A defining choice I made the semester before last was as mundane as a simple traffic turn that led to a lot more trouble than it was worth. I was so excited on that third of October when traveling down Cary Street with forty copies of the lesson plan (I mostly put together) sitting next to me in the front seat. Then traffic stopped. I often have this problem, which is traveling the three miles downtown, through lunch time traffic, on my way to the Richmond City Jail (RCJ). I was on Cary and 12th, where the road becomes cobblestone for three or four blocks throughout the bar district. The city is doing construction on this street up to 14th, so an already crunched two lane road becomes one before entering into Shockoe Bottom. Like I said the traffic came to a standstill, and I waited at this light on 12th for two whole rotations from red to green, orange and then red again.

I’m angry now as the class I’m leading begins in ten minutes and I don’t want to catch any shit being late. I know the left off Cary will lead me to Broad Street and from there I can out maneuver this clusterfuck. I tried to get over when I notice the cars on my left are blocking the entire intersection making it impossible for anyone to turn left off Cary Street; nor could another car turn right onto it. So I go right off Cary Street, and this sucks because I’m going in the wrong direction with the clock ticking down. My biggest mistake was cutting across Broad Street to Hospital Street using 5th Street, thereby cutting ten solid blocks of city traffic that ran straight through the heart of Richmond. Unfortunately, when I made the right off 5th Street, I ended up right in front of a train that was not moving, and so I gave my steering wheel a good beating. Now waiting, knowing full well I’m going to be late, my soul catches fire. The train doesn’t move for a few minutes, and then it started moving so slowly that I hatefully counted all the train cars still blocking my way; 32.

train

I get to the bulletproof glass and talked to one of the guards in Central about getting into my class, and she tells me it is too late. That I had “missed” them. To top off this cliché of metaphorically “missing the window,” I see my class lining up on the other side of the bulletproof glass, getting ready to go into the basement where the class is held. I’m just two minutes late, and I bang on the glass while waving to my fellow classmates as they go towards the stairwell. Then they disappear down them. I tell this guard that I’m practically leading the class, and that I have all the lesson plans right here in this manila envelope, but she shakes her head at me as if it didn’t matter and there was nothing she could do about it. Yet, there was obviously something this bitch could do about it. She could simply let me the fuck in. Like who in their right mind is genuinely hoping to get into this jail today? I even ask if she could run the manila envelope down to them, but she continues to shake her head with this notion like “I don’t work for you.” That is when I realize what I’m doing, and I stop arguing with her because there was nothing good that could have possibly come out of it. I could tell in her eyes she was getting off on the drama.

I leave the jail, and the guard who searched me at the metal detector said, “Leaving so soon?” I give him a look of utter disgust, and walk away feeling defeated; knowing that I had seriously burned the class and my classmates. This moment reminds me of the time I quit my job delivering medicine for Westwood Pharmacy; to this very same jail. I had guards giving me shit that day and the pharmacy techs kept fucking up orders. I decided, then and there, to just stop dealing with both of them altogether. That was two years ago, and since then I’ve found work without such social degradation and stress.

city jail

I’m was so sick of prison guards trying to make my life harder, while knowing full well they would see me every day, at the same time, and for the same reason. I had guards on a day basis making me empty my pockets, go through a metal detector, and then pat me down. There was this really slick move they would pull whenever they saw need to “check you.” They would start by frisking down one of your pant legs, and then on the switch between legs they would bump you right in the crotch to start going down the other leg. This was to appear like they over reached mistakenly, but they knew what they were doing. If a guard was in a hurry, or got rough with you, this would actually make for a pretty good knock to the gonads.

Some jails were so dehumanizing that guards always made sure to go through my wallet, just to make sure I didn’t bring more than ten dollars into the jail (where would I even spend it?). They all had nicknames for me like “dope boy,” “drug guy,” or “medicine man.” What really pissed me off one day was when some jackass decided to call me Al-Qaeda, and insisted on going through every last one of the boxes I was delivering. I told him that they were zip-tied shut and that not even I was supposed to open them. Lucky he left me alone that time. However, this guy really liked the nickname “Al-Qaeda” for me, and called me it whenever I happened to see him. What an asshole.

I quit specifically because the pharmaceutical techs sent out the wrong package that day to RCJ, and I had to go back and switch them up. The guard was different than the one from earlier that day, and I told him why I was there. He stubbornly told me that the medicine man had already come that day, and that I should leave. I told him I was the medicine man, and that I needed to fix what the tech’s fucked up. Looking back I shouldn’t have cussed. Then he told me that he would not let me in with my cell phone, which I knew was not allowed and never took in usually, but this time was different. He looked at me now like I was planning to bomb the jail, and two more guards came out to ask me some questions. That’s when the woman behind the bulletproof glass in Central told them I was the medicine man and that they were expecting me.

I got the drugs, then made a phone call to my boss to make sure that they were the right ones. Then I left the correct order with them. I don’t know why the guard I first dealt with had such a problem with me as I was leaving, but he practically threatened me with arrest if I didn’t sit down and wait for someone to come and get my information. I knew what this asshole was up to, and I left while he was frisking someone; knowing full well I would hear about it at the pharmacy. This was going to be the third complaint that I received from all the jails I had been delivering to for over the past two years. My boss already threatened to fire me if I got another complaint, so I called him up as I drove back to the pharmacy. It went to voicemail and I left this message, “Hey, Hunter this is Tyler. By the way, I quit. I no longer work for Westwood Pharmacy, you got it. Thanks, so there is no real reason to call me back”. Click. Of course he called me back, but by then I had dropped off the meds, along with the work car, and was on my way home.

I Quit

I had this same feeling walking away from the jail after missing out on class. That I should just quit, stop caring, and withdraw from the course. What did it really matter anyway? This was just a diversity credit anyway, and I can always just take a feminism class to fill the requirement. These feeling left as I drove away thinking about what I should do with the rest of my afternoon. That’s when it hit me; being locked out of jail on a beautiful Thursday was not the worst thing that could happen to me. From there I went to the river and walked the trails for a while. Then I settled down by the river and wrote all this up next to the water. Taking in the environment, and expressing myself through writing helped me blow off some stress. It was soothing to be in nature with the Richmond skyline in the backdrop of the river.

Richmond

I then noticed that I was pretty much the only person at the river on this beautiful Thursday afternoon; probably because everyone else had work. I sat back and thought about what it would be like if this was a Saturday instead. I thought about all that could have happened, but won’t because there is no one here to do it, and it was still a workday. That’s when I realized something. In studying the agency of the incarcerated I had experienced something similar to them this very same afternoon. In that, because I wasn’t at the jail with them that day, I was stripped of any agency I could have exercised in there. What agency can those absent apply? None.

cell

I found this day to be one of the most influential days toward my work in the class. Granted, I didn’t technically learn anything from the class that day because I wasn’t there, but I did feel something I could relate to their experience. On the first day of class (Writing and Social Change) all the students met with the professor on campus to go over all the rules, as well as, any concerns we might have had in visiting the incarcerated. Within my first day of this class I learned about the dress code and proper classroom decorum. I was actually kind of bored talking about these trivial matters, when the issue of violence came up. The professor assured everyone that the staff at the jail was very good at handling this job, and that the men in the class were just happy to have the opportunity to be there in the first place.

However, I took this opportunity to explore the idea of violence with the class to help with my study topic. His answers came from the standard definitions of coercion: placing someone in an involuntary position for whatever reason. Then the discussion turned to ideas of personal violation, and the harm one does to himself and others when acting violently. I had a good friend tell me once that as humans we are capable of endless abstractions in the way we choose to communicate with others and express ourselves, but that violence is a complete breakdown or failure of this communication. Now, it is important to note that I am simply exploring the idea of violence and the effect it holds on the greater community, but at the time I also found violence necessary in the pursuit of justice.

As a thought experiment I ask:
If one was to find themselves alongside a hundred other people, and everyone suddenly fell prey to the violence attempted by a single individual, it really wouldn’t matter how appalling these people found the act of violence being committed against them. Not within that moment. What would matter is that someone in this crowd of people would step up and refuse to be a victim of the man initiating said violence. Therefore, the assertion of violent force by any one individual can only then be curtailed by the initiation of violence against said individual in the effort to stop him. Yet, how contagious is this flame of violence that burns and leaves all parties involved with a less? At what point does the collective advocate for this initiation of counter-aggression, and is that avocation always ethical?

The definition of violence I have been developing throughout this course revolves around the idea of stealing another person’s agency. The theory being that by initiating violence against another person the aggressive party is not only violating the victim’s personal space, but also his/her ability do things in the future. With this understand of violence in mind; I claim that the very act of incarcerating another person can actually be classified as an act of aggression. Whether this aggression is justified, is a question for someone else to answer, but I believe it is still an initiation of force regardless. The real tragedy I learned from my time at RCJ was how long this initiation of force could and would persist.

EPSON scanner image

In researching the spoken and written words of individuals behind bars, I came across a passage in a book that exemplifies the violence and loss of agency a person is subject to experience in prison. “You get a lot in prison as well, where its prison officers attacking you or you attacking them. Why do they attack you? It’s the same scenario. They’re sat in the office in the segregation unit and you’re being a bit funny by saying ‘I ain’t getting out of bed’ you know, and the door opens and a blue one’s stood there and said ‘Get out of your fucking bed now,’ but unknown, well, you know, really, there’s 10 around the corner and you say, ‘Ain’t getting out of bed’, ‘Get him,’ SMACK, give you a good hiding, belt you up, throw you in the strip cell. They use the violence the same way. (Jim).”

Cromwell goes on to describe how some inmates “condemn the condemners,” as he puts it, because of the violence correctional officers use can sometimes be perceived as unethical (Cromwell, pgs 185&186). I point this out because I would never want to be forced out of bed, especially if was not be hurting anyone by simply sleeping in. However, Jim in this passage is a violent offender, but I don’t think violence should have been used against him in such an arbitrary way.

Then again, how does society deal with those who are not willing to respect the peace and personal space of others? Once losing this trust it seems that the odds are against the incarcerated, and who wants to play by the rules if the deck is stacked against you? Clearly people do change and are given second chances, but it’s often taken for granted how important trust is as a requirement for everyday activities. The prisoner has little agency in what his days are like and where he resides. It is completely involuntary, but one must first understand the harm society has accrued because of this person. Were his victims active participants in his violation of them? Regardless, such time served is fraught with much strife. Now, let’s compare the harms in this case to how frequently this violence is inflected by the state.

bigger

Locking someone up seems like an ultimate violation of a person’s agency. By removing those labeled criminal from the general public, society can’t steal the labeled party’s past actions, but instead the state hopes to steal what the person can do in the future. Here I turn to another problem with agency. Why do people fall into these roles, and what are their effects within the greater society?

Researching a piece by Glenn Walters, I found that criminality and drug use are learned behaviors which help individuals meet both internal and external needs. Focusing on the internal, people need to find things to do, not only to fill their time, but to also give them something they identify themselves with. This drive to establish a personal identity comes from not only the need to be someone in the eyes of others, but also for the individual to matter himself. In our efforts at resocialization we need to help the incarcerated find new ways to create constructive lifestyles to replace destructive ones. This usually occurs in an environment they are unfamiliar with, doing something new to them. This does not mean changing the person through discipline, but through change of setting and an education toward learning a stronger sense-of-self (Walters, pgs 76-80). By displaying new behaviors these men can start to form new lifestyles where old habits do finally die, and new ways of thinking can emerge.

I just find it so destructive for people to label someone a criminal. There are people on both sides of the prison gate that shouldn’t be trusted. However, to assume this about everyone who’s been incarcerated gives them little else to identify with. By asserting that someone will act in a particular way, without respecting the individual’s own judgment, creates external forces that deny agency from those that were once incarcerated. If we want change and reform we should start with how society treats its darkest corners of humanity. By flushing out the perpetual violence within the community, and giving people more legitimate means to establish themselves, we will all be better off.

I hate to sound like merely a social critic, but I thoroughly abhor the injustice we still face in modern America. I fear these problems may get worse before they get better, so I look to the work being done by others within criminal justice education. If they can empower individuals to change their lives, all of a sudden it doesn’t feel so impossible to have positive effects on other people. This is what I believe agency is meant to afford in fulfilling one’s potential. Many people struggle with a sense of self-worth and identity, but by influencing others in a positive way, it makes us all better people. I don’t plan to lose that again by taking another wrong turn. I know others see it this way, as time trucks along, soldiers march on, cell doors slam shut, and we all choose how to best live out our lives.

jail

Works Cited

Cromwell, Paul F., and Michael L. Birzer.
In Their Own Words: Criminals on Crime : An Anthology.
New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Walters, Glenn D.
Changing Lives of Crime and Drugs: Intervening with Substance-abusing Offenders.
New York: Wiley, 1998. Print.

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