Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Alcatraz inmates entering the Mess Hall
Men housed at Alcatraz enter the mess hall, 1954 (Photo credit: GGNRA, Park Archives, GOGA-2316)

Each prison in New York has its own culture, like neighborhoods in different parts of the city. But for all their differences, seams of similarity run through all New York prisons: the warehousing of mostly Black and brown souls, and the daily rhythm of hostility and violence.

One of the more stressful calibrations for those of us — both young and old — who seek to define ourselves in this space is the avoidance of the toxic masculinity that can eat away at our minds, bodies and souls.

Culture is often performative, corrupting manhoods with false ideals that insist upon toughness — even when one is clearly not tough — and ruthlessness — even when the ruthlessness is guaranteed to circle back and hurt its instigator. 

All of it will torture the private thoughts of the individual when the performance shuts down for the night and one is confronted with themself each night at lock-in. It is a culture where both genders are called derogatory names that objectify and render humanity disposable. 

Drugs figure prominently, as they are celebratory features of toxic masculinity and numb the anxieties that lay beneath the surface of everything.

This may be a cynical view, but it is a truth lived. I have been the person I now seek to avoid. I am motivated by the promise of hope for something — anything — better. 

Although the current culture predominates, there are many who strive to actualize their best selves, and it is at the intersection of all that is here that I seek them out — or any opportunity that offers hopeful possibility. 

The above prefaces the following and allows me to put the horrors in perspective.

One day I left my cell for breakfast, dreading the morning ritual. I go to the mess hall, but it is rarely to eat. If I don’t go to breakfast and lunch, Monday through Friday, I can’t go to my program on the other side of the prison. All the men on this side of the facility must go to those meals in order to be escorted by an officer to 12 Building, which houses academic and vocational programs.

Even though the rules say no talking in halls, many voices animatedly tell the scores and highlights of the previous night’s games and the hot facility gossip, punctuated by an officer’s yelled command, “On the noise!” 

Some defiantly keep talking in direct challenge, while others stop talking until they get far enough away from the officer to resume the conversation. It is a cat-and-mouse game that mildly annoys me as I feel robbed of an autonomy our collective silence would grant us all. We then enter the mess hall where talking is allowed and the noise seems to resonate like incantations of the devil. 

That morning, I was at the end of the line, as usual, so I could get a table by myself. I sat silently, people watching, as a young Latino swaggered past the windows where breakfast is served. He moved purposely toward his designated table, but stopped behind a white guy eating his breakfast and punched him hard in the temple, knocking him to the floor.

The punch seemed louder than the hundreds of voices that suddenly went silent, stunned by spontaneous violence. With mace poised to spray, a female officer rushed to the assailant, who quickly surrendered and was surrounded by officers who handcuffed him. Another officer rushed to the victim as he struggled to stand, and was quickly handcuffed just the same. Officers and supervisors converged in response to the “Red Dot” (alarm), stopping all movement in the facility. Both were hauled away to medical.

For a moment it looked like a crime scene as more officers poured into the mess hall. It also felt like déjà vu because we’ve all witnessed similar scenarios in our respective communities. I wondered: Is this violence a dress rehearsal for inevitable violence more of us will encounter? 

The mess hall erupted into excited discussion, with pantomimes of what we just witnessed. Many, including the officers, seemed titillated by the early-morning violence. Were the smiles and laughter feeble attempts to normalize the abnormality of life here? Others seemed nonplussed, but I wondered if it’s just the same stoic mask I wear after witnessing violence, great and small, that numbs and traumatizes me. 

Nevertheless, I moved on with my day, as there was not much I could do to un-experience any of this. 

The following day greater violence took place; overnight there was a mass shooting in Texas. It all converges into just violence for me. As a deeply sensitized person, I am more conscious of right and wrong and all the subtleties in between. I am affected in ways that inform me, but always at a cost. 

With no one to talk to, I decided to write about my perceptions here, in the hope it would exorcize the impact of the hostility and violence this time. I may have to find some other device next time.

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.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.