So I’ve written about my experience as a Christian in prison, and nothing influences that experience more than my fellow inmates. Oh, man, the inmates…
So, I like to people watch. Always have. I’m the sort of guy that could sit at a mall and just watch. I’d watch more if I could. Seriously. If I took an hour’s worth of footage at the mall, I could study the different people in it for ten hours.
Yet no mall, school, airport, or ComicCon had prepared me for the characters I’d get to watch in prison.
Admittedly, I didn’t exactly fit in. Prior to my sentencing, I didn’t live a criminal lifestyle. I didn’t strive for money, power, or fame. I wasn’t in to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, some rock and roll, I suppose, but you know what I mean. I wasn’t “with it”. I was the geek in a junior high full of jocks, thugs, and creeps. In fact, the few preps (to use a dated term) were so outnumbered that they gravitated toward the few geeks. Grouped together, we were probably outnumbered 40-to-1 based on my rough math.
To say that I was surrounded by different cultures might be the understatement of the decade.
But again, I’m a geek. I’m a people watcher. This was a fascinating sociological experiment for me, if nothing else. I got to witness, firsthand, a cross-section of culture that a small number (though a growing one) of people get to see. I was geeking out. It was a sociologist’s dream (or nightmare, depending on how cynical they are).
In prison, everything is about politics. And I don’t mean liberal vs. conservative or Republican vs. Democrat, although there is enough of that to go around. Rather, everyone is organized into self-governing groups. This plays a more prominent role in higher security levels and a lesser one in lower security levels, but often it is the affiliation system and its leadership that truly operates the prison.
Many inmates are already affiliated, naturally. Gangs exist in a variety of forms in the outside world, and MCs coexist with the more “thuggish” elements just the same in prison. But even if you’re not in a gang, you are allocated by other characteristics.
The primary allocation is done simply by race. You’re white, black, Hispanic (which has subgroups that are often intolerant of a shared grouping, but for brevity I’ll keep it simple), Asian, or you’re other. In my prison, other meant you were white, even if you’re Indian (subcontinent or Native American), European, or a mix, but not all prisons are so accepting. Rare were the instances of people truly crossing these lines (occasional white man raised in the barrio), and the rest of us faced this divide in every thing we do, from eating to watching TV to working out and even our jobs.
It’s not all race, though.
There are the offense-based groups. Child molesters (“chomos” in prison slang) group together as much out of self-preservation as from common interest, as other groups are aggressively intolerant of them. White collar felons often cling together due to shared sociopolitical views. Arms dealers talk shop, and drug dealers… well, practically everyone else is a drug dealer, so there’s not much else to work with there.
There are religion-based groups. The Muslims, their often aggressively intolerant Nation of Islam cousins, the Jews, the “Messianic Jews” (read supremely legalistic, works-based Christians), the dedicated Christians, the “natives” (whose “religion” was often listed as Native American simply for the smoking privileges), and the devout atheists whose aggression, intolerance, and condescension where only outshone by the Aryans and (sadly) the Bible-thumping Christians.
There are interest-based groups. The guys who work out. The guys who play music. The guys who do yoga. The guys who do guys. The guys who play basketball. The guys who play poker. The guys who bet on sports. The guys who fought through appeals. The guys who hate cops.
Now to be clear, you don’t have to pick a group. Your choices, appearances, and history choose them for you. And these groups aren’t like the cliques you remember from high school. These groups effectively govern your stay in prison: they influence your jobs, your relationships, your safety, your health, your obstacles. You’re just as answerable to your group’s shot caller (leader) as to a guard. More so, really.
Yet for all the negativity of this political situation, your group does serve as your primary source of respect, courtesy, laughter, and even friendship. In a dark, lonely, hostile environment, these groups offer a safe haven of sorts. It’s no wonder so many young and vulnerable inmates get brainwashed by the groups they join.
I’m anything but a social butterfly, but I found this situation oppressive. Each inmate, in his own way, was hurting and lost, and God loved them more than they knew. Every racist, every bitter diehard, every homosexual, every angry atheist, every broken gambler, every single man carried in the image of God, and He yearned to express His love for them.
Realizing this, I couldn’t contentedly exist within my assigned groups. God began to shape me into a new man who saw the hurt around me. And I learned that the simple things make a big difference.
I offered simple kindnesses to men outside my groups. I got more than one raised eyebrow when I opened doors for Mexicans. People expressed concern when I got my hair cut by the crazy old black man. I saw a bit of surprise when I befriended the church-hating hippies. When I showed continual compassion and love for a proud Muslim twice my age, he actually humbled himself and gave me the only sincere apology I ever saw from him.
All my interpersonal relationships, no matter how deep or shallow, were ultimately defined by God’s love for people. It was the first time I really engaged at that level so thoroughly.
Originally posted 2017-01-16 08:00:14.