The Virtue of Pain, Part I

Everyone who’s done time in Wisconsin knows that, with the exception of prisons in Racine, blacks in the joint wear inmate colors.  So the dark-skinned guy in the business suit (who turned out to be the education director for the Department of Corrections) mingling with the all white staff before the GED graduation ceremony last week stood out like a pair of Jordans in a cowboy boots store.  But by the end of the event, he stood out for a different reason and like a brilliant diamond atop a pile of kryptonite.

I’m virtually always working on some project concerning institution waste, inmate rehabilitation or general interest (sports leagues, outside food purchases, better coordination between canteen day and payday, etc.).  As a result, I’m often in contact with various levels of prison authority and over 90% of the time I run into a wall of indifference.  However, despite how frustrating this lack of concern is, I understand it.

Staff indifference used to make me want to bust up in their offices and pull  a “John Q” (Denzel movie where he takes a hospital hostage until they help his son–decent flick).  But over time, I realized why they act this way: they’re simply products of their environment, just as we are.  The same way that many of us become immoral, immature and criminals because of the circumstances we grew up in or live in (poverty, abuse, ignorance, etc.), most prison employees come to not give a damn after months and years of dealing with scheming and constantly complaining inmates within a work environment that turns the simplest changes into a near impossible maze of departments, egos, and laziness.

Now, I expect their indifference and factor it in as I prepare the necessary counterarguments and backup plans.  Nevertheless, I am hardly at peace with their attitude.  So, it was absolutely refreshing to meet a D.O.C bigwig who was so different from the majority of his co-workers.  After both seeing how he addressed the graduates during his speech and having several conversations with him, it was clear that he genuinely cared about making the system work.

I don’t want to overpraise this dude, but I also don’t want to understate his significance.  The system tends to harden us towards it very quickly; at every step–from arrest to release–it seems to give us two middle fingers.  However, the Director of Education (who acknowledged that the D.O.C. is “trying to hire a new breed of people”) demonstrates the other side of the system.

There are helpful and unhelpful people in any organization.  But what sense does it make for those of us in the system to give up because those who currently control a large portion of our lives seem to have given up?  If we quit on our futures, how the hell can we get mad at them for quitting on their job duties.  When corrections workers cease to care about the productiveness of their efforts, they still get paid.  Although, when we respond by ceasing to care about following the rules and restrictions that temporarily confine us, we severely and only hurt ourselves.

Ultimately, we need to stop thinking it’s us against them.  The system contains individuals who sincerely want to help us.  But even if we continue to encounter the many negative individuals who clog the system, we should never throw in our chips and get negative in return.  Instead, we should use their uselessness and boulder-like burdensome manners to strengthen ourselves.

For many of us, living straight ain’t nothin easy.  Let’s take advantage of  all the preparation we can for the road ahead.

A tip: If you’re struggling with addiction and the way the criminal justice system tends to make recovery harder on felons, check out  They focus on health in general, but especially on how the health of ex-cons is affected by prison and the stigma of having been in prison.