August 3, 2015
I was paroled to Champaign, Ill., in 2009, after serving six and a half years in federal and state prisons in California.
When I arrived in Illinois, I ducked questions about my years behind bars. People would ask me where I had been before. “California,” I’d say. “What were you doing there?” I’d look away and mumble something about being a writer (I did write a lot in prison) or just say “a lot of things.”
Since I’m an older white guy, with no tattoos or bulging biceps and all my teeth, no one assumes I’m a thug or a meth cook. Class and race stereotypes help steer people away from specifics.
Then one day I met a man at a birthday party who started in on the “where were you before you came to Champaign?” routine. I didn’t feel like playing the game anymore. “I was in prison,” I told him. He went bug-eyed. All he could do was repeat the word “prison.”
I, on the other hand, felt great. I realized the power of truth, even if it does come with stigma and judgment. Since we have nearly 20 million people in the United States with felony convictions and an estimated 65 million with some kind of criminal record, people need to get used to dealing with “background” as part of people’s biographies. Of course, those millions are not spread evenly. Many black folks either have a family member with a felony or have one themselves. Ditto if you are Native American or transgender. It’s not much different in Latino communities, especially if we acknowledge that immigration detention is the same as imprisonment.
After that fateful birthday party, people began asking me: “What was prison like?” At first I talked about the most painful things: that your children grow up without you, that you never get to hold your lover, kiss your mother, or walk down a quiet street in the rain. But I decided that I didn’t like sharing that pain with strangers. I put together four talking points about how prison changes a middle-class, educated white man.
First, the abnormal becomes normal. This occurs in ways that you might expect: You get called “inmate” or referred to by your prison number, not your name. You get handcuffed and put in waist chains and leg shackles when you have to leave the prison to see a doctor (and at other times when the guards see fit).
But the most abnormal thing that becomes normal is the endless stream of black, brown, and poor white bodies flowing through those gates. And those bodies will spend 10, 20, 30 years in prison. Some will do life or double life or life without parole. I had one friend who was doing 555 years. Most of those prisoners have not committed crimes that any rational society would punish so severely.
When I was in the federal prison at Lompoc, I was a GED teacher. One of my best students was Weldon Angelos, whose case exposes the madness of mass incarceration. He is serving 55 years for selling marijuana while possessing a gun — with no prior record, a family, a job. Even his judge says he should never have gotten such a long sentence. I met too many Weldons behind those walls.
Second, there isn’t much violence in prison. That always shocks people because they think that men in prison spend their days stabbing and raping each other. But instead, people find ways to live together: to share tight spaces and meager resources in a way that puts getting along at the center of their lives. I have a lot of respect for that.
The minute you arrive at a new prison yard, someone will approach you, find out where you are from, connect you to one of your “homies,” and make sure you have the basics needed to survive: soap, deodorant, a couple of Top Ramens, a pair of shower shoes. The assumption is that we all have to live together in this hellhole, so let’s find a way to do that; let’s make sure no one starves, no one stinks, no one has to walk around in bare feet.
Every prison has a well-developed service economy, all run by prisoners. I have paid for the following from my comrades-in-arms: a massage, getting my shirts ironed, a haircut, a delicious burrito, oatmeal cookies stolen from the kitchen, color portraits of my entire family, a picture frame made from old potato-chip wrappers, and, of course, white lightning and the prison wine known as pruno. People find ways to make money, to barter, to improve their lives through systems of production and cooperation.
You can cram 150 “convicts” into a converted gym and make them sleep on triple bunks, and they will develop a way to get along without violence. They will make rules, carve out territory, and respect boundaries. Anyone who breaks the rules may be forced to do a few burpees or even get “checked” (punched), but the rules are clear. If you put 150 CEOs or MacArthur geniuses in the same space, they wouldn’t do half as well.
My next point contradicts Point No. 2: Prisons are steeped in hate and violence. Guards generally loathe prisoners. Since so many prisons are located in rural areas with mostly white populations, whereas those locked up are overwhelmingly poor people of color from big cities, prison hatred has a powerful racial tinge. Most guards have learned how to avoid using the N-word, but institutional racism lurks just below the surface.
Then there is white supremacy. In prison I acquired the social skill of making polite conversation with someone with a swastika tattoo on his forehead or a nicely inked “thank God I’m white” across the back of his neck. Prisons are hotbeds of white supremacy, a special form of hatred that keeps prison populations divided and makes it difficult to mount resistance to the myriad ways in which the institutions violate the rights of their charges. Unfortunately, the ideology spills out into the streets.
While I hate white supremacy, I don’t hate all white supremacists. Most are victims of circumstances — but still dangerous.
Finally, in prison you always know someone is benefiting from locking you up. People make money designing those crepe-paper suits they put on you when you move to another prison. Companies like Bob Barker (“America’s Leading Detention Supplier”) profit from a range of disgusting products, like one-inch razors and canvas shoes with black and white stripes on the side. Other companies make millions designing and building prisons and supplying them with everything from food to toilet paper.
Guards are the most obvious profiteers. They’re constantly cooking up overtime schemes. Thousands of guards in California make more than $100,000, and last year more than 100 had paychecks surpassing $180,000. That’s a criminal misuse of taxpayers’ money.
Prison changed me. I’m a little less fun now, less prone to look for the lighter side of things. I do try. But most days, prison is all I can talk about. I’ve become an obsessed campaigner against incarceration, against the madness of solving social problems with concrete and steel cages. My obsession may not make me an ideal party guest, but I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.
James Kilgore is a visiting lecturer in global studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He spent six and a half years in prison for crimes related to his participation in political violence during the 1970s, and a subsequent period of more than two decades as a fugitive. Since his release, he has published three novels. His most recent book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press, 2015) He can be contacted at email@example.com