Hard lessons

It’s a common misconception that prisons are designed to rehabilitate people, and that we are getting educated, receiving therapy, and learning trades inside. People seem to think that recidivism occurs simply because people released from prison decide to throw all of that away and choose to commit new crimes. It’s just so far from the truth.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) doesn’t “correct” anything. There is no such thing as rehabilitation here. Prisons in Illinois are nothing more than a waste management system: society views people in prison as trash and throws us away. Society’s attitude toward prisoners has led to increasingly harsh conditions and dehumanization techniques. 

Prisons go out of their way to dehumanize people. It starts with stripping us of our names. Within IDOC I am not Anthony Ehlers; I am B-60794. Your name doesn’t matter. If you get mail, they ask for your prison number. To get medicine, they ask for your prison number. If you leave your cell for any reason, they ask for your prison number! Unconsciously, you begin to think of yourself in terms of a prison number as well: once they take away your name, who are you?

When a person endures year after year of being degraded, hated, used, assaulted, and dehumanized, told they are garbage by society, is it any wonder they become depressed, antisocial, and angry?

IDOC offers no educational opportunities and does next to nothing to educate prisoners. I have been told repeatedly that because I have a natural life sentence, I’m not worth being educated. Education should be a basic human right, particularly in prison; it should be a mandatory part of one’s prison sentence.

It’s only recently that Northwestern’s Prison Education Program (NPEP) has provided an option for people imprisoned in Illinois. It’s through this program alone that I’ve been able to get a formal education while incarcerated. Spots are coveted and hard to come by: in their third cohort of students, 20 people were chosen out of some 400 applicants. And from what I’ve heard, IDOC told NPEP not to accept anyone with long sentences, because in the prison administrators’ eyes, those people aren’t worthy of education, either.  

Think about that. People being released from prison have been deliberately denied any education, yet they are expected to be rehabilitated. When these people get out, they need an education and job skills, because the vast majority will return to the community they came from. Without even an education, what are they to do? How will they live? 

Society should have a vested interest in their education and programming. If rehabilitation is truly IDOC’s goal, then education and job training should be a priority.

When people don’t have something positive to focus on in prison, like education, they find other, more negative ways to fill their time. You get an education in prison one way or another: if IDOC won’t provide it, other prisoners will. In prison, you can learn from others’ mistakes, or how to get away with things, or how to do things you’ve never done before. You can learn to hate, and to let your anger fester against the system. You can learn to hate society, which you learn hates you in return. 

In prison, mental health issues are exacerbated, and you must learn to deal with them alone, because you don’t have help. The prison population is disproportionately made up of Black and Brown people who have been subjected to racist systems all their lives. Nearly all prisoners have experienced trauma and both physical and sexual violence; many have been through the foster care system; many suffer from mental illness; some dull their pain with substance use. Prison has a messed-up culture and is filled with broken people.

The medical care we get in prison is disastrously subpar, and COVID-19 hit prisoners particularly hard. Here in Stateville more than 25 men died of COVID-19, and many had family and friends on the outside who also died or were hospitalized. That kind of worry and pain is difficult for anyone, but especially in a place like this. Imagine being locked in a cage far from people who need you, trying to make it through the death of your family or friends all alone. It’s a wonder some guys were able to hold on to their sanity at all.

Prisoners are at a higher risk for heart disease and other stress-related ailments because in an environment like this one, you must maintain constant situational awareness. Being sentenced to prison is punishment, but we are often subject to additional, extrajudicial punishment, because some staff feel it’s their duty to make prisoners’ lives miserable. 

Our mental state is always stressed, always on alert, not just from the threat of assault from other prisoners, but also from the staff who put obstacles in your way at every turn. During “shakedowns,” they take property—including school work and legal work, and letters and pictures from loved ones—destroy it, or throw it away. Sometimes during shakedowns they break an imprisoned person’s TV, radio, or tablet, severing their connection to the outside. Sometimes they place you in a cell with someone who is hostile or dangerous, and you either have to fight or voluntarily go to segregation (solitary).

Most guards believe their word is law. After all, who can you complain to? They often fabricate rules to deny your rights, and if you challenge them in any way, they will write you a disciplinary report. This allows them to take away the few privileges you do retain, like phone calls to loved ones, digital messaging, and access to the commissary. Every positive accomplishment you achieve in prison is accompanied by an intense struggle to overcome, circumvent, or blatantly break the arbitrary rules made up by staff. 

All the while you have to convince yourself daily that your life has value, even when the rest of the world tells you it doesn’t.

The prison itself is in a shocking state of disrepair. The cell houses are crumbling. Cracks run from the foundation to the roof. The cells are full of peeling lead-based paint and black mold. Many cells have plumbing that doesn’t work. The entire prison has had no hot water for five months, and we’re forced to take showers and wash our clothes in cold water. The water here is poisonous. We have very high levels of both copper and lead in our water. Both metals will make you very sick, and can lead to fatal cancers and other ailments. We’ve had previous bouts of Legionella bacteria here. We have rats, roaches, and birds in our cell houses and chow halls. How many people have to deal with birds shitting inside their homes, or in the places that they eat? How many have woken up because cockroaches are crawling on their face? 

These are the deplorable conditions we live in. 

Most of the people here do not have an education or a skill that will help them get jobs after they’re released. Many who are released from prison will walk out with untreated mental health problems and trauma, many of their issues having been made worse by prison time. After spending years in conditions like those I’ve described, they will walk out with nothing more than when they came in. How does that help or benefit society? 

People in prison have been marginalized by society in many different ways. In prison, we are taught that there is no way out, and that our marginalization is state-sanctioned. Society can’t expect people getting out of prison to do better, if society won’t do better by them. We all have to be responsible for what the state does in our name.

It’s time to realize that punishment helps no one. It’s time we began recycling people instead of throwing them away.


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