Prison Beyond OITNB
CN: drugs, gang violence, prison abuse, PTSD
Hey all. I hope you’re enjoying the Orange Is The New Black recaps we’ve been posting for the past couple of weeks. As you can tell, a lot of us here at Queereka have been binge watching the show. Maybe you have too. Me, I gave the show a shot when it came out, but I stopped watching after the first few episodes. While I enjoyed gaining sympathy for the inmates through learning their backstories, I couldn’t watch the abuses happening in the prison, even toned down as they were for TV. So rather than contributing to the season 3 OITNB recaps, I’m going to introduce you to my prison pen pal.
I started writing to Jamie (not his real name) about 6 months ago. I found him through Black and Pink, which connects LGBT inmates with LGBT pen pals. I should note that it I can’t give a completely unbiased account of Jamie’s story. For the most part, I only have his word to go on. Furthermore, the emotional support I provide for Jamie comes through trust and understanding. Sure, I’ll ask questions if things don’t make sense, but I am his friend first, and a journalist second. Finally, due to Jamie’s former gang involvement, he has to be careful how much he shares with me, and I have to hide any identifying details.
Jamie grew up in the Midwest, a mixed race kid in a single-parent household surrounded by drugs and gangs. He was involved with both by middle school, but there was more to him than that. He was a popular kid who played football, and he wouldn’t let bullies beat up on the other kids. He had to deal with too much violence at home; he wasn’t going to put up with that at school. He was a young teen when he started having run-ins with the police. Drug possession got him a stint in juvie, and that’s where things really escalated. Gang influences were stronger in juvie than they had been on the streets. Here he was, 15, bisexual but not understanding what that meant, and the closest thing he had to family while on the inside, the only people who had his back, were the gang. In his own words, he turned his heart to ice, chipping it down, bit by bit, as he did whatever he had to to hold onto that loyalty and belonging. When he finally got out of prison in his early twenties, he had no education, no job experience, no connections in the above ground economy, and no access to mental health care he needed after the trauma of he experienced both before and during his prison term. He ended up back in prison less than a year later, and that pretty much brings you up to speed.
These days Jamie’s life isn’t exactly Netflix material. Over 95% of his days are spent in a 12′ x 7′ cell. You’d know it as “solitary confinement.” It’s also called “ad-seg” and “23-and-1”, although some days it’s more like 24-and-0; he only gets to shower every other day, and he only gets to go to the exercise yard three times a week. He has to ration his food on weekends when lunches are not provided. It was over a year ago that Jamie was put in solitary for fighting. (Keep in mind, to the prison warden, there’s no such thing as self-defense.) Jamie tries to stick to a routine to best deal with the psychological torture that is prolonged solitary confinement. He works out in the mornings, draws in the afternoons, and reads fantasy novels in the evenings. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with PTSD from various events mentioned above, and while he sometimes has access to a social worker, it’s unsafe for him to talk about anything related to the gang while he’s in prison.
Despite coming from wildly different backgrounds, I’ve found it quite easy to relate to Jamie. We both wish for people to see us for who we are and let go of preconceived notions. We both live in situation where we can’t be 100% open about our LGBT status’s. We’re both trauma survivors, and we’ve both experienced the isolating effects of mental illness. At the same time, Jamie’s had it 1000 times harder than me, so I can’t pretend to know understand what his life has been like. After all he’s been through, he’s shown himself to be incredibly strong. He’s trying to turn his life around. He dreams of being a musician, but he understands that will most likely never be more than a hobby. We often talk about his options after his release, and how he’ll probably be stuck working minimum wage. He’ll take that over drug money because he wants out of the violence and constant anxiety of never knowing when someone was coming for you. Meanwhile, he writes poetry and music. He sells his drawings to the guys on his pier to buy hygiene essentials and stamps. He would love more than anything a second chance at being a father to his daughter, although, understandably, the girl’s mother probably won’t give him that chance.
I can’t overstate how rewarding our correspondence has been. It means a lot to me to be able to make a difference in someone’s life, when all I have to offer is kindness and understanding. Each letter brings Jamie a brief escape from his four concrete walls, and he really appreciates having someone who doesn’t judge him for his past. If you enjoyed binge watching OITNB, consider connecting with a real world inmate. There are thousands to choose from on the Black and Pink website. If you don’t have the time for an ongoing correspondence, please consider donating to Black and Pink’s OITNB Solidarity Fund to help female and LGBT inmates. Additionally, I urge you to keep prisoners like Jamie in mind in your support for social justice. Kids caught up in the drug trade need counseling and support, not prison. We need to stop the “war on drugs,” support social programs to give kids living in poverty better alternatives to gangs and drugs. We need to bring kids out of poverty – bur for now we can focus on smaller measures like universal pre-K education. We also need to shorten sentences for nonviolent offenders and eliminate long-term solitary confinement. If you’ve learned anything from OITNB, it should be that most inmates aren’t psychopaths. They’re ordinary people who were dealt a bad hand – or a lifetime of bad hands – and were stuck with choices that most of us are lucky we never had to make. I’m going to close this post with the poem Jamie wrote for his daughter. The prison industrial complex didn’t just fail Jamie, it’s failed her, too.
You are the spark that ignites my flame
Vanity my baby’s name
Tattooed upon my broken heart
Never again shall it fall apart
Until you were born I had no clue
The love that I sought was always you
You are my strength when I fall weak
You are the light that I always seek
When my days are dark and my fear shows through
All I need to is think of you
Look at your pictures and your beautiful smile
You’re daddy’s girl my beautiful child