It Is What It Is (The First Rule of Prison Life)
It’s the first rule of prison life.
“It is what it is.”
I know that it’s more than just prison tautology, but a real understanding of the rule eludes me even after more than four years in prison. Initially, it seems to be the “Qué Será, Será” of prisoners, a philosophical shrug, the apex of acceptance and emotional evolution.
People respond to anything that perplexes the inmate soul by reciting the rule. “I was denied parole.” It is what it is. “My man’s cheating with my sister.” It is what it is. “My codefendant blamed everything on me and walked.” It is what it is.
Perhaps “it is what it is” answers the Serenity Prayer. Or maybe it’s accessible, acceptable Zen for the inmates, the majority of whom reject eastern religion as heresy, who fall on the floor during Protestant church services, allegedly speaking in tongues, confusing the onlooking guards who must decide if the woman is seizing or just exercising her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.
I don’t know if “it is what it is” is acceptance; sometimes it’s very difficult to see the law that way. Through their actions, prisoners make the rule an abnegation, even a total rejection, of personal responsibility because they pull it out like a weapon – a shiv at the throat of interpersonal relationships – when confronted with wrongdoing or injustice.
“Did you dip your cellmate’s toothbrush in the toilet?” It is what it is. “Why did you steal ten pounds of margarine out of the kitchen in your underwear?” It is what it is. “You heard? Inmate X beat the shit outta Inmate Y! For real! It was dripping down the back of her leg!” It is what it is. In this sense, the rule is no longer Doris Day’s “Qué Será, Será” but McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.”
The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve seen things that students in an undergraduate constitutional interpretation course would know are wrong, like appointing the same public defender to two codefendants who never waived the conflict of interest. I can’t know about a situation like that and not tell that woman:
“C’mere. Let me tell you what you have to do.” So it can become what it is not.
Word of my nosiness has spread and I’ve earned the worst label that an inmate can bear: not snitch, or even child molester, but effective – not all the time but a lot of the time – in taking on the power structure. Paired with my convictions, two years of law school hardly make me an attorney but I became the jailhouse lawyer by rumor and default. Not one day has passed without an inmate requesting my help in crafting some written dispatch to get a new public defender, modify an order of visitation with her children, waive back taxes, apply to vacate protective orders or reduce her sentence.
For a while I kind of enjoyed it. I liked the fact that – if they had to choose a rule to break – they weren’t willing to follow “it is what it is” when it kept them in the status quo. When my cellmate – a woman who left two sons when she ran her SUV into a motorcycle carrying her ‘husband’ and a thirteen year old girl, killing her – found out that her state income tax refund was being held for unknown reasons and that her children couldn’t buy new shoes, I helped her write a request to release the funds. Her children shouldn’t be further punished, I figured. When she read the Department of Revenue Services’s reply that they had mailed the check to her son’s guardian, she nodded and muttered, smiling:
“This is what it is.” And it was. But learning about potential, possibility, what can be, is a powerful event. And with power comes assertion.
I used to walk to the dining hall for every meal (breakfast at 5:30, lunch at 10:30 in the morning and dinner at four in the afternoon) like most other inmates. While I went on these excursions for fresh air, the other inmates go to “chow” for the cake; it’s the new gruel. Every concern about a prison’s human rights record vanishes when outsiders hear that inmates stuff themselves with cake at least four times each week. The hoards that come out for it also come out to find me to learn how it doesn’t have to be what it is.
“Explain how I get my probation reinstated.”
“Tell me how the judge gonna lower my bond.”
“Robbery ain’t a violent crime when I run away from a mall cop when I was boostin’ (shoplifting), is it?”
If they didn’t catch me on the prison walkway, several took to interrupting me in the shower with “Just write me a letter,” while they forced a Bic through the curtain. As prison shower interruptions go, these were mild but they’ve accosted me so frequently that I’ve developed the routine of starting all of my sentences with “Listen…”, their drowning me out psychologically underpinning my new habit.
That the pen has power in the pen is a phenomenon that other prisoners haven’t witnessed before. They assumed that lawyers, magistrates and case workers ignored their letters of past because the people who sent them were lawbreakers. But when this lawbreaker wrote, things happened. It wasn’t what it was anymore.
In my experience, people who were cultivated in poverty can’t treat something beneficial in their lives properly. They will so overuse good things that they break or wear out and abandon them to the “It is what it is” thinking that prevents their dreams of better lives. Even though I very much want to help the other inmates, I don’t want to interact with them, at least not too much anymore. In short, I want my cake and to eat it too, just not with them, not all the time. From that letter that Saint Paul sent into the lives of the Romans, I know that I’m supposed to be humble and associate with the lowly but sometimes I need a break, permission to “Let it Be.”
It’s worn me out so much that I don’t really have much of a glad heart anymore when I assist them. Once I was awoken as if in an emergency, repeatedly poked in the foot by a squat inmate telling me:
“Miss, I dunno nothin’ to write to my lawyer.”
“Of course you don’t,” I snapped as I lowered myself from my top bunk. “With all of those public service ads about avoiding education. Wasn’t there a One to Grow On that said everyone should drop out of school at age 12 and knock over a liquor store? Oh, yeah, only after she shit out five kids!” I snarked at her.
Processing orders for help has turned me into a nasty, elitist bitch, more so than I ever was before; it’s been one hell of a rehabilitation.
I could see Martin Luther King’s ghost in the corner clucking his tongue at me as I slammed my property around to find a pen and paper, seething as I prepared to help her so that she could see what can be. I know that my comments and behavior were wrong, contrary to everything that I supposedly believe, but I still feel only 50% terrible about it, probably because she and her roommate conspired to steal my pajamas from my laundry bag the next day.
“Did you take them?” I asked, dangling my mesh sack from a raised arm to show that I knew they had victimized my sleepwear.
“Miss, it is what it is.”
“That’s what I thought.”
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM JULY 4 – 10, 2016
Within 24 hours of the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a Falcon Heights, Minnesota officer shot and killed Philando Castille for reaching for his identification as ordered. An aerial ambush of Dallas police officers followed, killing five of them. Something needs to be done and everyone insists that guns aren’t the problem. I agree with Adam Gopnik who wrote this week in the New Yorker that “Guns allow the fringe to occupy the center.” We need to rid ourselves of the ways we empower people who want to do wrong. Guns top that list.
Hillary won’t be taking a collar for her “extremely careless” handling of classified information when she was Secretary of State. FBI Director James Comey said that no reasonable prosecutor would bring a case against Clinton using the 1917 federal statute that criminalizes gross negligence when handling classified information, one of the craziest statements ever made. There are no reasonable prosecutors.
The Prison Policy Initiative scooped all news outlets in reporting that prison commissary giants are about to merge. This is more than some highfalutin anti-trust story. Prices for basic items like toothpaste and deodorant or even writing paper are about to go up. That means dirtier inmates. And dirtier inmates act dirty. I predict more fights, not an epidemic, but enough to make the prison profiteers culpable.