“Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.”
1 Peter 3:8 (NLT)
Many of you have heard the saying, “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Well, I’m here to tell you there are some shoes you don’t ever want to slide your feet inside. Instead, I’m asking you this month to open your heart to receive some understanding of why hurt people hurt people, or hurt themselves.
There are, generally speaking, two ways people cope with mental and emotional pain: they act out or act in. Among the less harmful responses are excessive work or exercise, drastic changes in diet, or restrictions on personal enjoyments. In the context of prison in general, and segregation in particular, pain is exacerbated. The level of existential suffering in these environs is immeasurable. Sadly, many of us eventually find a place of comfort in that misery. Others find a home here. Still others engage in vicious cycles of harming others or harming themselves, unable to find or maintain their internal equilibrium.
I remember. It has been 10 years since my last stay in the Special Management Unit (SMU/Seg). But I remember.
I remember the noise of hurting men mule-kicking their steel doors in hopes of making the COs as miserable as they were. I remember being one of those men.
I remember the constant feeling of being suffocated by the 7-by-14-foot cell that confined me for 23 to 24 hours each day. I remember the chain-link dog kennels that served as my recreation space. I remember what I needed to do to be heard by someone in a position to change things: cover my cell window (preferably with several others doing the same), express my willingness to get extracted, then get pepper sprayed while attempting to fight five grown men in riot gear until they finally manage to handcuff and shackle me with at least two knees on my back. I remember.
I acted out in my pain. Others acted in.
Disposable razors were handed out once or twice each week, for about 15 minutes, then collected. Some men were agile and creative enough to either remove the blade (or part of it) during that time, or secure an extra one for later use. Only rarely would one of these men threaten to “cut up.” Instead, there would be a lull in the constant cacophony of shouted stories (told in competing levels of vulgarity), followed by “Code Blue, B-Side SMU!!” shouted over an officer’s radio during one of their 15-minute rounds. A bloody man would be hauled out of his cell to be placed on “constant watch” after evaluation by a nurse. The cell would be cleaned by another prisoner. The spectacle was over. Our regular, miserable existence resumed. Like nothing ever happened. This became routine.
There have, objectively, been improvements in the way segregation is managed. The number of men housed in that area has been meaningfully reduced. They actually know who the Unit Manager is. The dog cages are bigger (the ones I walked years ago were removed). One section has been transformed into the Intensive Mental Health Unit (IMHU), which provides a much healthier environment for some of those who suffer with diagnosed Serious Mental Illness (SMI). In the area where men are kept for long stretches of time, they now have access to some exercise equipment, Edovo tablets for programming use, and occasional face-time with DOC administrators of that unit.
Yet the suffering persists. A man just 25 years old recently received a colostomy bag. Acting in has transformed from cutting up to swallowing harmful objects: shards of plastic, copper wire, pieces of shoe, concrete, batteries, razor blades. I remember this young man when he was just a kid from a good family who came in because his rebelliousness got him caught up in the system. I watched helplessly as he got involved with people who helped the system strip him of his humanity until he became lost in the depths of this institution. Now he is forever scarred. Not just mentally, emotionally and spiritually — wounds that are easily overlooked and dismissed by many. This young man has now been physically altered by his existential suffering.
I sincerely commend MDOC administrators for the positive changes they have instituted, and I acknowledge their continued efforts to humanize this prison’s environment. However, I also remember. And when I hear about the level of suffering that persists despite those positive changes, I ask myself and anyone who dares take an honest look at this situation: What can be done? And who is bold enough to do something to make a real difference?