m sayin? – to me.”

Asked if friends are harder to come by while doing time than associates or acquaintances, G replies, “Well – you know – that ain’t what prison’s for. You didn’t come to prison to make friends. You come to prison to do your time and get out.” 

G says if he were to give advice to a younger prisoner at the beginning of a sentence, “I would say, ‘Don’t let the time do you. You got to do the time.’”  

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