by Ben Ulansey
A recent brush with our judicial system led to my being required to visit a local suburban prison (which we are not naming) for an hour-long tour, no doubt to try to scare me into becoming more of a model citizen. My guide was a tall, stern man I will call The General because of his stone-cold military demeanor. He attempted to humor me, though, as the French Revolution guillotine man might have tried to humor Marie Antoinette.
Where someone else might have offered a tension-breaking joke, he instead assured me of the sexual brutalities I’d face if I ever ended up in there. Where one might normally have offered an anecdote, he told me the story of a man forced to shave off all his body hair, talk like a woman and refer to himself only as Trish, “giving b—jobs in the shower for potato chips” because it was easier than resisting the sexual brutality.
The most notable aspect about this story was the complete absence of concern with which it was told by none other than the person whose job it was to prevent such unspeakable brutality. Telling me that particular story was the second closest I saw the cold General come to outright smiling in my entire hour with him in those god-forsaken halls of suffering.
What seemed to give The General the most joy, though, was the visit with another man who couldn’t respond to The General’s questions, being obviously preoccupied by conversing with the numerous voices inside his own head.
What also appeared to please The General was another butt naked man repeatedly slamming his whole body against the metal bars of his cell, thundering so loudly he could be heard from down the hall and behind foot-thick mechanically-closing doors. The naked man paused for a minute and let himself fall to the floor. He then kneeled in front of the toilet and drank from it, just like the caged animal he had become.
I talked to another man, probably the kindest man with whom I spoke while inside of the prison, about the life he had led, or, more realistically, had lost. Though in his mid-50s, he’d been doing time since he was 10 years old. He introduced himself as Sunny, looked me intensely in the eyes and didn’t falter for a moment. He didn’t try to intimidate, like many of the prisoners and officers, but tried to offer me a glimpse into the unimaginable pain he’d endured spending his entire adult life and much of his childhood in a cell.
Sunny gave me a piece of photocopied newspaper, two-sided. Both sides dealt with the current news: one side talked about the child pornography case involving Jared from the Subway sandwich chain, the other side a case of teens sexting. Though neither was relevant to either him or myself, the paper was presumably all that he had the ability to give out to the people touring the prison.
Sunny told me about his talks with his mother and how, even in this stage in his life, she greets him, “Baby, are you doing OK?” The man has been institutionalized so long that he almost seemed to believe he deserved it. He had tried to rob a bank, and he might never leave the prison because of it. He had spent 85% of his life behind bars being dehumanized for this crime.
As if it was nothing at all, The General told me about the severe injustices that the criminals in this room were facing. One prisoner looked at me and said, “I will be behind these bars for the rest of my LIFE. I will NEVER get to go home again.”
A single day behind these bars, I felt, would be enough to emotionally break most people. The idea of an entire month was almost too much to imagine. And yet, some of these offenders were dealing with 25 years to life in prison. The idea of being trapped in a cage for decades is inconceivable. The General treated these lives as though they were a game, a trick to scare kids. In a room filled with prisoners, he bragged that many of those in the room had initially been given short terms, often for non-violent crimes, though in trying to defend themselves from sexual predation or other violence, they ended up with compounded sentences, sometimes lasting decades.
Apart from being a horrifying experience to look back on for the rest of my life, the visit gave me a sickening glimpse into injustices I’d previously known of only on paper. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, The Sentencing Project and other prison reform hopefuls, the U.S. currently has a quarter of all the world’s incarcerated, a population of over 2.2 million adults (a 500% increase from 30 years ago), over 50% of whom have committed non-violent offenses.
First-time drug offenses often have 5-10 year sentences. We treat substance abuse as a crime instead of a public health issue. And the racism implicit in our system is undeniable. For example, even though Africans Americans and Caucasians are equally likely to use marijuana, African Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for it. We need to stop treating substance abuse as a crime instead of as a public health issue.
We have more prisoners in this country for marijuana, for example, than Mexico has prisoners for all offenses combined. We spend over $80 billion for “public safety” annually to make sure that all of the above continues as is.
Bernie Sanders has called our prison numbers an “international embarrassment” and said that reforming the criminal justice system is one of the single most important jobs confronting our next president. He seems to be the only candidate who understands these injustices in their entirety and is the only one who will actually try to represent the people whose ability to vote has been taken, the people who are rotting in a cell because of a justice system that failed them. Please exercise your right to vote. This will probably be one of the most important elections of our lifetimes.
Ben Ulansey, 19, was born in Chestnut Hill but grew up in Elkins Park. He graduated from Cheltenham High School last year and is currently taking time off from studies at Bloomsburg University.