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When most people hear the word “prison,” they are likely to think of a scary place with criminals and punishment — but many people have probably never thought of what prison means for prisoners, especially given that prisons are not known for their transparency. 

Prisons are typically located in rural areas far away from places where the population they imprison comes from. The very architecture of a prison or jail, with its imposing rows of razor wire fences and its narrow, opaque windows, encourages obscurity.

For all the sensational attention that crimes receive in the media, the “criminals” themselves are kept out of sight and out of mind.

I have resided in prison for over 39 years. It is a sterile, cruel and degrading environment where the authorities try to institutionalize men; program them into unquestioning obedience. Prison authorities prefer prisoners to act like numbers or paperwork, and they go out of their way to harass or even brutalize those who resist. I am one of the resistors.

A prisoner’s only real protection is his network of associations and communications with his family and friends in the outside world. Without them, he could be hurt and no one would know. He could be placed in segregation, treated inhumanely and lost for eternity, and no one would ever know.

I have watched men die and seen their deaths covered up. Because there was no one to ask questions, they were simply recorded as accidents or suicides. 

The 1997 documentary film “Maximum Security University exposed the gladiator fights set up from 1989 to 1994 between rival prisoners at California’s Corcoran State Prison. Many of the involved prisoners were seriously injured or murdered by rival prisoners as well as guards, who shot them with rifles under the pretext of breaking up the fights they arranged.

At Folsom State Prison, another one of California’s prisons, the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) refused to negotiate when prisoners staged a hunger strike demanding that they receive recreational yard time with prisoners they got along with, rather than with rival group members. Former CDCR chief ombudsman Ken Hurdle said in 2000 that if prisons segregated their recreational yard time, groups that are aligned “would then only have staff as their ‘enemy’.” 

The intention to “divide and rule” couldn’t have been stated more clearly. Keeping prisoners violently divided and at each others’ necks is a tactic to maintain control and keep the prisoners focus off of the officials who are oppressing them all.

Where is the media in all of this? They play a dominant role in shaping public opinions, often reshaping our reality.

Abuse in prison rarely makes headlines and the media tends to cover incidents in prisons as isolated occurrences. If there was a problem with the way the prison system works in this country, the public would have no way of knowing.

I wrote an article in the 1990s titled, “Why not adopt a prison on behalf of the prisoners?” In it, I applauded the Missouri publication “The People’s Tribune” for providing space for the voices of prisoners to be heard and for their relentless pursuit of truth, exposing corruption, inhumane treatment and the oppression of prisoners. I also argued that our civil rights were slowly being redefined by the courts to mean nothing. 

However, not a lot has changed since then. 

Prisoncrats, especially the guards, have intensified assaults on prisoners, while harassment, brutality, psychological games and retaliation have also increased. Jailhouse lawyers are speaking out, advocating and litigating against the trend, but where are the lawyers and organizations outside of prison who claim they have our best interests at heart? 

We need your help, not your posturing and selection of particular cases that seem to be centered around nominal outcomes.

So what is prison to prisoners? It’s still a place where they get shot, beaten, shot up with drugs, placed naked behind doors with no ventilation or blankets. It’s a place where the dispensing of wrong medication might kill them and none of it is reported because prisoners don’t control the narrative.

There are hundreds of organizations who claim they are acting on behalf of prisoners, but do they really support us? When I wrote that article almost 30 years ago, I didn’t receive a single letter from a lawyer.

I await the day when each one adopts a prison and takes on its issues, bringing civil action on behalf of prisoners before someone is shot, has died or worse.

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.

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Kenneth M. Key

Kenneth M. Key is a writer and PJP contributing artist incarcerated in Illinois. He was born and raised in South Shore, on Chicago’s Southwest Side. He says he loved to draw as a kid, and he hopes to generate change as an artist, writer and occasional poet while he is incarcerated.