The Prisoner

It was just another perfect day in San Diego. The sun was shining, the weather warm and dry. The radio talk show was chattering on about this and that as I drove along the freeway. My mind, miles away in some other dimension, was suddenly awakened when I heard, "... at least thirty percent of all prisoners in the state penitentiary system never get a visitor during the term of their incarceration." I turned up the radio and listened intently as the representative of a national organization of outreach volunteers talked about their program.

I had been active in men's issues for several years, but prisons and the people who populate them had never been one of my things. But this day something inside me clicked on, and what hit me was I somehow couldn't care less what a man did--I could not see anyone spending years behind bars without a single visitor. We are, after all, human beings - not animals.

The uniformed man in the front of the room said, "... the only difference between you and the prisoner is that you made a few different choices." There I was, in the Donovan State Penitent iary, in San Diego, getting a briefing on the rules before I met "my prisoner." If you've never been in a penitentiary before, it is a most unnerving experience. Double walls of chain link fencing twelve feet high, topped with three foot circumference razor wire coils, everywhere you go. Guards with guns at every corner. Real guns--loaded guns. Those guys are serious about keeping the prisoners in. One gets the idea they're not nuts about visitors either.

I sat at a small round table and watched the others as I waited for Joe to come down to the visitors' area. Lonely, angry men spending a few precious moments with girlfriends, wives and babies. I couldn't believe how many babies there were. At the next table a young man in blue denim brushed his wife's long, satin black hair in malignant silence, as their infant slept on the table in its car seat. Around the room the others played cards or dominoes. Young boys ran unattended around the room, not knowing how to relate to the strange men in blue they called "father." These men who could not look their sons and daughters in the eye through the guilt and shame.

As he approached the table I stood up and introduced myself. He had waited over a year for an assigned match (friend.) He was black, big and not very pretty. This was, in fact, the ugliest man I had ever seen. Enough scars on his head to write a horror movie around. He was nervous, about as nervous as I was. At twenty-six he had no front teeth and he walked with a knife- induced swagger that was almost a limp. He had lived many more than twenty-six years.

It took me about fifteen minutes to open him up. When I finally did he cried. Never had I seen a man in so much emotional pain. To have a visitor, even an older white man, was like the coming of Christ to this man, at that moment. We talked. 

I was leaving, standing in line with the other visitors waiting for the chain link door to slowly whine open, letting us out to a small yard. We entered the yard, the gate grinding closed behind us. We found ourselves locked in a twelve foot high chain link room. We stood there for perhaps ten minutes until the bus drew up. I noticed that I was the one man in a crowd of about fifty women and children. One man visiting one man. I had never felt so lonely. I knew at that point how Joe felt. Why were there no men visiting other men? Where were the fathers, the friends, the brothers, the uncles?

As time went on and the visits came regularly, we both became more comfortable. It was not an easy trip for me. It was about an hour's drive each way. Another forty-five minutes to process in and a half hour to process out, and I only got an hour with him for all of that. The system is designed to dehumanize and humiliate. Humiliation is the name of the game in prison. The guards are well trained in the process and it doesn't stop with the prisoners. There is an attitude. 

Joe was up for the third time. The conviction was for attempted murder. I never asked him for the details. It didn't matter. I saw a Joe I doubt anyone else in the world knows. Why he consented to drop his guard with me I do not know. I found him to be one of the most sensitive and caring human beings I have ever known. I know a lot of men who profess vulnerability and sensitivity, but I never met one who felt it more than Joe. I also know, given the numbers of convicted men and the institutional space available, one needs to work hard at getting into a penitentiary today. He is there for good reason, but it doesn't mean he should be forgotten.

Joe will be up for parole soon. He is scared to death to get out, but can't stand the thought of another day in jail. He was born in the Los Angeles ghetto, and joined the gang at eleven. He never bothered to go to high school. His entire support system is in the streets of L.A. His blood family gave up on him. He never had a girlfriend. His friends are all dead or in jail or hiding out lest they be either. Every person or condition that ever gave him any level of self-esteem is there in the streets. The fact that there are more young black males in prison today than in college was not lost on him.

When he gets out, according to state law, his choices are clear. He can only go back to his "home." There is no other place. He must return to his home of record to qualify for parole. When he hits the street he has two more clear choices: He can refuse to join the gang and they will kill's pretty much automatic...or he can rejoin the gang. If he goes back to the gang he has only two options: Be back in jail within six months and die there, or die in the streets at the hands of the police, another gang, or his own. Barely more than a child, death is all there is for him. I have to keep reminding myself that this is a human being!

But hold on. Perhaps there is more here than it would seem. Joe has taught himself to read in prison, and enjoys it immensely. The fact that the prison library has few books means nothing to him. He just reads the same books over and over. He has practically memorized dozens of Louis L'Amour's western novels. Joe asks questions of himself and of me, which tell me he does not want to die. He wants desperately to find some way out. I would like to help him. I hope that perhaps, by being his friend, I can. But I don't believe it. He refers to himself as a "criminal", which he is of course, but his negative self-image is what he defines himself by in the whole. He sees only that part of himself, rather than that as only a part of his totality. It seems to me there is a part of Joe in each of us but, as the man said, most of us make other choices. If God truly lives in each of us, how can we deny that part of us that is Joe? 

The American prison system is an outrageous failure from every perspective possible. The term rehabilitation is no longer even thrown about loosely. There is no rehabilitation there. There is no correction in the departments of correction. There is only time warp. There is only a quagmire which reinforces laws written by politicians struggling to get re-elected by a frightened public; failures of the police, the judicial and social services, and the penal systems. And, because the system is dominated by men and incarcerates primarily men (95% nationally), it is a failure of, for, and by, all men.

We build new prisons at an alarming rate every year. Every city and state budget in the country tries to fund more police at every opportunity. I think it would be a lot cheaper and more effective ifmore of us made a friend in prison and experienced the joy of being a positive role model to a man who never knew one. Helping a man stay out of prison is far cheaper than supporting him in one, both in terms of dollars and human values.

Ironically, I also get to work with those cops who suffer from severe burnout, post traumatic stress, chronic nervous and mental exhaustion, nightmares, neurotic paranoia, and who can't trust anyone who isn't a cop.

It's very isn't right...but its very real

© 2007, Kenneth F. Byers

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A permanent state of transition is man's most noble condition. - Juan Ramon Jimenez

Ken Byers holds a Ph.D. in psychology with an emphasis in Men's Studies, one of the few ever awarded in the U.S. Ken is a full time Certified Professional Life Coach specializing in working with men in any form of transition and an instructor of design at San Francisco State University.

His books, "Man In Transition" and "Who Was That Masked man Anyway" are widely acknowledged as primers for men seeking deeper knowledge of creating awareness and understanding of the masculine way. More information on Ken, his work and/or subscription information to the weekly "Spirit Coach" newsletter which deals with elements of the human spirit in short commentary, check the box at or or or E-Mail You are welcome to share any of Ken's columns with anyone without fee from or to him but please credit to the author. Ken can be reached at: 415.239.6929.

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