The Meaning of Imprisonment

By Drain, Ernie | The Yale Law Journal, May 2013 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Imprisonment


Drain, Ernie, The Yale Law Journal


Being incarcerated in prison means tucking your life into your back pocket for a while. It means taking your slumber on a bunk bed for the first time since childhood. If your incarceration is the end result of a mistake you made rather than a criminal lifestyle you were leading, then it means becoming acquainted with an unfamiliar and wicked subculture. It means showing your pride the door as the staff begins to emasculate you. It's the choice between answering to a pejorative or going to the hole for disobeying a direct order. It's being appalled at the number of grown men who enjoy watching Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. It's anger management classes, group psychotherapy, undercooked rice, indirect pepper-spray shots and petty politicking. It's sleeping the day away in an effort to push time forward. It's accepting responsibility for the acts that brought you here and learning to purge yourself of anger and resentment. It's questioning the morals of inmates who befriend child predators. It means standing in line for the privilege of performing a bowel movement. It's being made to stand in ninety-seven-degree weather in order to receive your medication. It means locking everything you own in a small steel box and hoping that no one smashes the lock when you go to dinner. It's understanding too late, the difference between the priorities of a man serving three years and a man serving a life sentence.

It means physically fighting for your reputation--which means that you care what other inmates think of you while professing that you don't. It's listening to the details of another inmate's deteriorating family life when you couldn't care less. It's suddenly realizing that you have a deep affinity for Mark Twain's political commentary, Norman Mailer, and the New Yorker magazine. It's forgetting what real ground beef tastes like. It's spending your whole life running away from an African-American stereotype only to smack face first into it. It's letting down your ancestors. It's the process of mental self-devaluation. It's earning sixty cents a day and enduring a lecture on work ethic from a twenty-dollar-an-hour C.O. whose most strenuous task of the day is reheating his coffee. It's watching the C.O.'s own low self-esteem ooze from every demeaning word he speaks to you. It means watching the staff eat food that was meant for inmates while the state deals with budgetary problems by shrinking the portion sizes of the food delivered to those inmates. …

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