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A line of prisoners wearing striped uniforms at Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City, circa 1925
Historical photo of prisoners at Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City (Photo by Oscar C. Kuehn, U.S. public domain)

Being incarcerated for more than 10 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections induces a sense of helplessness and hopelessness of being caught in a broken judicial system. The experience of being confined for a significant time with no end or relief in sight makes it feel like true justice only belongs to those who can financially afford freedom, and to those who can tell the most believable story. 

For those of us who have participated in every rehabilitative program available and made every effort to transform ourselves, what is the next step? When it comes to deciding who deserves a second chance, how do you separate those who are truly dedicated to becoming productive members of society from those who just don’t care?

It is easy to look in from the outside and tell us to keep faith or to ignore the injustice of an overcrowded prison system. But for people who are simply trying to get through the day by putting one foot in front of the other, remaining positive is a challenge. In here, we are vulnerable to constant heartache, regrets, loneliness, depression, thoughts of suicide and regression into old addictions. 

People change. People die. Friendships and relationships fade. We lose hair, lose teeth, lose sleep and lose peace. Emails, pictures, videos and visits offer brief bursts of happiness that soon wither away once we remember that we cannot enjoy these moments with our loved ones. On top of that, each form of communication comes with a price tag, even emails.

Many of us warehoused within these facilities have no vision, no faith and no support from the free world. We go through the motions of life every day, searching for some form of happiness, however temporary it may be.  

Some turn to God. Many others use drugs, food, sleep, sex, gambling or a number of other escapes from the stress, depression, frustration and abiding sense of being broken, unlovable and less than human. 

The perpetual Groundhog Day effect causes many to spiral further and further into despair as days turn into weeks, then months, then years. For many, death is the only outcome to end the agony. 

Imagine being called in from your job one day to find out that your mother or father has passed on. You are not permitted to attend the funeral or receive actual photos of your loved one or a clipping of the obituary because all incoming personal mail is digitized and only accessible by the prison-provided tablets.  

Imagine finally being able to talk to your hospitalized grandmother over the phone for the first time in over 10 years. You are constantly interrupted by pre-recorded messages from the prison before the call is finally cut off after 20 minutes.

Imagine waiting for an important piece of mail from the courts and missing a deadline because the corrections officer wasn’t paying attention and gave your mail to the wrong person. 

Imagine being forced to choose between buying food or hygiene products from the commissary because your regular paycheck from your prison job doesn’t cover both, and the prison-issued food makes you sick. 

Imagine getting approval for your first visit in 20 years and not being able to see the person because the prison locked the entire facility down after a group of individuals in a different housing unit started a fight. 

Imagine doing the best you can to show good behavior and not get into trouble throughout your time in prison, yet receiving a denial from the parole board that puts your next chance another five years away.

We endure all this while continuing to fight for our freedom.

Those of us who have committed crimes deserve to be punished, but to what degree? It often feels to me like there is more emphasis on how much money can be made off of us than on actually rehabilitating and preparing us for re-release back into society. 

Many of the materials used for teaching purposes in classes and programs are vastly outdated. Some programs still use VCRs. Why not provide some updated material that we can use to better ourselves? 

Those of us with significant amounts of time left in our sentences have no real incentive to sign up for these programs because we are still treated the same. The amount of time we serve does not reflect our level of rehabilitation, regardless of how far we are from who we were when we committed our crimes.  

Little to no effort is made by the judicial system to recognize and help those of us who have  positive accomplishments. At best, we are heralded as “model inmates.” 

It is clear that the system does not care about giving deserving people a second chance. The system is called the department of corrections, but what is it actually correcting?  

At the long-closed Missouri State Penitentiary, known as “The Walls,” there was a sign that was said to read, “Leave all your hopes and dreams behind.” 

Many of us have taken that phrase to heart. You can see it in the heads hung low, the slumped shoulders, the lifeless shuffle of boots on unpolished floors going to and from work or medical appointments, the dull pallor on the expressionless faces of those lost in thought, perhaps thinking back to better times. 

Many of those who live long enough to see freedom have little to no real life, job or social skills that are transferable to society. The vast majority of the lost souls here are simply living but are not alive. They have no hope, no faith and are merely existing for years on end.

To change the system, it takes real action and an honest effort from those who truly care about providing second chances to incarcerated individuals genuinely working towards rehabilitation. 

There also has to be a major push towards introducing bills that affect those with violent felonies, and not just those with lesser crimes, contingent of course on the demonstration of personal growth. There would be a tremendous change in the morale among prisoners if they knew that their institutional record could affect their sentencing. There must also be more emphasis placed on using current technology to exonerate individuals who have been wrongly convicted. 

We are in desperate need of aid and assistance on all fronts. We refuse to give up or be broken because we believe that enduring trials and tribulations increases spiritual faith and strengthens character. Even in our darkest hour we believe there is something on the other side worth fighting for.

Within these dwellings, there are individuals worth fighting for. The only limits a person has are the ones that they place on themselves.

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.

Antwann Lamont Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.