Nobody would listen to me.
It was my second week on the block. Tuesday, around 10PM. “Meds” call. I stood in line for my medications, and when I reached the front, I had a question for the nurse. I don’t remember what I asked, but I remember his frustrated response…to shut down med call and retreat to the exit. The CO screamed at me, “See what you did!” I formed my mouth to say that I only asked the nurse a question, but didn’t have time. The CO was screaming unintelligibly in my ear, chasing me back to my bunk, where I flopped- and for the first time in that jail, I cried.
Everybody does, at least one night. And the tears all flow from the same source, a fundamental recognition that your life seemingly doesn’t count; the world goes on without you; nobody will hear you; nobody will listen to you.
The ongoing prisoner strike in several states reminded me of how nobody listens to inmates. No one hears them complain about lack of programming, overcrowded conditions or dehumanizing behavior. No one listens because our culture still points fingers, hellbent on repeating “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” trapped in its own world, where justice equals revenge. No one listens. But they are beginning to listen now that inmates in Alabama, Michigan and Florida have been documented as holding a “work stoppage” on September 9 of this year–the 45th anniversary of the protests at the Attica, NY state prison facility. In Alabama, even the CO’s stayed out for a shift. They know that the same overcrowding that threatens inmate safety affects them as well.
No one listens when prisoners complain about work conditions and compensation. The new Netflix documentary 13th (by Ava DuVernay) surprises many by revealing that the constitutional amendment of that number abolishes slavery for all but the incarcerated. So, labor performed for ten cents an hour, or a dollar a day, is perfectly legal in these United States. And now, the “slaves” are on strike. Texas and South Carolina prison officials deny it has come their way, but accounts received by the Marshall Project state otherwise.
Few news outlets report it. They are tied to the corporate entities that benefit from the enslaved labor of prisoners. From McDonald’s uniforms, to Victoria’s Secret undergarments, to the food that reaches American tables from Whole Foods to the 10,00 beef cattle, 20,000 pigs and 250,000 egg-producing chickens tended by the agribusiness division of the Texas Department of Corrections (where no one gets paid, and refusal to work means solitary confinement). But as long as BP uses prison labor to do toxic oil cleanup and inmates to replace “costly” unionized operators, it’s a stretch to think that news outlets dependent on their advertising dollars will listen and report fairly.
No one listens…then strike happens, and people begin to take notice.
And no one listens when you come home…not to you. Because you don’t exist anymore. You’re replaced by a label: “ex-felon,” “ex-offender,” “ex-con.” Your voice is stilled by a society that refuses to recognize your humanity.
But something stirs within you, because deep within, you know you– the person– exist and have a voice. If a formerly incarcerated person speaks in a forest, and there is no one around to hear him or her…do they make a sound? Damn-skippy you do, because no one can deny that the Creator creates, and knows (as do you) that you are alive with a purpose and, hopefully a plan, to make them hear you. That’s why I write. That’s why I teach what I teach at the university. That’s why I preach the way I do in the pulpit. That’s why I will be at the front of the line on election day, and if you can’t vote, make sure everybody you know who can, does. I have a voice and I refuse to let this society’s labels of “ex-prisoner,” “drunk,” or anything else define me. That’s why I support organizations like JustLeadership USA and Community Connections for Youth, and those people inside the system and outside the walls who work for change and a society that recognizes the worth of all human beings.
It’s why I try to feel some sympathy for the screaming CO. Because nobody listens to him either. I didn’t. We listened to his uniform and his badge, not him. He has no voice either; he’s a cog in a wheel. In fact, I have to pray for him just to keep me from smugly thinking, “Me and him are really the same, except I have a good education and he has a sh#tty job.” Yeah, I need prayer, too.