Going to Prison

The razor wire is unsettling. Razor wire, designed to slice human flesh if one attempts to climb over or through it, spirals around all of the surfaces that might offer a path to get in or out. Except, nobody climbs over razor wire to get into prison. I volunteered as an Associate Humanist Chaplain, so I walk into the prison through the visitor entrance. The incarcerated humans within found other ways inside. Assault for some. Drug charges for others. A litany of offenses may land a human being in the medium security facility of Jackson Correctional Institution (JCI) in Black River Falls, Wisconsin.

As I am processed through the JCI guard entrance, I am reminded that I can take nothing valuable or dangerous with me. Part of my identity dissolves as my wallet, keys, and cell phone get stored in a locker. An assumption of contraband requires that I pass through the metal detector while my notebook and pen go through the x-ray machine. My black leather oxford shoes betray me and set off the metal detector. Now they too must be removed and sent through an x-ray examination, their metal supported sole revealed as non-threatening. Shoeless, keyless, moneyless, and without a means of communication, I shuffle through the metal detector once again. Finally passing inspection, I am allowed into prison. This entrance process culminates months of paperwork, interviews, and fingerprinting required to get approved as a volunteer to work with the Persons In Our Care (PIOCs – the new name for incarcerated people in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections). This process is a hollow analog of losing freedom through the criminal justice system. I will not have to stay here tonight, but dread at the idea of forced incarceration settles into my bones nonetheless.

A long walk through locked doors and gates in corridors of fencing under an open sky but adorned with razor wire, where guards monitor my every step on camera and buzz me through each in turn, takes me from the visitor’s entrance to the chapel building. Once I finally arrive at my designated room, I meet the JCI Humanist Group. Our discussion is deep and meaningful, and I find myself among like-minded humans. They teach me about the “system.” They inform me of the true function of mass incarceration: hiding what society does not want to deal with.

Fellow humanist and founder of the JCI Humanist Group, Christopher Kone, is a poet. A few stanzas from his poem “Shock and Awe” tell the story completely:

An entire industry
Built on ”modernized”
Unmoderated and unmitigated slavery.
Unleashed and rabid,
Based on misinformation.
Unfounded beliefs
Reckless and rampant.
A domesticated war machine:
Weapons of mass destruction
Become those of mass incarceration.
Millions of souls lost.
How do you measure the cost
Of conceptual warfare,
Destruction and despair
On levels dwarfing
Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

JCI is one of thousands of such facilities all over the nation. According to Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner in their article “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024”, the incarcerated in the USA account for “over 1.9 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 98 federal prisons, 3,116 local jails, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 142 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories—at a system-wide cost of at least $182 billion each year.”

The Sawyer and Wagner article goes on to explain some of the challenging complexity and misconceptions behind the entire system of justice that we have constructed in the USA. One of the largest challenges is the fact that only 98 prisons are operated by the Federal Government, while 6,005 are state or municipality run for both adults and juveniles. Every state and most counties in this country have their own systems of incarceration. Getting universal agreement on either the purpose of or best methods for incarceration feels out of reach.

The bottom line is that these PIOCs or inmates or prisoners or incarcerated people are human beings. Human beings that may exist at the margins of humanity or may need specialized care for addiction or mental health issues. These human beings may have fallen through the massive holes in the social safety net, long actively fought against in our nation of individualists. This system of law and order and punishment that we created does not perform its alleged primary function of ensuring a peaceful society. It serves the function of hiding what we do not want to deal with.

Volunteering to visit JCI has profoundly altered my worldview. I continue to learn about decency and resilience from these human beings who should be devoid of hope. Locked away from society’s judgmental gaze, they offer words that prove deep thought and understanding and intellect. These human beings give me a measure of hope. What hope can they have? Fellow humanist and member of the JCI Humanist Group, John Rammelt, puts it best in the closing paragraph of his essay “When Life Takes Its Toll”:

The message here is if you have a goal that you’re wanting to reach, it is possible. Anything is possible. It’s not always easy. But, it can always become even a little bit easier to achieve success in something, if we just keep trying. After all, how can we rise without having fallen first? And, even when we do rise, we can always fall again, and again, and again before we finally overcome the greatest of challenges. In order to relive, through a new experience, what it’s like to reach that destination.

As I walk out of JCI, past the coils upon coils of razor wire, I leave Christopher and John and the others, my fellow humans who are the PIOCs or inmates or prisoners, behind. I feel elation at having met some fellow humans with a shared vision and hope for a better future, and also relief for being able to collect my wallet, keys, cell phone, and identity as I leave prison. I grieve for the humans that our society does not want to deal with, and who remain hidden away. The structural issues that create the requirement for incarceration stay safely ignored as our individualist society drives past these institutions, blissfully ignorant of the humanity withering away within.

The 1.9 million humans currently incarcerated prove that we have fallen as a society. When it comes to ‘criminal justice’ we have fallen again and again. Will we ever get up, and do the right thing? Will we do the hard work of fixing the structural issues that lead to mass incarceration? I share the hope of humanist John Rammelt, who reminds us that, “anything is possible…if we just keep trying.”