“I am not a number, I am a free man.”
— Iron Maiden
When we are born into this world we receive our first designation — “son” or “daughter.” This is an important title. It signifies a relationship between us and the people that gave us life, our mothers and our fathers. Soon, though, this proves to be inefficient for the journey that lies ahead and we are given a name. This name will become our anchor in life, serving to distinguish ourselves against the backdrop of the world.
As we continue to grow we gather many titles along the way: athlete, student, child, extrovert, artist and innumerable more. Each one contributes to the person we become, changing how we see ourselves in subtle, expansive ways as time ticks by.
We begin to understand that these changes are not always positive or constructive. Labels like outcast, less-than, or loser can cut deep and leave us feeling alone and hurting. And what happens when our very identity is taken away? This is exactly what millions of incarcerated Americans know as reality.
In the American prison system, you are given a new title: offender, inmate, prisoner, and in-custody. The shift may seem subtle at first but it soon becomes apparent that you are no longer looked at as a person because people have names.
First names do not exist as far as correctional officers are concerned and this trickles down to all prison staff: medical, educational, and volunteer. Even between inmates, it’s more common to hear monikers like “huedo” or “J” or general references like “homie” or “bro” than first names. A prisoner might be addressed semi-sarcastically by staff using their last name but this hardly lends any humanity to the exchange.
If an officer wants to know who you are they will ask what your ID number is. This number identifies you and informs the officer of everything he or she needs to know about you. It has, in essence, become your name.
It seems like the entire prison system has been set up to strip away our individuality and our personal identity so they can control us. It’s like back in the days of the Old West, when cowboys would spend weeks at a time driving cattle. The large herds could typically be driven by as little as two men at a time because, even though there were many cows, they moved as one herd.
The point is, it is easier to control a group that moves in the same direction with one another rather than a large number of people thinking and acting separately. Those that created the prison system did not miss this fact.
Though we may not see it, there is a lot that contributes to us identifying ourselves as one in a herd of prisoners. Not only are our names effectively changed into a number, but we do almost everything as a group aside from medical and legal matters. The staff we come into contact with are told over and over again that all inmates are master manipulators and liars. Of course, it’s no surprise they treat us as such when they are trained to do so, but what does that do to the psyche of a human being?
I had a cellmate in county jail in early 2020 whom I’ll call Mike. Mike was a 45-year-old journeyman electrician from San Francisco. He pulled in a six-figure income, never used drugs, was an athlete growing up and had never been in trouble before. He was not what you think of when you hear the word criminal.
The first two months Mike didn’t change much, but I began to see a shift in his personality as time went on. He became aggressive with guards, tried illicit substances for the first time, and gradually became a different kind of person.
The week I was to ship out to prison, our pod had a riot. Inmates charged at guards, guards fought back, fires were lit, our air flow was shut off, and the two-story pod filled with smoke. Multiple inmates passed out from smoke inhalation. It was chaos.
Where was my mild-mannered cellie Mike? At the front of it all, throwing bottles of urine and anything else he could find at the cops and screaming, “Come and get me!” At that point, he had been locked up for a little more than 100 days.
You could argue that there could have been a hundred factors that contributed to Mike’s 180-degree change in behavior. You could also argue that Mike finally became exactly what he was told he was: inmate, prisoner, felon, manipulator, liar. When your immediate world defines you this way, how long until at least some part of you says, “OK, fine. I won’t fight it,” and acts accordingly?
It has not been written in the stars that we must accept our labels and everything that comes with them. Prison does not define us. We can be artists, painters, poets, dreamers, mentors and writers. We can be family members and friends, instructors and helpers.
Once we understand this to be true, at the end of the day we can lay our heads down on the state-issued pillows in our cells and, with smiles on our faces, we can believe ourselves as we say, “I am not a number. I am a free man.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.