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A growing number of America’s prisoners look at terrorism with blind eyes. Some incarcerated Americans see themselves as second-class citizens. While sleeper terrorists may not be welcome in America, some may be tolerated as a form of tacit retribution by the underclass.

This isn’t a feel-good piece about prisoners, nor is it an attempt to bash them. I’ve been imprisoned for 24 years, and I’m familiar with evolving terms of warfare.

Turning to September 11, 2001, I remember walking to breakfast with other prisoners. Some guards were visibly shaken by the early morning events unfolding on the East Coast. However, more than a few prisoners belittled it.

“They didn’t attack no prison,” I heard one prisoner say. Another said. “Now they (Americans) know what it feels like.” At the height of one discussion another said, “We didn’t get attacked, they got attacked,” referring to Americans on the other side of the prison gate.

Considering there are 2.2 million incarcerated people in America, many of whom have been methodically marginalized, it’s easy to understand some of their resentment. They may be locked up today, but the vast majority will return to society. Why should anyone care? Statistics say more than 60 percent of prisoners return to custody within three years of release.

Convicted felons face prejudice and discrimination when trying to rebuild their lives. Because of this, they are likely to revert back to criminal activity and come into contact with the underworld, which includes terrorists. Perhaps more than any other group of citizens, prisoners know about crime, and they’re asked to adhere to the mantra “see something, say something.” 

The problem is some won’t. Why should they? “Because they’re Americans,” one might say. But living as second-class citizens, besmirched with the “felon” stigma and forever disenfranchised does not build patriotism. If the rate of recidivism is any indicator, most paroled felons probably won’t obey the law, much less embrace love for country.

Reporting crime to authorities is not a top priority for would-be law breakers. When chances for success are diminished daily by poor education, unemployment, inadequate housing and other social problems, it becomes clear why some ignore ordinary domestic trouble. The collateral consequences of incarceration locks them out. When one’s freedom is assailed constantly, one tends to form a dim view of fidelity to the state. 

Attitudes among some prisoners since 9/11 haven’t moved towards patriotism. If anything, inmates may take a tougher line. Feeling trampled underfoot by America’s criminal justice system, some are convinced of the country’s impending demise. They don’t see themselves as stakeholders in the American Dream, rather, they see themselves as outsiders. 

Prisoners are not alone. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates echoes some of their thinking about 9/11 in his book, “Between the World and Me,” where he writes, “Looking out upon the ruins of America my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own.”

This weakens any possible cooperation between law enforcement and “citizens” who emerge from the criminal world. Add to that the feelings of racial and institutional discrimination experienced by Black people and non-Christians, America’s melting pot isn’t fostering the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. 

When a police cruiser displaying the motto “to protect and to serve” is more menacing than a Humvee filled with AK-47-wielding members of ISIS we know that America has a problem. 

In a country where law enforcement and intelligence agencies have greater access to its citizens’ personal information than was imaginable just a few decades ago, not much is known about the incarcerated. That’s because America threw away the proverbial key when it locked them up and failed to identify their growing indifference.

Don’t worry about who these people happen to be. They’re coming home, unwelcome to America, as enemies of the state.

(Republished from May 16, 2021)

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.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.