Voices of the Disenfranchised: Prisoner Narratives

In 1987, Stephen Roszell released his documentary, Other Prisoners, which explored incarceration from the perspective of the personnel working in a small, southern prison. There, even the warden safely moves among the incarcerated, and comments on the prisoners who seem more like sit-com characters than dangerous career criminals. Yet, the stress of interacting with people who are being punished, and being the watchers and custodians of the worst society produces, takes its toll on the staff. Jailers, in other words, are just as constricted by the penal system as the inmates.

Twenty-six years later, the prison population has risen exponentially, taxing our penal system to the breaking point. Prisons have become human warehouses filled with gangs, racial tension, violence, sexual assault, and drugs. Rehabilitation—that laudable goal that is supposed to compensate for a prisoner’s life-long horrendous environment in which he learned to be anti-social—is as effective as emptying the ocean with a spoon when we’re talking about millions of people competing for the same non-existent jobs.

Idealistic, realistic, or pragmatic, it’s painfully evident that America hasn’t a clue about what a modern, technologically superior, multi-cultural, secular society can, or should do about social control. That is, after all, what we’re talking about when we speak of law and order. What happens when a majority of people can no longer police themselves? Do we have the money to pay for a ‘cop for everyone 24/7/365’ to police them for us?

Liberals argue we need to be more understanding and compassionate; that prisons are the product of a racist society that quickly pens up and shuts up those at the lowest end of the social ladder; and that the harshness of capitalism, with its stacked deck and its inequality of outcomes guarantees the most vulnerable will become the most over-represented in the prison populations. Society needs less violence (unless it’s peddled by Hollywood) and more gun control.

Conservatives  argue that the further we stray from traditional values and standards of behavior, the more dysfunction we will see across all socio-economic strata; that the destruction of the traditional structure and function of the family, and the intrusion of government into peoples’ lives infantilizes human beings, and makes them dependent financially and emotionally; that free people have a right and a duty to control their own destiny, and capitalism allows for the maximization of their individual freedom.  Prisons are filled because people have never learned self-discipline, restraint, and the value of hard work and individual effort; and that identity politics and a culture of victimization have replaced common sense, good education, and economic opportunity.

Libertarians, cash-strapped governments at all levels, and a few Liberals and Conservatives, argue for the legalization of drugs that would empty the prisons of non-violent offenders, and would take away the profit and desperation incentives for crime. Government should do away with as many laws and restrictions on individual liberties as possible, and let people do whatever they want, within reason, and stop trying to make people be good. Whether they’re morally good or bad really isn’t the issue. The issue is whether an individual’s behavior infringes on someone else’s pursuit of happiness. They take a ‘mind your own business’ approach to everything, including business itself.

The purpose of this series of articles is not pass judgment on the rightness or wrongness of any of these political persuasions or arguments, or to definitively answer chronically debatable questions. Rather, the purpose is to explore our social conundrums from a writer’s curiosity point of view, and let those involved on all sides speak for themselves about themselves: who they are, what they think, and, most importantly, what they read or write—or wish they could. In the process, we might gain some insight, as writers, citizens, and just plain folk, into ourselves.

And, according to our first interviewee, it’s an important endeavor.

 

 

Sheriff Marty Elliot, Danville, Kentucky.

A former heavy equipment operator, Boyle County Sheriff Marty Elliot now does the heavy lifting in law enforcement.  Self-identified as a strict Constitutionalist, he has no hesitation saying that this is the source of his authority and because of this, no local  or federal authority supersedes his own except the voters. Their rights, as well as the rights of his deputies, are foremost in his mind as he goes about tackling the county’s biggest problem: drugs and the seamier human behavior.

The newest form of the scourge is addiction to prescription drugs, especially by young people, and addiction to heroin that is purer and stronger than what had been the case.  (One eastern Kentucky county has had 26 deaths from heroin overdose since the beginning of the year.) Yes, the illegal alien problem has exacerbated the problem. There are nine drug cartels, and one is particularly strong in Kentucky, given its proximity to the city drug hubs—Louisville, Lexington and Chicago—and “muled” to Danville and other small cities. The illegals have five or six names and usually do not have car insurance or a license. In Boyle county a restaurant owners hired an illegal to work for them. He raped their fourteen year old daughter an fled. The couple moved away, and the rape remains an unsolved case.

“Bust one drug house,” Marty says, which the State/County taskforce did recently, “and the crime rate within a fifteen mile radius goes down.”  Most crime is related to the drug trade in some way. As for what should be done with people here illegally, Marty confesses he doesn’t have the answer. He’s for legal immigration. Making everyone register, and keeping a data bank of identifications that will assist law enforcement in keeping track of  people suspected and/or charged with crimes. Whether the politicians let the others stay is not for him to say, but the criminals should be deported and imprisoned if they return.

Sitting in a small room in the Danville public library, the fifty-something  Marty still wears his Kevlar vest and keeps his cell phone on the table. He tells me about a disabled suspect who disappeared from a domestic violence crime scene two days ago, and who he arrested personally the day before.  The man’s girlfriend claims he beat her with a baseball bat, and tried to ram it down her throat.  “Are there forensics consistent with her allegations?” I ask.

“Yes, but the man has injuries too. He claims his girlfriend and two others attacked him and he was defending himself.”

“Do you believe him?”

“With his past arrest and drug use, I’m inclined not to. But, we’ll see.”

How does he cope? He’s also a self-identified Christian and gives the stress of seeing the depravity of the human race over to God each night. What case is his most memorable? His answer is fascinating: a fourteen year old girl from Indiana, who was working at a church nursery in Kentucky, was arrested for sexually abusing thirty-one children ages six months to eight years, mostly little boys. If she’d been charged as an adult, she would have been eligible for four hundred years in prison.  Released from a facility at twenty-seven, she will re-offend, Marty predicts, because that has become part of her reality. “She’ll always perp young people But if you have a fifteen, sixteen year old boy approached by a good-lookin’ thirty  years old woman, he’s not going to complain.”

His explanation of why he’s so sure she’ll reoffend, reflects his degree in psychology.  “Everybody has a perception of reality, what they need to do to get where they want to be.” Most of that perception is formed very early in their lives, and, without some outside catalyst, they simply do not see another reality for themselves. The two biggest determinants of their perceptions are drug abuse and childhood sexual abuse.

The fourteen year old offender was raped by her step-father and his sixteen-year old son. She was found in the basement by police, duct-taped to a chair. Based on her information, police were able to prosecute the man years after the fact. How was this discovered? She was overheard talking with some other women talking about incest, and said that she’d been having sex with her father for years, and what was wrong with that?

She exhibits, Marty says, “wound driven behavior”, just as substance abuse is primarily self-medication for the pain and ‘self’ destroying abasement experienced early in life. Yet, there are some people who simply cannot be allowed to remain in society. Despite what some people believe, “There are evil people out there.” He’s seen people from good homes, and those experiencing little deprivation, do horrible things to others, people without a conscience.  Personal suffering cannot be an excuse for criminal behavior no matter how rational that criminal behavior might be—young men, for example, who can make eleven hundred dollars every two days by selling drugs can see little value in working a low-level job that pays them a pittance. Still, Marty says, “At some point, people must be held accountable for their behavior.”

And this brings us to the reason for our meeting: the relationship between criminality and illiteracy.  The stereotype, especially of people in Kentucky, is that they are intellectually challenged, and that they don’t know the rules, or can’t follow them.  Does his twenty-one years in law enforcement bear that out? I ask. His answer is no. Illiteracy should not be mistaken for unintelligent. “I’ve seen very few people who have mental challenges….If you do enough drugs, though, you’re going to get mental issues. I think there’s a segment of the population that will never see anything other than their own perception.” And he gives a poignant, personal example.

His  half African-American wife was born in Chicago, with all its family and social dysfunctions. Drugs. Violence. Abuse. Lack of parenting. Education opportunities. “Her Grandmother was a professional prostitute. Had thirteen husbands.” She’s passed now, after finding the Lord, and he loved her to death. As for wife, she’s a pediatric nurse, who has created a stable and happy home. He shares her story with prisoners who want to use their upbringing as an excuse for criminality.

“How did she escape?,” I want to know. “All the odds were against her. What changed her perception of reality?”

“For her it was leaving Chicago and finding Christianity. A different belief system that intervened. But it doesn’t have to be Christianity. It can be any belief system that shows the person a different perception of reality. A.A., for example works well in the jails. Everyone has a belief system. Even atheists who say they don’t believe in God, believe in something. Self-promotion… ”

“Besides Christian literature, then, what could writers write for these people that would have any chance of breaking through their reality kinds of stories would you say have the biggest impact on incarcerated people? What should writers write, if that’s their target population?”

“How to deal with traumatic lifestyles. How to deal with emotional baggage…how to deal with the fact that you’ve been raped multiple times as a child. Sexual assaults. There are far more men than America knows that have been sexually assaulted. How to regain that self-esteem that has been taken away. Because you’re in that survival mode when you’re raped or are in violent situation. You either succumb to it or fight through it, but both of those are emotions create the reality…that’s where the change begins. Working through the emotional aspects of their reality.
Heal the damaged emotions of a person’s life.”

“If there’s going to be literature written,” he continues, “it has to be in layman’s terms. It does have to be written from a psychological point of view, but it has to be written in a language they can understand. You can’t throw out these big words; it has to be written in simple language.  You can ask a prisoner, “Can you read?” Yes. “Here, read this.”  They have to read about people who changed their perceptions, changed their reality. Dealt with their demons. “You either deal with your demons, or they’re going to deal with you. ”

“Why don’t law enforcement people write for this population, to show them another reality?”

“First of all, I don’t think they’ve ever thought of it. To write about your situation to help other people, first you have to get egos out of the way….it all go back to being driven to get someplace where you want to go, to advance themselves. And law enforcement people get to be calloused when it comes to people. They  get to see how evil people are…Suicide is the number one killer of law enforcement people because they don’t have something to help them deal with what they see.”

And what, exactly, does he see?

He’s just returned from a domestic abuse call where a man has beaten his girlfriend and a four month old baby. He relates another story of the woman whose husband barricaded himself in his house, and was so high he beat her; stomped her face so hard boot prints were on her face. Yet, she pleads that he not be arrested because, “I love him.”  Then there one of  his twenty-one deputies who was one of the first on the scene at a multiple murder at a pawn shop. He was new on the job, a one week graduate of Kentucky’s premier law enforcement academy, who discovered the dead woman and children, still in her arms. Eight weeks later, the scene can’t leave the deputy’s mind.

He speaks calmly, with calm pride in his work, his family, and with compassion for our country. He’s educated, as is every one on his force, a student of history, taking courses towards his MA. “America has got to change,” he says, “ look at the difference between what happened with Katrina and what happened with hurricane Sandy. With Katrina, you had people who were completely sustained by the government checks. That  to a kind of lethargy that makes people incapable of independent thought and action; they waited for the government to save them. But, with Sandy, people took responsibility for their own safety. But these are people who work. Who pursue education. Did FEMA drop the ball in both cases? Yes, but it’s not the government’s responsibility to save people…If you expect me to protect you,” Marty says, “I can’t. You have to protect yourself. Educate yourself, and be independent. Take responsibility for yourself. ”

In the 1990’s, the FBI did a study, violent Encounters Among Law Enforcement, in part which, sixty career criminals were interviewed. Every one of the criminals stated that they don’t follow rules or obey laws, so gun control laws for law abiding people are useless to control crime. And, year after year, the statistics and subsequent studies bear out the study’s conclusions: gun laws only inhibit self-protection for the law abiding citizen and do little to inhibit the criminals among us. I want to remind him of differing opinions on the issue. That there are those who believe there’s a middle ground between extremes, and that middle ground is regulation.

But I let him continue and he tells me of the precautions he and his staff must take to protect themselves. They’re threatened regularly. Keep their K-9 cops with them overnight lest someone poison them with laced hamburger. Drug dealers are a serious bunch of people. “As long as you buy into their reality, they’re o.k. with you, but interfere and you’re their enemy…especially heroin users because heroin withdrawal is painful. Meth is bad, but it’s not painful. Marijuana doesn’t do much to people. Users are usually mellow, if unproductive. But heroin users can get violent if they can’t have it.”

Marty calls the study the smoking gun of law enforcement, and says its conclusions were never widely disseminated to the public because of its political ramifications and he’s candid about the nexus of the crime problem with political realities in America: the politicians see criminals and illegals as potential votes, and yield to pressure from those who easily castigate people as racists every time law enforcement begins to make inroads against the drug problem, especially in the inner cities. “What the politicians need to do is take a ride-along and see what we really deal with. If we don’t get politics out of law enforcement, we’re not going to last as a civilization.”

A text from his wife ends our meeting. Yes, it’s his day off, sort of. He’s on call around the clock. But, he’s promised to have lunch with her. For a man who admits he loves his job because he’s an adrenaline junkie, he’s also a realist. He promised himself he’d never be one of those people who take pills for every little thing, but now that he past the fifty mark, things have started to change. There’s a pill for the stomach and one for not sleeping well. We commiserate. Aging is hell.

You might think he’s a southern good ol’ boy, but you’d be mistaken. Fifteen years ago the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council, comprised of state, municipal and county law enforcement personnel, lawyers, judges, and elected officials, changed the standards and requirements. Now, people can enter the law enforcement academy with just a high school diploma, but everybody must attend a rigorous19-20 week training program. Kentucky’s academy is rated second in the world. The good ol’ boys were grandfathered in, but most of them are dead, left, or retired. “No more Dukes of Hazard,” I say.

“That’s right, those days are gone in Kentucky.”

 

more Prisoner Narratives

more Voices of the Disenfrancised

 

 

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