When I was in Corcoran (a “level 4” maximum security prison), strict racial politics existed on the prison yard. Races were divided into different sections of the prison during yard time. The division between correctional officers (C/Os) and incarcerated men were even stricter. One day, for camaraderie purposes, the men inside decided to have a basketball challenge with each other. It was five African American men versus five “others” (Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, etc.). Both of these are segregated racial groups. The game was intense, there was a lot of physical play, and it gathered a lot of viewers, mainly for security purposes. The African American men gathered on one side of the court, and the “other” men gathered on the other side of the court in case a riot erupted. The third group who gathered up were the C/Os. They too were preparing for a potential race riot, watching intently, gun tower, radios, batons and pepper spray present. Basketball games in prison can get physical and competitive which can create potential for violence in a hyper-masculine environment.
As the physical, close game went on, I did my part scoring, rebounding and playing defense. I had the opportunity to win the game with a wide open three pointer, but I missed. The ball was rebounded and returned to the other side for their game winning point. After the game, I sat down on the side of the court, upset about my missed shot when a C/O came towards me. He approached me saying, “Man, that was a good game, you played really well man!” As he said that, he reached out his fist for a supportive fist bump in front of the whole yard. On the maximum security prison I was at, it was not normal for a C/O and an incarcerated person to shake hands, dap, or touch when it came to some form of respect or support. The only touch between us was for restraint or search. As this officer sticks his arm down towards me, I felt like every thing on the yard slowed down. It felt like all eyes were on me and the entire yard stopped what they were doing to see what I was going to do. I turned to the C/O who was eagerly waiting for his dap, then turned back to the entire yard, and when I looked back at the C/O, I reluctantly told him, “Uh, it’s not cool man” refusing his fist bump. He pulled back his arm, and walked away. I hung my head down, genuinely feeling bad.
I look back at that incident today and I feel bad that I did that to him. The truth is, if it wasn't for the environment that I was in, I would have accepted his support. I was afraid of one, being labeled a snitch because to have that type of interaction with a C/O can be considered too friendly with the enemy. Two, there could have been physical harm done to me. Because of fear and reputation in that environment and the culture of division between incarcerated men and C/Os, I refused the officer’s humanity.
A few years prior to this incident, I was encountered with a similar situation. It was in county jail. After spending four years there, I was sentenced and on my way to state prison. One of the deputy sheriffs who knew me the entire four years, took me into a small visit room at the end of a hallway inside the module I was housed in. I did not know what to expect and usually those types of escorts resulted in some form of trouble. He asked me to step in the room and when I turned back to face him, he stuck his hand out to shake my hand. Though this was my first time being offered a hand shake by a deputy, I instinctively felt safe and shook his hand. As we made contact, he gripped my hand, looked at me earnestly and said, “Thank you for all your help. I believe what’s happening to you is wrong, but keep your head up. Take care, it was an honor knowing you.” A lot of the incarcerated men had given me support, told me to keep my head up, and gave me other words of encouragement after I was sentenced to 25 to Life. But this was so different. It meant something else to me. I felt seen? It was almost like a reminder to me that I was still human. I don't know why it took for a deputy rather than an incarcerated person to help me feel validated, but it did. Maybe because I considered incarcerated people my equal and support was expected, and perhaps the expectation coming from a deputy sheriff, was harm. I told him that I appreciated his words and thankful for how he always treated me with respect.
I believe it was our privacy that allowed us to accomplish that secret human moment. The deputy really wanted to tell me those words but he couldn't do it in front of everyone.The environment did now allow for two human beings, on what’s understood to be on opposite sides, to express their support for each other.
Historically, correctional officers and incarcerated people stand on opposing sides. The power dynamic often favors the officers and incarcerated people are generally subjected to be treated as inferior to maintain that control. Subsequently, prison environments are set up to sustain a culture of objectification. In that structure, officers are morally superior and therefore have authority whereas people who have committed crimes are less than and have no command. From each other’s perspective, it’s an “Us versus Them” attitude. The relationship is then defined as opposites and leaves no room for unity. Unity is illegal and criminalized on both ends. However, I’ve experienced the power of humanity to seep through these barriers. The goodness in human beings sometimes can’t help but penetrate the structures that disallow empathy.
Photo credit: CDCR