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The United States has 20% of the world’s prison population but only 4% of the world’s population. Punishment is important in the United States. However, most people don’t know what punishment looks like. It’s abstract, like something people read about in a book. I think it’s important to know what we are doing to people.

Dehumanization begins immediately. I was issued a prison number upon my arrival – B60794. In the eyes of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), I was no longer Anthony Ahlers. I was #B60794.

If they come to your cell with mail, they don’t ask your name. They ask for your prison number. If you go somewhere on a pass, they ask for your prison number. The nurse who comes to your cell with meds does not ask for your name. He asks for your prison number. Even if I got out today, I would remember my prison number for the rest of my life.

If you get a long-term sentence, you face a lifetime of vulnerability with no real means to protect yourself. You are literally at the mercy of the state, which  has no mercy for you. As legal scholar and criminal justice expert, Alexandra Natapoff, said, “Our penal system has little sympathy for criminal offenders… offenders whose rights are violated or who are physically or psychologically harmed during the criminal process are often perceived to be getting what they deserve for having broken the law.”

This hostility contributes to what the law professor and writer Jonathan Simon called a “waste management” vision of corrections, in which a growing population of offenders is warehoused in increasingly harsh and dehumanizing conditions. We are not people anymore, but rather items in a warehouse. They do not care what conditions we are in, only that we are on the shelf.

This attitude makes us exceedingly susceptible to contracting diseases and viruses, and being denied adequate medical care. If I become ill or injured, it can be a death sentence. COVID-19 is a perfect example: it ran rampant in here. I had it, many guys had it, more than 20 men died from it. My best friend and cellmate, James Scott, died of it last April. 

With cancers, IDOC has a pattern of not finding any concerns until it is already in stage four. Not quite terminal, almost terminal. Few survive their cancers at that point. 

To get medical treatment, you are sometimes forced to sue them, which is a long, drawn-out process some men do not survive. IDOC would rather pay a lawsuit settlement than pay for your health care because it’s cheaper. It’s all about money. We are truly disposable commodities. When I reach my expiration date, they will put another on my shelf.

You’re also vulnerable to being stripped naked, felt up, and searched at any time, for any reason. Your body belongs to the state. They make you strip naked, bend over at the waist and spread your butt cheeks. It’s meant to be humiliating, and it is. It takes away any notion of privacy. There is nothing the state cannot do to you.

It is all stressful. As a prisoner, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and other stress-related ailments because in an environment like this you must maintain constant situational awareness. Your mental state is always stressed, always on alert – not just to the threat of assault from other prisoners, but also to the threat from staff. 

We live in deplorable conditions: asbestos, mold, contaminated water (which the staff is directed not to drink but prisoners are required to), poor-quality food quality, peeling lead paint in cells,  crumbling cellhouses, rats and rodents, even birds. Yes, birds in our cellhouses, shitting everywhere. How many people have to deal with bird shit inside their own homes? How many of you have woken up from your sleep because cockroaches are crawling on you? Some men get roaches in their ears. It’s not uncommon.

Then there is long-term isolation. I, myself, was kept in total isolation for five and a half years straight. In a United Nations committee meeting in 2011, an expert on torture said long-term isolation “profoundly alters brain chemistry,” yet it is a form of discipline in prison. Everyone here is vulnerable to the torture of isolation, but not everyone is able to fight off the suicidal impulses that come with it. Many men kill themselves in isolation.  Segregation is full of mentally ill men who need help or medication. Instead, IDOC buries these men in segregation for years and years. Instead of treatment, they get torture.

Every day is a struggle for your own sanity. Some guys can’t take it and go crazy. Others will take all the mental health drugs they can get. They become zombies, shuffling through each day in a drug-induced stupor in order to cope. Many men come here already traumatized by the life they’ve endured. Many men are victims in their own right and in need of professional help, but because they are convicted of a crime they will never get the help they need. They are forever labeled “offenders.” There is no room to also be a victim. 

Mental health here is a joke. You can get meds to dope up, but you cannot get real help. By law, they cannot allow you to kill yourself, and that is all they are interested in. 

Life in prison is a struggle, every day. Not only are you struggling physically, mentally, emotionally, and economically, but you’re struggling to protect your rights to accomplish something positive with your life. You have to fight for your own freedom. 

The prison puts obstacles in your way at every turn. When they conduct shakedowns, they take your property, break it, or throw it away. Sometimes they throw away your schoolwork or your legal work; pictures of your loved ones are destroyed or ripped up. When they break your TV, tablet, radio, or some other necessary item, they place an extra financial burden on you, your family, and your loved ones who don’t have any money to replace it. 

They move you to hostile situations that you cannot be moved out of. You have to get in a fight, or  walk yourself to segregation to get out of the hostile cell. They actively fight your every step forward.

Most guards believe their word is law. From their position of power, they believe that what they say goes, regardless of IDOC rules and regulations. They often fabricate rules to deny your rights, because they do not believe you deserve them. If you challenge them in any way, they will write you a disciplinary report for insubordination, or for disobeying the rules. 

This allows them to take away the few privileges you retain, like phone calls to loved ones, digital messaging, and access to the commissary. Every positive accomplishment you achieve in prison is accompanied by an intense struggle to overcome, circumvent, or blatantly break the arbitrary rules made up by staff. All the while, you have to convince yourself daily that your life has value when the rest of the world tells you you’re worthless.

Most of us work from a credibility deficit to begin with, but we lose all credibility as an inmate. In any dispute with a guard in any situation, you are always assumed to be lying. You are never believed. Even if you can somehow show absolute proof, you are still considered to be in the wrong.

Violence is a fact of life in this place. Its brutality both stuns and numbs you. I have stepped over dead bodies, seen men beaten to death by guards and inmates. I, myself, have been stabbed and had to fight for my life more than once. I’ve seen men shot and killed in the yard. Not long ago, a man got into a fight with his cellmate and took his eyes out. For the rest of his life, that man was blind from one prison fight. Every fight you have in this place is a fight for your life. Most murders that happened here are between cellmates. I spent nine years on Death Row and saw many men executed. Death Row is its own little hell.

You are powerless in this place, this warehouse. The worst is when a loved one dies. You are absolutely helpless and absolutely alone. You can’t do anything or be there for those that need you. It’s the most miserable feeling in the world.

They actively try to keep you ignorant and uneducated. They do not try to rehabilitate you. What you learn in this place is how to be a monster, how to be a better criminal: angry, bitter, and worse than when you walked in.

We suffer in this place. It is real, desperate suffering. People talk about wanting people to suffer, but they’ve never seen it. It’s an abstract concept to them but it’s very real to me. I live it every day. 

I don’t want suffering to be abstract to any of you. Ponder this, picture it. This is what we do to people. This is what suffering looks like.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer and 2022 graduate of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. He is incarcerated in Illinois.