(Author’s note: Prisoners were interviewed confidentially for this article.)
Part 1: “Don’t Let The Time Do You“
“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 Postreported 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.’”
Part 2: “The Next Level”
“X” has been doing time in Holman Prison for around three decades. August, he interviews with HTR on self directed learning, friendship, mental health, and dreams in prison, among other related topics.
He already enjoyed reading and writing as a young person, before prison.
“I used to skip school and go to the library, and I used to read a lot of books in the library. Sports books, magazines. I used to read, man, all the time. I loved readin – see – that’s something I always did,” says X.
“My writing got better when I got here. I wrote on the street, but not like I write now. I was writing somethin totally different from now, because it’s the maturity. You know. The writin only get better the more you mature, because your subjects get wider and better. But I always read in the streets though,” he reiterates.
“When it comes to readin,” he adds, “your maturity level have to come up to … different varieties of books.”
Growing up, X was mainly interested in sports history books and sports magazines. “I was big into sports, college football, basketball. So, I’d read anything that contain – like Sports Illustrated, I’d read them front to back in a heartbeat, and the sports pages in the newspaper. So, I was a big sports fan,” he recalls.
“But I wasn’t ever really into no one topic. As I got older and maturer, that’s when I started picking more topics that I liked,” he says.
About 15 years into his sentence, X taught himself how to write left-handed due to an injury, still writes clearly with both hands to this day. He describes the incident.
“I messed my [right] hand up on the basketball court, and they wouldn’t fix it. So, I couldn’t write with my right hand,” he says.
“What do you mean they wouldn’t fix it?” asks the writer.
“They didn’t fix it. I had broken my finger. They didn’t fix it. So, they never got around to seein my finger, to see that it’s crooked. It’s out of place,” X explains.
“Did they give you a reason they wouldn’t fix it?” asks the writer.
“No. They didn’t give me no reason. It’s bad. You know what I’m saying? It’s bad medical attention, period. Period. It ain’t got to be nothin broken. You could be sick, have a headache. It’s bad, period. See?” X answers.
X spends a great portion of every day writing letters and sermons to mail to friends, family, other loved ones, and to penpals from around the world. He also shares the writings with other prisoners during their Sunday church service and in his conversations with them while working the hall and socializing on the yard.
When X broke his finger playing basketball around a decade and a half ago, rendering him unable to write with his right hand, “the letters did not stop coming in. So, I had to write the letters. So, I just sat down one day, and said, ‘Well, I got to try this left-handed,’” he recalls.
“It took me a while. Matter of fact, it took me hours to write that one letter left-handed,” he says. “But then I just kept on it, and I just started writin left-handed until my hand got a lil better, and then I started back right handed again.”
The hardest part of teaching himself to write left-handed was “the process of getting the letters spelled where you can read em, because I was writin in cursive. See. I wasn’t writin in print. So, I learned how to write in cursive left-handed. So, I had to take my time. So, it took me – it was a process,” says X.
“But I learned a lot about that too, because, during that process of writin them letters [left-handed], it helped me start proofreadin my letters sometimes, because sometimes – I don’t know if you notice this – sometimes you think differently than you speak, and than you write. You notice that, right? You go back and proofread your stuff, you’ll see that you’re sayin somethin, but it’s not there. You know what I’m saying? So, [writing left-handed] helped me start proofreadin all of my letters … So, that was good, those sort of things,” he says.
Asked about the importance of self directed learning generally while doing time, X responds, “Well, I think it all depends on what you want to change in life, and what do you want to help you.”
He pauses, then continues. “My change came this way. This’s how I changed. Let me tell you how I come to change: My change came in looking at other brothers around here. They was makin decisions like never before. And I was makin decisions, but not decisions like they was makin. So, I was learnin I had to step out of my comfort zone, step into another comfort zone, to help,” says X, trailing off and again briefly pausing before he continues.
“Like I read books, but I didn’t read books to help be mature, and learn like I’m learnin now. See? So, there’s a lot of educated people in prison. Here’s my thing, though: They’re just educated. They only can use it for certain things. They can’t use it to help nobody else. See what I’m sayin? They only use it to help themselves, and I didn’t want that kind of learnin. I wanted to learn to help somebody else,” he says.
“So, it took time, and then I had to get the right books. You know? But I’m big on knowledge, on learning somethin new,” he adds.
“Like, here’s a prime example: About a couple of years ago, I’d been readin on marriage. And this had helped me expand my knowledge on marriage, not for me, but just to help someone out … I had been studyin on marriage so much, gettin so much information on marriage that, for about six months, God had me speaking to brothers that come in here from church about their marriage. And every time I said something to them or asked em a question, they’re like, ‘How did you know that?’ I said, ‘I didn’t. I’m just askin a question.’ So, I knew I was on the right track every time they did, and they was like, ‘Man, you’re not even married. How you know all this stuff?’ I said, ‘Well, I do a lot of readin,’” X recalls.
“So, it really blessed them and it helped me. So, that’s what I try to do. I don’t stay on one subject. I jump around different subjects, subjects I don’t know about,” he says.
X remembers what some of his first ever favorite books were at the time he started reading more broadly in prison, decades ago.
“My first book I read in prison that I really loved – and I want to go back and get it and read it again – is the [Stanley] ‘Tookie’ Williams book. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that book called Redemption,” he reflects.
Redemption is “by a brother that was in prison, California, started in a gang up there, the Crips gang, and he wrote a book. And when I first read his book – oh my goodness – when I read his book, somehow it helped me in so many ways, helped me because he changed his life in prison, changed his life. He educated himself in prison, and started helping people outside the prison. So, that’s what helped,” says X about Williams’ Redemption.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told To Alex Haley was another one of X’s first, most formative books as he expanded his reading interests, writing, and spiritual life toward the beginning of his sentence.
“When I first read that book – no, I didn’t read the book first – I saw the movie. I saw the movie about five times before I got the book. So, saw the movie five times, but then I sat down and read the book, and the book was so powerful,” X reflects.
In the Malcolm X Autobiography, “I saw – I didn’t know how to do it – but I saw how he changed in prison, and educated hisself. So, at the time, there was this guy who was in the cell block with me, and he reminded me so much of Malcolm X, so much, yes. So, I’m like, man, and I try to get up under him as much as I can. But also, he was very spiritual. At the time, I was nowhere near spiritual, had no self guided connection with God whatsoever. So, I knew I couldn’t connect with him right then at that time, but I latched onto him, and gleaned from his life, and how smart he did get. So, he’s part of that journey that got me spiritual,” says X.
“With Malcolm X, if that movie came on today, I’d look at it today, because I know I missed a lot of it, lot of it,” he adds.
X further elaborates on the significance of friendship in prison.
“Oh, this is – let me say something: I have had some brothers in here that I would give my life up for, not in a game, in reality. You know what I’m talkin bout? It’s like, they are good brothers, man. And all these brothers have a different – they bring somethin different to my life. I’m gonna share this one friendship I shared with this brother,” says X.
“So, there was a brother in here, and when he came in, I didn’t like him, because I thought he was kind of prideful, kind of cocky, and eventually we got to talkin, and God did somethin to help me. He got me to reconnect with my family, and I never forgot him, never forgot about it,” he says.
“That was so powerful because at the time, I had no relationship with my family but my mom. That’s it,” X explains. The friend let X use his phone account to call family and friends from prison for the first time, loved ones X hadn’t spoken to for years upon years, and he played a major role in teaching X the importance of being as proactive as possible about reaching out to family and others in the free world while doing time.
X reflects further on that friendship and his friend’s life and struggles. “What happened was he messed around and got on drugs, real bad. Everybody had abandoned him. But I didn’t. And one day – I’ll never forget – he was cryin, and he was telling me, like, ‘X, man, I know you heard somethin.’ I said, ‘Man, I ain’t heard nothin. I know you’re on drugs, and I know everybody done told you how bad’ – I said, ‘Listen, brother, you was the first brother in here that connected me back to my family.’ But I knew there was a God right then … I said, ‘We ain’t talkin bout outside, or nothin bout back home. What you did, I ain’t agree with, but that’s not you. It’s you on drugs,’” says X.
Decades later, “to this day, we still got a friendship,” says X. “And I’ll never forget that.”
In general, though, “Friendship in prison be tricky. I’m gonna tell you why: because brothers never had no real friendship on the street. Their friendships was based on somethin – their friendships was based on what they did. It never were based on, ‘OK, I want to help this person get to the next level.’ If everybody who has a friendship in prison were at that point where it’s making you better, that’s onto a relationship. It’s far and few in prison, far and few, far and few in prison, for real, because everybody trying to get over, gain somethin, and if you ain’t mature enough, you’ll miss it,” X explains.
He discusses mental health issues in the prison.
“Let me say this: there’s a lot of brothers that got mental [illnesses], and they don’t even deal with it. And here’s the sad part about it: It’s two things, a twofold: First of all, one: They came to prison, and they tried to be strong all the time, and that’s put a mask over their mental illness. Second of all: They never ask for help. That put another mask over their mental illness. So, got two masks on your mental illness. Then, that’s compounded with: You got to do time, got to deal with certain things, deal with certain issues, and your mental illness never get dealt with, which, when you get mad or angry, that come out. You see?” says X.
“See – a lot of people don’t know – a lot of times, trauma bring on mental illness. There’s a lot of guys that been abused by their mother, abused by their father, grandparents, abused by somebody, not just sexual. I’m talkin bout mental abuse,” he elaborates.
“A lot of people don’t understand somethin: If you for a long time been cussed out by your mom or dad, that psychologically do somethin to you. If you never get it dealt with, that’s what happen. That means you pushed it down and pushed it down,” he explains.
“Now, just think about all the times you got arrested. Think about all the times you might got in fights, you might got assaulted. All that right there, you push that down, still got to push that down, because you’re still tryin to get in that vault, and then you come into prison, and before you left the street, this is what you always heard: ‘Be a man.’ Now, who’re you gonna tell it to that you got a mental illness? Nobody,” says X.
X has seen mental health workers on his tier approximately three times a week “for some months now,” he says, “and I’ve never heard two guys say, ‘I need help because I got mental illness.’ Never heard it.”
He adds: “So, the mental health issues in the prison is very high.”
To deal with mental illness in prison, “First of all, bro, you got to admit that you got a problem. You’ve got to admit that. If you can’t admit that you have a problem, then – guess what – well, I can’t help you. See what I’m sayin? I’m OK. Ain’t nothin wrong with me. I’m just locked up, and I’m disappointed, but if you locked up in your mind, you locked up in your past. Any time you see someone livin their past over and over and over again, there’s something wrong with that, brother. There’s something really wrong with that problem,” says X.
Further, X comments on his experiences with suicide in the prison.
“When I first got here, maybe in the first two years I got here, there was a guy committed suicide. He cut his throat, killed hisself. He had mental illness. So, he did that, and it kind of affected me for a long time. And they had a couple of other guys commit suicide – but I didn’t know them – that were on the tier with me,” says X.
“Suicide, it work two ways. I’ll say this right here: Suicide, two ways: sometimes, guys will say they will commit suicide, to get their family to do somethin for them. Sometimes, they want to commit suicide because they have gave up, and they see no other way out but to do it,” says X.
“So, that’s why I tell people this all the time, and share this with somebody important: I’ll say, ‘Do you really know your neighbor?’” he continues.
“And all I’m sayin is: We are sittin right next door to each other. Matthew, we can reach our hand out, and touch each other’s hand. That’s how close we stay. We should have nobody that want to commit suicide – you see what I’m saying – because if they already want to commit suicide, they think they’re lonely, and they think there’s no hope,” X explains.
“That’s why I talk to so many guys. When I work the hall, bro, I make it my mission to talk to so many guys, so many,” he adds.
X wishes all the prisoners could feel more comfortable being there for each other in hard times, and feels the same way about the relationships between prisoners and officers.
“Some of the officers, they have mental illness, too, because they have to be around guys five, 10, 15 years, and God forbid they have to get executed,” says X.
X says he knows two officers who quit their jobs during his sentence because they grew close with death row prisoners and couldn’t stand to await or experience their executions.
When the prisoner committed suicide by cutting his own throat early in X’s sentence, “It was shocking, due to the fact that I couldn’t believe that a person would go that far to end their life, because the dude – when he cut his throat, he just bled to death,” X remembers.
That suicide “made me think about a lot stuff,” X reflects. “I thought about his family. I thought about – you know – what I could’ve did to change that situation. Even though he was dealing with mental illness, I felt like I still could’ve did something to change that situation, which I couldn’t at the time, because his mind was made up. That’s another thing you got to understand: Sometimes, people’s minds are made up to do that, to kill theyself, and there’s nothin you could say to stop em. Their mind already made up.”
He adds: “So, I went through that like that for a period, a while, bout six months of just thinkin bout that though.”
Asked what kinds of dreams he has, and whether he ever gets nightmares, X answers, “Sweet dreams. Sweet, sweet dreams.”
He elaborates: “Let me say this: One of the dreams I’ve had the most – it’s crazy – it’s where we used to stay at before I got locked up. It’s always in that neighborhood. I’m talkin about, I see the neighborhood clearly. I see houses that I remember, clearly. I don’t see the same people, but I see that same neighborhood.”
“Who do you see?” asks the writer.
“I see, like, buildings, and I am talking to somebody, but nine times out of 10, I’m talkin to somebody that I met in prison, but we’re out in the free world … But every time I dream, I never dream about prison,” X replies.
“So, my dreams – I never had a nightmare in here, never had one. No nightmares or bad dreams, absolutely,” he adds.
Concluding the August discussion, X says he sometimes reminds other prisoners: “‘You could be in Christ, or you could be in prison.’ That’s all I’m sayin in here. If you’re in Christ, that mean you are doing what God tell you to do. You’re not focused on being in prison.”
As prisoners, he explains, “We’ve got to help each other to make this a better place.”