The Truth Behind Getting in Trouble in Prison, Originally published on the Huffington Post
By Shannon Ross written for Prison Lives
I recently found myself facing a common choice as an incarcerated individual: be a good person or be a good inmate; follow the dictates of humanity or follow those of the Department of Corrections (DOC). I chose the former.
Forty-two days in the hole later, and counting, I face the prospect of being sent back to a higher security prison further away from home. Yet my time has been spent in thought over how others, my loved ones and supporters, even society in general, misperceive what it means to get in trouble in prison.
To be fair, I did technically violate DOC policy and procedures, but there are many times when such rules can be illogical and ineffective. For instance, to break up a fight, even if one person is getting destroyed, is against the rules, as is making a three-way phone call, even if it's to facilitate a mothers talking to her son on his birthday.
Staff have the power to choose how they enforce the rules -- either according to logic and fairness by following a spirit-of-the-law approach, or to write a ticket or press the emergency button. Letter-of-the-law enforcement requires no more than a sixth-grade reading level and just enough mobility to write a ticket -- a disciplinary infraction. On the other hand, staff can look at the reason behind the regulation, the actions it's meant to prohibit or allow, to decide on any discipline. Three-way calls, for example, are banned so that we don't harass people who don't want to speak with us, especially crime survivors. It is not meant to prevent incarcerated parents from talking to their children (unless convicted of abusing them). Following the spirit of the law here would be equivalent to a cop letting a jaywalker off where there isn't a car within miles.
Correctional officers are managers. Their job is to monitor, control and safeguard the prison setting. Effective management requires flexibility with the rules in order to combat the type of tense, bitter and angry environment that comes with rigid enforcement. As any handyman would confirm, the same tool cannot be used to fix every problem. In many situations it is best to overlook a violation, or even permit it, for the greater good of all involved. Unfortunately, however, such logic and fairness are considerably under-utilized by prison staff.
Again, to be fair, it's safe to say that most of the discipline part to is justified under both spirit and letter. But even within this segment there are many instances that do not translate well to the outside world. For example, fantasy football -- an incredibly popular form of entertainment in society, encouraged as a bonding exercise for families and co-workers -- is understandably forbidden in prison. In this setting it can lead to fights, theft and general disruptions.
None of this takes into account the rules that simply should not exist. For instance, possessing adult porn or insulting a staff member outside of their presence are against the rules, even though no one is harmed. But there is the far-too-common reality where staff exaggerate or all out lie about an incident to intentionally cause trouble for the inmate -- or to deflect attention from their own misdeeds.
What this means for society, especially for those with loved ones behind bars, is that going to the hole does not necessarily indicate a bigger issue. The DOC is kind of like a foreign country where right, wrong, or respectable conduct are contrary to attitudes and behavior that define responsible and successful citizens in American society.
Over the course of my 13 1/2 years in prison, I've received 18 minor tickets and one major -- a behavioral record the DOC has termed "satisfactory." It may seem like a lot of infractions, but that's my point: even the prison administration (when it wants to) acknowledges that much of this disciplinary stuff is trivial.
Based on my only other trip to the hole, I expect to more or less have to defend my current experience to some in my life. I don't hold any grudges over their concerns or doubts. By getting locked up, I put myself in a position to be questioned or judged for every mouse-fart decision I make.
On behalf of every incarcerated individual, however, when you hear about a prisoner in solitary confinement, or if you have an incarcerated loved one who makes the likely trip to the hole, please give them a break -- even if the institution makes it seem serious. Refrain from jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing or moralizing. When it comes to the DOC, where there's smoke it doesn't necessarily mean there's fire.
Written by Shannon Ross for Prison Lives, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.
Shannon Ross is an ambassador for The Community newsletter, which is an anti-mass incarceration publication with a mostly Wisconsin focus that comes out every couple of months and is now sending out info via email every couple weeks.