9 February 2015

Throwing Hands

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image“How many stabbings are there here every year?” a new inmate asked me.  She was an older woman who was clearly totally adrift.image

“Oh, none.  Who told you that?  None.  Wait, are you talking about the lady who took the plastic coated handle from the garbage cans and sharpened it to kill her girlfriend? That happened once – and she was obviously crazy,” I explained, wholeheartedly believing that I was allaying her concerns until I saw her facial muscles tighten in fear.  My consolation backfired big-time. But I was imparting pure correctional truth; prison is rarely as violent as people expect.

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Everyone thinks it’s like this…

Of course, arguments belch out and brawls burst forth from otherwise peaceful prison days but, for the most part, the risk of being assaulted is low.  In fact the jeopardy of prison is not found in attacks but rather being smothered and strangled with “I love you’s” and heart signs.  So many declarations of love dart around this prison it makes Woodstock look like a WWE Smackdown.

I confided in another two other inmates working in the kitchen with me that I had no idea how to fight; I’d never been in one.

“I wouldn’t even know what to do,” I confessed.

“That is sooo cute. I love you,” Tammy laughed and rubbed my shoulders.

“In a fight, there are no rules.  You do whatever you need to to win,” Snoop explained to me.

“But how do you know who wins?”

“The winner can walk away,” Snoop shrugged,  like a catfight is as crucial as a gladiator clash in ancient Rome.  But her explanation of fighting – no rules, win with total disregard to damage – revealed more about the “I love you’s” than it did about the brawls.

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…but it’s more like this.

Love is better than hate so the fact that many prison chats are like boxes of conversation hearts should hardly bother anyone but it does bother me.  The ILY’s and the blown kisses are fighting words of sorts, ways to be the one who walks away victorious.  Prison life downwardly redefines victory – scoring an envelope from someone, steering another inmate to take the fall for stealing something, wangling another prisoner to carry dangerous contraband through a metal detector, influencing another women to endure the humiliation of asking a chauvinist guard for a tampon – but an “I love you” bookends the winning strategy every time.

image“Here comes the nicest, downest white girl on the compound. Can you help me write a letter to the judge?” Kaishia asked.

“Sure,” I  agree even though I can’t stand these “letters” to judges. They’re just a continuation of the manipulation just used on me.

“I love you.  You’re the best. You’re such a nice girl,”

“Kaishia, I said I would do it,” I told her in a back-off tone.

“But you a saint the way you help all of us,” she whined.

“I’ll meet you in front of the TV at rec, OK?” I was trying to get into the shower to wash tomatoes off my skin from work and the grease from Kaishia’s crappy ego massage.

“OK, mama. You got paper, right? And an envelope for me? And maybe somethin’ sweet?”

“Of course I do. How else would I prove that you love me?”

Kaishia didn’t get it.

imageI understand that most of the women in prison suffered abuse their entire lives and the “I love you’s” they spew are proxies for the “I love you’s” no one left under the Christmas tree for them.  But that’s why I dislike their showering me with affection.  They use the deficits in their lives – things they were owed but never received – and transfer those obligations to new and unsuspecting victims like me.

I sound harsh and unfeeling, I know, and I make no defense for the people who left scar and callus on their hearts, but the “I love you’s” are nothing different than the weapons used in a stick-up; they use them to force deals that the other person never really sought.  If it has happened once, it happens ten times a month: a woman tells she she loves me, not necessarily for romantic or sexual reasons, but to or, worse, to get me to say it back.

image“It was good to see you. I miss you. I wish you were on the east side with me, OK? Love you!” she said and waited.

“Hang in there. You’ll be home soon,” I waved and turned away.

“Well, do you love me too?” Her words hassled me over my shoulder.

“Sure,” I assured her.

“Then say it,” she commanded.image

“Love you too.”

“Awww, you do?” she gushed.

“I gotta go.”

The day I said that “I love you” was the day I hated myself the most. I tried to convince myself it was a survival tactic but what would have been the worst thing to happen? That she wouldn’t love me anymore even though she didn’t and shouldn’t love me ever? Only in prison is weakness a survival skill, I thought.  Now, whenever “I love you” lands in my ears it is as menacing as a fist on my nose.

imageBesides, when a woman I met yesterday tells me “I love you” today, that I’m her best friend, we both know she’s lying.  So many prisoners grapple with reputations – some earned, some manufactured by others – as bullshitters.  Cooing “I love you” to everyone is a Super Bowl worthy advertisement that you’re a con artist and that every human interaction is a transaction for you.  The overwrought sentimentality tanks our credibility fast.

Sometimes I suspect that it would be better to have more fighters than lovers in a prison.  Fights scare me, make me hike up my shoulders as I anticipate another person’s injury, but at least they’re pure, unpolluted by manipulation and underhandedness.  Dust-ups are cleaner than the expert maneuvering of people’s emotions.  The woman who converted the garbage can handle into a shank, once her violent tendencies curb, is much less dangerous than the woman who just put her thumbs together and curved her forefingers to etch out a heart to tell me she loves me.

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From slate.com: Why are so many Americans in prison? A provocative new theory. Click and read. It’s fascinating and enlightening about the effects that prosecuting attorneys have on criminal justice. Everything you assumed about criminal justice might be wrong.

A law professor at Fordham Law School says prison populations are so high because the prosecutors refuse to drop any cases. Do you agree?

  • Maybe. The whole criminal justice scene is so screwed up that I don't know who causes what anymore. (50%, 3 Votes)
  • No. If they start picking and choosing cases, they will make mistakes and dangerous people won't be prosecuted. (33%, 2 Votes)
  • Yes. The prosecutors are the only people who have the discretion in the system when it comes to charging people. (17%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 6

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Posted February 9, 2015 by chandra in category "Prison Conditions

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