Month: April 2015



Violence behind the walls is an unfortunate reality.

My first taste of this was about 3 months after I began prison visits. It was shortly after Christmas. I told the inmate I was visiting about the Christmas Eve service I attended. I asked what his Christmas Eve had been like. His experience was radically different than mine.

On Christmas Eve he had been returning from dispensary where he had been given his medications (more about medications in another blog post) and returning to his cell when he was stopped. Another inmate had grabbed a guard and was holding the guard hostage. In preparation for the attack the inmate had taken a toothbrush and ground a sharp point on it. He was holding the point against the throat of the guard and demanding to be released. (See my earlier blog entry about No Hostage zones) The correctional officers (COs) were eventually able to diffuse the situation after about an hour. While I was singing about a Silent Night and “sleep in heavenly peace” an inmate and a guard were each locked in a struggle to survive.

There are some inmates who are in a constant state of rage and always pose a risk to the staff, other inmates, and even themselves. At a prison in the Midwest they had an inmate with a consistent pattern of violence. The man was about 6’7” and 375 lbs. He was kept in the SHU (Special Housing Unit, aka solitary) because it was unsafe for anyone to share a cell with him. Being in the SHU meant he was in his locked cell 23 hours a day. Whenever they needed to move him they would have his hands and feet chained together in shackles. There were 4 guards each holding chains connected to his feet so that, if he tried to attack anyone – which was almost every time, they could use the chains to pull his feet out from under him.

Fights are another part of the violence problem. At the facilities I’m familiar with anyone who is involved in a fight will get a major write up and get sent to the SHU or administrative segregation (SHU light) for a period of time. Write-ups may affect whether or not someone gets parole. The staff doesn’t try to sort out “who started it” because it is rarely straight-forward.

Institutions where there are a lot of gang members house rival gangs separately keep gang-on-gang violence to a minimum, but it does flair up.

Sadly, sometimes programs such as Bible Studies are used as venues to coordinate attacks. The gangs develop their own hand signal sign language. I’ve learned to watch for it when I lead studies. They may use it to coordinate activities inside the institution or to give directions to someone who will be released soon.

For example, a man was going to be released soon. He was given orders from a gang shot-caller that he needed to attack thus-and-such a family when he got out. If he did not then someone would attack his family. He was actually dreading being released because he did not want to attack this family, but he feared for the safety of his own family if he didn’t.

Now consider the situation of a gang shot-caller. If he decides to give up his life of violence and get out of the gang he will be perceived as weak. Other members of his own gang will attack him to establish themselves as the new shot caller. Leaving a gang while inside the walls means significant personal risk.

Some forms of violence are passive-aggressive. Inmates at a prison in the Midwest had a method of targeting someone. Inmates would take a piece of paper and fold it into a small funnel. They would urinate in the funnel and then dump the urine on the bed of the intended target as they walked by the cell. Imagine having spent all day working in the prison kitchen and coming back to your cell to discover your mattress and bedding are soaked in urine. …And you don’t have ready access to spare bedding or laundry.

There is a satire news site called The Onion that wrote one of the best satire pieces on the prison system. The title of the faux news article is, “15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner.”

Perhaps the challenge of our incarceration system is best summed up in this fake quote from the article:

“It just doesn’t seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society,” 

So is there any hope? Matthew 19:26 reads, Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”