In prison, relationships become a special kind of messy because we, as incarcerated people, are living under the boot heel of American empire through the oppressions imposed upon us by prison officials.
This has caused me to develop rules around who, when, and in what ways I associate with others.
Some of my rules seem arbitrary, but every one of them has a rationale and an experience of things ending badly behind them. For example, I don’t let someone get close to me until after I’ve seen them angry or upset. This is because I’ve known far too many people who, 99% of the time are calm, cool, and collected, but when they lose their self-control… it’s ugly.
On the other hand, the relationships I have with the few people I have let get close to me are intensely rewarding. I need anything and I know I can go to one of the four people in my inner circle, if they don’t have it or can’t help me get it, they will always take the time to commiserate whatever I’m going through. And vice versa. Conversely, if trust is betrayed it hurts so much more. This results in a sort of tribalism. We will arbitrarily back each other up in the smallest things publicly, then bawl each other out in private.
A semi-ridiculous example of this happened last week. We were in acting class talking about art as entertainment verses art as social commentary or political statement. Someone I consider a friend, but not quite inner circle yet, argued that Britney Spears’ music has important and valuable messages to it beyond just entertainment value. In the class I agreed with him (because that is the social expectation), but the next day when we hung out at yard I roasted him. “‘Womanizer’ is obviously about sexism, and ‘Toxic’ has got to be about oil executives, so would you say ‘Oops I Did It Again’ is a political commentary on conflict in the Middle East?” There is an insanely high expectation of arbitrary loyalty which comes with even casual friendship in prison, paired with an expectation of calling each other on our BS.
This is complicated by one of the more insidious rules of the DOC. They criminalize affection. No hugs, no holding hands, no leaning on the person next to you, not even while you cry.
Of course, people do all these things anyway, but we have to be careful about it. If a c/o sees, or someone decides to snitch, there are consequences. This can range from a minor infraction and getting fired from a job (if a body happens to have one), to a major infraction and getting put in the hole, all the way up to triggering a PREA investigation and possibly getting sent to closed custody. What happens is completely arbitrary and dependent on how the c/o, sergeant and lieutenant want to treat it.
There are times it physically hurts to hang out for a couple hours with the small circle of people I trust, then have to go back to our cages, alone, isolated, and not be able to hug them good night. Having to whisper “I love yous” for fear someone will overhear and take it to mean something other or more than deep friendship.
Others seem to take this as normal, but for me it’s relatively new. If you had asked me a two years ago I would have told you about how absolutely alone I was. It’s taken me years to learn to trust, and just as long to find people I can trust, and then even longer to come to trust them.
I have four people. This time next year may or may not have five.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that I am a living breathing person. A primate. A mammal. A human animal. While it it is said seeing is believing, truly touching is truth.
Criminalizing affection deprives incarcerated people of basic human dignity and needs to stop.