New Internationalist

Endpiece

Issue 259

new internationalist
issue 259 - September 1994

E N D P I E C E
The disease of the
surprise visitor

In the first of a two-part series Brandon Aston Jones, a death-row prisoner in the US,
contemplates the part prison plays in recycling the violence it sets out to punish.

Brandon Aston Jones has been living on death row for the past 15 years. ‘What is prison like?’ people ask. I cannot speak for others but I can expose some situations that are universal for long-term prisoners or those, like me, who are held under sentence of death.

Inside prison there exists a world so harsh and bizarre one cannot over-emphasize its brutal complexities; its perpetual assaults upon the senses and the psyche and, therefore, upon society in general. After all, most prisoners will eventually be released.

Recently, while talking to my attorney in the prison visiting room, I witnessed a scene I know only too well. On the other side of the wire mesh partition a young prisoner and a woman, who was obviously his mother, were both crying. She seemed around 40 years of age, he could not have been a day over 20.

She looked bewildered. Through her tears she asked him: ‘Son, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you glad to see me?’ Wiping away his tears, he snapped vehemently at her: ‘I’ve told you never to come to this place without letting me know you were coming first.’

It was apparent to me that he did not know why he was being so hostile to his mother. He was clearly as bewildered as she. Neither of them had a clue as to why he wasn’t overjoyed to see this person he loved so much. I’m sure they both suspected it had something to do with his being in prison... but exactly what they didn’t know.

Their anguish was symptomatic of a condition I shall call ‘the disease of the surprise visitor’. What they were experiencing was the effect of the son’s lack of emotional and psychological preparation for the physical presence of someone visiting from outside.

You see, if you don’t get regularly scheduled visits you fall into the emotional and psychological pit of deterioration that is the daily reality of prison life. Prisons in the US are such that the prisoner must – in order to survive mentally, psychologically and physically – develop total insensitivity to her or his fellow human.

Most prison administrations plant, cultivate and maintain an atmosphere inside the prison that is contrary to any normal concept of humane behaviour. So if one gets a surprise visit (even from a mother) and one has not developed the control required to emotionally and psychologically unwind, one is likely to be menacing and hostile. The mother will not know who that angry son or daughter of hers is.

Because of prison’s insidious and diabolical nature – and the strategies the prisoner is forced to maintain in order to survive at all – many prisoners need a minimum of 72 hours just to gear down from prison’s violent cycles. The surprise visit under such conditions can be a less than positive experience for all concerned, especially if no-one knows why the prisoner is so angry.

Prison is not meant to be like that, but that’s the way it is. Prison administrations would have you believe that they are simply in the business of warehousing and confining bodies. But prison does not only do this. It rearranges and decomposes the individual, and intentionally destroys the prisoner’s social equilibrium. Without that balance the prisoner may become very unpleasant.

And I mean it when I say that prison does this ‘intentionally’. The atmosphere of constant terror and violence is not an accidental occurrence: it is deliberately and administratively used to control the prison population. Terror is the tool most often used to set the stronger, more prone-to-violence prisoners upon the weaker ones; creating and maintaining a ‘predator mentality’ that will be released, eventually, upon society.

This sanctioned violence is designed to facilitate control over the prison population. It perpetuates public insensitivity to the prisoner’s basic human rights – routinely violated by the prison administration. And it allows prison administrators to be immune from the laws and the courts that could order them to stop perpetrating this emotional and physical violence.

Confining and warehousing bodies is but an incidental aspect of the American prison system. The goal of most prison administrators – as both my experience and logic tell me – is to antagonize, demoralize, dehumanize and emotionally destabilize each prisoner. That is why so many prisoners walk out of prison and create the violent situations which send them back to prison.

Politicians use prisoners and public fear of their re-entry into society to get elected by making promises to build more prisons instead of correcting the administrations that control those already there. And the prison administrators work in cahoots with politicians to dupe the public.

This is America’s new growth industry. Needless to say the scheme is proving profitable. ‘Rehabilitation’ is little more than a word – to politicians a meaningless word they need not concern themselves with. And there are a hundred thousand ways that prison administrators go about driving prisoners into a state of madness.

Deliberately.

Brandon Aston Jones welcomes letters.
His address is GDCC, G2-51 EF 122216, PO Box 3877 Jackson, GA 30233, USA.

Next month: Taking a photo for my mother.

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