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What Makes a Prison? A Poem.

Updated on November 6, 2011

I watch my hand drop the letter

Watch my hand that can hold hands

Watch my hand that can create worlds

And destroy them

And wonder at the depth of my disgust

Yet another letter

From yet another man

Same story from a new hand

The ending’s got a twist this time

Bit it’s all about crime

Written by a man

Incarcerated by a system

That teaches that the only way to beat the system

Is to be the system

He writes

“I should’ve had a 25 to life.

Cost me $45,000 to get it down to ten”

And I can see him grin

I stare at the letter as it falls

Stare at the stripes that slash through his scrawl

Like the blood of a victim

Too tough to die

I stare at the writing on the wall

And I know that he knows

This society’s reality

I’d like to say it doesn’t touch me

Because then of course it couldn’t hurt me

But why are we so terrified of the pain of empathy?

I’d like to be one of these people who simply believe

That the men behind bars are bad

I’d like that Manichean duality

Good vs. bad

And I could know which side I am on

But it’s a fallacy

It is a construction of a capitalistic society

Bent on profiting off of other’s destruction

You can read it; it’s history

It’s always only about money

Education breeds social awareness

I ache with the awareness of divisions

Generated by education

Generated not so much by those who care

As by those who don’t

I won’t

Believe in the criminality

Of a generation or a social class or an individual

Who is never innocent until proven guilty

In a system where fragility is poverty

And power is money

And povery is crime

And power is money

And money buys power

And clout

And clout buys opportunity

And immunity

And the truth is that if I was arrested

Rightly or wrongly

The first thing I’d do is invoke my Miranda,

Wrap my hand around the

Pulse of the game

The stacks of green pages

And buy myself a lawyer

Buy a judge

And a jury

And a life

(and less time)

It’s always only about money and not about crime

Razor wires slit the throats of men who have cried out

All their lives

For a chance

In a system that doesn’t believe in chances

Until it’s way too late

The poor get by by getting by

The only way to escape poverty is escapism

We all try to find a way out

But there is no penance but pence

Prisons are a business

Florence, Arizona

Razor wire glints in the sunlight

Like a sharpened blade

And across it the blood of a logo


Corrections Corporation of America


The land of opportunity

And immunity

If you have the money

The red sign drips across the lives of people

Whose lives are deemed valueless

By those who do the deeming


Like the color of blood hitting air

Like rage, if rage were hued

I rage

I rage, and yet as I age

I fear that the passion will fade

That “radical” notions

Become the college diploma

See, I’ve never committed a crime

But I’ve done time

Time confined by wasted space

Of believing that because I have

The luxury of an education

I know something

Parents pushed too hard to push me forward

Bought my opportunities (and immunity)

Elitism pounded into my crowded brain

With each step pounded across campus pavement

It’s insane

To know it

Yet not escape it

To believe

That I can read

And I can write

So I am better somehow

Though I’d deny it if I asked myself what I thought

I do read

And I do write

And thus I persuade

My opinion laid out for scrutiny

I’d inspire a mutiny

With “I” at the center of it all

I believe that we are all valuable

Because I believe I am valuable

I think my thoughts are worthy

And in so thinking, create a prison

Of my own training

Of ego and education

Of believing myself exempt

And yet believing I can empathize

With the angry eyes

On the opposite side

Of the slashing fence

Simply because I can intellectualize

The pain

Incited by years of degradation and repression

And societally induced depression

I can philosophize

About the possibilities of the cause of the situation

But it’s all recreation

I write my papers

I dream my big dreams

And when the cell door slams shut

I shut my books

Tuck myself and indulge

In the illusion of exemption

Though we are not exempt

Putting people behind bars with unjust laws

And impenetrable, corrupt systems

Based on class divisions

Puts bars around each of us

There’s always a revolution

Power changes hands and next time around

It could be you or I in there

And so I think

“25 to life or out in ten”

What does it matter when

The prison you’re in

Is a prison of your own making?

When the prison around you

Is the prison of 2000 years of history

Compressing itself into this one single moment

When this one moment

Is all the time served combined

And you are all the people

Who have been behind prison walls

You are all the people

Who have lived out life in a cell

And you are all the people

Who believe

That this is not about you.

When I was in college, I did a significant amount of work with social services, specifically working with adult inmates. It was frustrating for me to feel like “the system” was this unfair thing that treated people differently based on class and yet to be learning about that unfairness in “the system”. This poem is about that difficulty that I experienced. It’s about empathizing with the inmates and thinking that the justice system should be overhauled and yet realizing that there were a lot of things I didn’t know about how to solve the problems in the system. It’s about empathizing with the inmates only because I was afraid of what it would be like if that situation were mine.


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