Magazine article New Internationalist

The Disease of the Surprise Visitor

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Disease of the Surprise Visitor

Article excerpt

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 disease of 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 angryson 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. …

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