Every once in a while, you can wax philosophical in prison and not about moral or ethical questions, but metaphysical ones. Like this question: if someone tells on another person for something she never did or reports an event that never occurred, is she really a snitch?
Snitches swarm in prisons as people expect. But most people don’t know that tattletales actually tell mostly tall tales. I thought to blab you had to report something that actually happened. Judging by my experience, snitches are just tattlers of fiction.
Inmate Linda Stone schooled me in snitch reality. Linda is a petite, bookish-looking black woman who received permission to wear a girlish, innocence-projecting kerchief on her head. The kerchief, when paired with Stone’s two side braids, made her look like a milkmaid, but Stone is really a vile beast. She heaped lies about her life on everyone: she worked as a District Manager for a well-known international shoe company, she served as an expert witness in credit card fraud cases, she had a PhD.
“She ain’t got no PhD. The only thing that bitch got is a B.H.,” another inmate told me.
“B.A., I think you mean,” I corrected her.
“No. B.H. Bald head. That’s why she needs that scarf,” she explained. Apparently Stone suffered from a severe case of alopecia that afforded her the cloth on her head. She originally claimed her it was her “cuteness” that caused the staff to allow her to wear it. I guess that was a bald-faced lie.
Stone worked as the “Common-area Worker,” an inmate janitor who cleans the lobby of each housing unit and inventories supplies. The milkmaid fell victim to an occupational hazard and developed an illness I call Co.W.S. – Common-area Worker Syndrome – a condition under which an inmate believes that she’s become a deputy warden. Inmates with Co.W.S. order the staff around, subjugate other prisoners and generally march around being officious pains in the ass.
Because of her case of Co.W.S., Stone required that all attention be focused on her, her fictitious PhD and her very real baldness. Stone had been assigned a partner, a co-worker named Denise, who’s actually pretty cool. This positive personality trait would make her a natural enemy of Stone. Denise said something that Stone didn’t like and, within minutes, Stone ran to a lieutenant and told him that Denise had threatened violence against a particular C/O. Even though Denise never uttered a discouraging word about staff, the goon squad would hear none of it as they spirited her off to seg.
Stone’s imperiousness forced the staff to let her to choose Denise’s successor as her new underling. At the time, I worked washing inmates’ uniforms on one of the tiers in Stone’s fiefdom and I much preferred the biohazard risk from tossing foul drawers into a rickety dryer than listening to Stone. But she drafted me anyway.
“You’re going to have to do it for at least one day until we figure out who’ll work with her,” a guard told me when I backed away from Stone’s province and shook my head at my new work assignment.
Reluctantly, I joined Stone in the supply closet where she was ripping clear plastic garbage bags into small pieces to use as wrappings for spoonfuls of powdered laundry detergent that awaited distribution to inmate workers. She pointed and ordered me “Do this,” – fill bottles of glass cleaner – and “Do that” – sweep the floor – until she allowed me to reconvene with her in the closet.
“You know C.O. Snell? Well, he came in here the other day and asked me “Hey Chocolate, wanna suck it?” Stone wasn’t relaying an instance of sexual harassment; to her, this falsehood was evidence of how much the staff desired her.
No one talks like that, I thought. Even the worst C/O’s.
“Really? He said that? Fess up, Stone. Do you live in a porno?” I asked because porn’s dialogue was more credible than the dreams Stone was selling.
“I gave him a back rub once.”
She thought this was an adequate justification for this flaming lie. When an inmate and a guard sneak away to engage in inappropriate physical contact – a collision that never occurred between Mr. Snell and Stone – no one has time for a backrub; the two have sex and separate to throw off the scent. Prison is a lot of drama, but it’s not a love story with massages and long talks.
“Stone…” I pointed to the door next to the supply closet, the counselor’s office. The counselor happened to be Mrs. Snell.
“What?” Stone asked.
“Keep it down,” I warned and pointed to the counselor’s door again.
“That door is locked… I mean… if it’s locked no one’s in there. No one’s in there. Is she in there?” Stone spilled panicky rationale all over the place as she tried to convince herself that no one ever existed behind a locked door, particularly in a prison.
“All I’m saying is… you know…” I said and put my hand out to say Slow down.
Within seconds, Stone announced: “We’re done in here,” and hustled me out of the closet.
I’d been back in my cell for about an hour when the unit manager summoned me to his office and detailed to me that an inmate worker – Stone – had provided a statement to him that I confided in her that Mr. Snell had made inappropriate advances towards me. The unit manager took Stone’s lead with this lie and allowed her to pre-empt her own problems by reporting me for her lie.
“I never made any statements like that whatsoever,” I defended myself. I knew it was futile to explain what had really happened. I would look like I was doing what Stone did to me.
“Nevertheless,” the unit manager continued, “Mrs. Snell doesn’t feel comfortable with you in the unit. You’ll be moved in twenty minutes. Grab some bags,” he told me, referring to the same bags Stone had ripped up; inmates use them as suitcases when they move because they’re clear and snitch – honestly – on any contraband toted inside of them.
I put up no fight, instead walked to my cell with a stack of garbage bags. I never blamed Mrs. Snell for taking offense. That was reasonable. She simply had the wrong offender. Almost immediately after I started to pack, the unit manager called me back into the office.
“And we also have reports that you made threats of violence against Officers Copper and Harvest. If we become aware of you threatening staff again, you’ll be disciplined. Understood?” he leveled his gaze at me.
I had no idea what to say as more philosophical questions arose. If I said I understood, did that mean that I wasn’t refuting Stone’s lie about me? If I said: “No, I don’t get it because I never said it,” I’d become Denise’s roommate in seg within seconds.
The whole scene was like asking for a pardon when you’re innocent; even seeking absolution or agreeing with your persecutor implies guilt. Did I understand anything about the situation at the moment? No. So I did what every confused inmate does; I nodded ever so slightly. Minimal assent greases a prisoner’s way out of tight situations.
As it turns out, I much preferred my new housing unit so the move hardly devastated me. But the whole event posited a serious philosophical question in my brain. Was Stone really a snitch? She really never told on me because I never made any of the comments she attributed to me; those words came out of her mouth. She reported a true incident but identified the wrong perp. Neither of us threatened violence against anyone, so Stone’s reports of threats wasn’t really tattle-tale-ing, it was spinning a yarn.
Ever since all of this happened in 2009, it’s like I have the scene on TiVo and I replay it every month. Women in prison with low self-esteem seek attention from guards; they’re the closest authority figures. Usually, no new gossip has developed to impart on the correction officers so, in the spirit of the saying that Wise people have something to say whereas fools have to say something, many inmates make up stories of what another prisoner allegedly did or said about the C/O.
Then when the snitchee finds out what the snitcher did to her, she runs to another guard and fabricates a another story about the original snitcher because they think that reversing the slander will bring about justice. The more novice C/O’s betray their emotions as panic spreads across their faces when they hear these stories and march in search of a lieutenant to receive their incident reports. Experienced staff know it’s all bullshit. Sometimes I hardly wonder why they hate all of us.
The snitch riddle is problematic because it confuses inmates about what a responsible person should report. Solid citizens report crime and situations where people can suffer harm but many inmates don’t understand this. The stigma on reporting malfeasance is a product of street culture, lawlessness, not clean living. Inmates think projecting an image of never reporting anything makes them cool and controlled and convince themselves that tolerating others’ transgressions makes them trustworthy. The fact that they then run to C/O with a false story about someone else doesn’t disabuse them of this belief, either.
It’s been an irreconcilable prison paradox to me since I got here and lived in the dorms and one of my cubemates, Terry, asked another inmate, Shelley, if she would call the police if she witnessed someone breaking into her neighbor’s home.
“Naw. I ain’t no snitch,” she objected. Terry and I discovered later that Shelley, the one who would allow a full-scale burglary to unfold in her neighbor’s home, had been the informant who set up and told on Terry’s sister, Misty, for some drug situation that both were responsible for. Now do you see why people hate us?
Inmates, though, aren’t that different than citizens at large. Every day brings new situations that require us to ponder what’s worth our (and the authorities’) attention and what we should ignore. Developing the virtue of prudence is a daily chore for everyone whether she bears an inmate number or not. To whistleblow or not to whistleblow? That is everyone’s question.
Whispering lies into Lady Justice’s ear won’t imbalance her scales for long. Immigration eventually came and scooped up Stone because another one of her lies was that she was a United States citizen. Someone else she screwed found out and did a dishonorable thing in an honorable way by calling I.C.E. and telling the truth so she’d get deported to her to her home country in the Caribbean Sea.
It wasn’t me who called that yellow belly out on her missing green card; I was convinced she was a citizen. But if I had known, I wouldn’t have turned her in – mostly because I couldn’t just pick up a receiver to drop an immigration dime on her. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – have snitched her out if I had known and been able to call the police on her. But I can’t say that. I would’ve been extremely tempted to get some getback.
Even if I never told, I would have spent a long time thinking it over, considering the philosophical implications of revenge when I know full well to sidestep retributive ideas and move on. The fact that I spend so much time pondering these actions – how to jam someone up, what constitutes real snitching – but don’t actually do them ultimately doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else here.
A good person doesn’t even think about it.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM MAY 30 – JUNE 5, 2016
On Friday, President Obama commuted the sentences of another 42 federal inmates. We actually sentenced people convicted of the federal crime of distributing crack cocaine to life sentences while people convicted of murder under state statutes received far shorter terms of confinement.
Another reason why Banning-the-Box doesn’t work by itself to secure employment for people with criminal records: when employers don’t know an applicant’s criminal history because there is no initial disclosure – i.e. no “box” – they still discriminate, but they use race as a proxy for criminal pasts, a forthcoming study out of the Brookings Institution found.
A public defender in Georgia is trying to overturn a death sentence for his client, Rodney Young, claiming that the district attorney who prosecuted Young’s case is preternaturally bloodthirsty because she has a toy electric chair in her office that zaps a little toy defendant named ‘Marv.’ It is a little macabre, but when you consider the way Young killed his victim, the son of a woman who had broken up with him, by bludgeoning the son with a hammer, cutting his throat and beating him so badly that one of his eyeballs was hanging from his face when his body was found, the death sentence imposed on Young seems okay despite his prosecutor’s penchant for execution trinkets, even to people like me who oppose the death penalty. My take? Both the defendant-appellant and the district attorney are sick. And I’ll give the defense attorney an A for zeal and creativity, even though I still have a thing about public defenders.