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It was my first morning waking up in prison. My day had started at dawn the previous day, so I had slept hard that night. The unit corrections officer (CO) woke me at 5:30 a.m. during his regular morning count.

“Doce, you good?” he asked. All I could make out was his silhouette as his flashlight shined brightly in my face. “Yeah,” I replied with hesitation, while thinking at the same time, “Am I?”

Soon after I was hit by the foulest smell. My toilet was backed up with raw sewage. “CO!” I called out before he slipped off. “My toilet is backed up, and shit is pouring into my cell.”

He walked back, looked at me with a blank stare and said, “This is prison,” and walked off, leaving me with a memory I will never forget.

Little did I know, “This is prison” would become a mantra. Those words echo through these walls as if they’re programming us to stop asking questions once we hear them.

In here, “This is prison” is used as a reason for everything:

“I’m freezing in my cell.”
“This is prison!”

“The food is spoiled and the fruit is rotten.”
“This is prison.”

“There’s no job training for my release.”
“This is prison.”

“There is no extended education after GED.”
“This is prison.”

The list is endless. I just want to know why. Why can’t I get healthy food? Why are my unit and cell spaces crawling with critters? And why is there nothing to do in here except exist in a cell?

When a judge sentences a person to prison that person is taken away from the free world, taken from his or her family and friends, and everything about their lives is controlled. An incarcerated person can’t do the things that people on the street can do.

Who decides that prison isn’t enough, that confinement is only part of the punishment? By law, my confinement, in itself, is supposed to be the penalty. The extra layers of hardships placed on me are an added consequence with no basis in the criminal code.

“This is prison” isn’t good enough. My humanity — condemned as it may be — deserves better.

I don’t have much hope for change in the evil system of mass incarceration or the powers that run it, but the world needs to see what really goes on in here. Society needs to know what is taking place in its name.

I still hold onto hope in humanity. I’m counting on the world, hoping that it still cares.

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.

Michael J. Doce is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey.