The Prison Code of Silence

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Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr

Every day, behind razor wire somewhere, there are prisoners tormenting and terrorizing other prisoners. In far too many correctional facilities in America, the laws of the jungle prevail.

Exploitative prison norms give such  perpetrators a license for their acts.  But even those who do not extort, sexually assault, or commit wanton acts of violence perpetuate it by standing aside and staying silent.

As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Still, there is just as much truth to the adage that self-preservation is the first law of nature.

One need not look to “Lock-Up Raw” on MSNBC to understand the truth of that statement. History provides powerful illustrations that give insight into why some people stand by while others are victimized.

At the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev openly condemned the late Joseph Stalin for his murder of innocent people and other atrocities. During Khrushchev’s speech, one party member yelled from the audience, “Well if he was so bad, why didn’t you get rid of him?”

From the dais Khrushchev immediately shouted back, “Who said that?”

The entire audience fell silent in fear.

Khrushchev again shouted, “Who said that?”

Nobody said a word.

Khrushchev then declared, “Well, now you understand why we didn’t do anything.”

Any prisoner who has retained or reclaimed his humanity can understand why Khrushchev stayed silent and refused to intercede. The threat of reprisals deters people—both confined and free—from being righteous or doing justice.

Other prisoners have tried and came to ruin.

In The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison, Robert Ellis Gordon tells how numerous prisoners at Washington State Penitentiary banded together to prevent young, weak, and vulnerable prisoners from being preyed upon sexually.  For their noble efforts, these prisoners were “singled out and murdered by predatory convicts,” thrown in the hole for “thirty, sixty, or ninety days” at a time, and, had years added to their sentences for assaulting the predators and possessing weapons.

Obviously, Khrushchev’s line of thinking is prudent in a penitentiary.  From the very beginning, I have followed his example.

Long ago, I learned to turn a blind eye to cruelty.

I came to prison as a young teen and used violence to keep predators from having their way with me. My young friend wasn’t so lucky and swiftly fell victim at the same facility.

Were you to believe that such an experience during my formative years would incline me to intervene on other youngster’s behalf if one day given the opportunity, you are correct.

But that doesn’t mean I was foolish enough to do so when a decade later a teenager in my midst was in a similar predicament.

There was plenty that I could have told him to help him stay safe, but I didn’t say anything.

When I saw him crying by himself, and felt compelled to offer some comfort or encouragement, I gave him nothing.

I remained a silent spectator.

As Khrushchev understood, attempting to foil the plans of psychopaths can put you in serious jeopardy. If doing nothing reduced the risk that harm would come to me, then I wasn’t going to say or do anything.

He was on his own—Edmund Burke be damned.

However, in time I found— as other prisoners had before me— that there is a psychological cost involved in following Khrushchev’s philosophy. Ultimately, laying low and keeping quiet to ensure one’s safety can damage you mentally.

Being inconspicuous, Craig Haney explains, requires many prisoners to become as “unobtrusively disconnected from others as possible,” and in so doing they can ultimately “retreat deeply into themselves, trust virtually no one, and adjust to prison stress by leading isolated lives of quiet desperation.”

Haney further explains that when prisoners “struggle to control and suppress their own emotional reactions to events around them” it can also lead to emotional “over-control and a generalized lack of spontaneity” which can impede their post-prison adjustment.

This is the life for many prisoners who have retained or reclaimed their humanity.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

The irony of this situation is that it reveals how the inculcation of pro-social norms and values can undermine a prisoner’s sanity because he must continue to live amongst the depraved while cloaking his thoughts and feelings.

It is a lonely, solitary existence filled with anger and depression when one’s life is lived at the intersection between rehabilitation and self-preservation.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, WA, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes your comments.

4 thoughts on “The Prison Code of Silence

  1. There is hardly an act that deserves 25+ years of confinement no matter a person’s age. But to have such a sentence placed on a youngster of 14 is especially despicable.
    Whatever such a youngster may have done, it cannot define who he is for all time. It is a supreme irony that the depravity of the Holocaust prompted Germany into a humane criminal justice system while the savior of the world at that time has sunk to the depravity that is our current prison system.

  2. Very well written. Thank you. I wish everyone could understand the devastating and destructive nature of prisons in the USA.

  3. I watched from my chair in the dayroom as a chubby inmate was called into the CO’s office to pick up a package from home. The package had already been opened and thoroughly searched for contraband exposing its bounty inside to prying eyes. Although the guy was obviously elated with its contents he also looked nervous as he scanned the area for any witnesses. Unfortunately for him I was not the only one that had noticed the guy’s good fortune. Several others sat near me watching the guy’s gleeful reaction to contents with great interest. The guy raised the opened box, which had been torn in the process, taking care not to spill any of its contents out, and then he rushed down the hallway to his cell.
    I knew how good it felt to receive something from home, so I was happy for him, but I was also a little jealous, for such packages were few and far between during my incarceration. I got up from my chair in front of the TV and went into the adjacent latrine to relieve myself. As I stood there in front of the urinal I noticed the three inmates rushing down the hallway in the direction of the package recipient’s cell.
    I washed my hands as I contemplated the possibility that the three were going to raid his package. I waited a moment before I opened the door in an attempt to time my exit with their return. When I exited the latrine I witnessed the three leaving the recipient’s cell stuffing items into their pockets. The recipient of the package stood in front of his cell doorway crying and pleading with the mob, “Give that stuff back to me! My mother sent me that and it means a lot to me.” The three just replied “Thank moms for us.” as they approached the dayroom laughing loudly and eating some of the stolen items. As I walked towards my seat in the dayroom I overheard the three warning the distraught inmate, “You had best be quiet motherfucker or we’ll take care of your punk ass later.” As I watched the three thieves approaching me I felt both anger at the victim’s lack of backbone and the thieves cruelty. The victim’s tearful eyes looked to me for help but I was following the jail house rule, “Never help someone that won’t help himself.” It was a decision that has haunted me ever since.
    The next day I overheard a conversation about the recipient, someone that I had never took the time to talk to or comfort, “I got up to pee and saw him hanging in his cell. I could only see him from the chest down as he swung side to side, and simultaneously twisted, first in one direction then the other. I banged on the door for help which only brought an angry response from the night watchman. I banged for what seemed like a good 10 minutes more before the watchman came angrily to my window and shouted at me “Shut up and get back in bed immediately.” I told him to look across the hall and he yelled back “What the fuck are you talking about?” Then there came a mad shuffle to open the cell door across the hall and lower the now motionless body down to the floor. I didn’t want to see the guy’s face and looked away before his face came into view.”
    As I listened to the tale I felt a sense of shame for not having helped the victim when it could have made a difference. At first I didn’t believe the tale, but when I couldn’t locate the victim I had to believe it. I was angered by the suicide and I found myself staring with disdain at the three that had provoked it. Days later I stood in my cell’s doorway as one of them proudly strutted past my room on the way to the dayroom and when he noticed me watching him he turned and said “What you looking at motherfucker?” I replied, “Step inside my room out of view and I’ll tell your punk ass.” “You say what motherfucker? You want some of me? “He answered. “You guessed it punk I’m waiting.” I responded. “Oh you better hold me back man I’m going to have to kick this boy’s ass.” He says to another of his friends that had overheard our confrontation and came over placing a hand on his shoulder. I said “Bring your punk friend along I’m waiting.” I stepped backward into my cell and out of the view of the CO’s so if they took the bait and entered my cell I could claim self defense and hopefully do some damage to them before any intervention by the CO’s. The two were not taking the bait however and they walked away saying how lucky I am that he was being held back. Thereafter, there were stares, and loud talking, whenever several of them would see me in the dayroom. They never told me anything directly but instead gave loud speeches on how some people just don’t know how lucky they are. How if they weren’t restraining themselves they would kick some ass. This scene was repeated several times before I left to return upstate (I had transferred down to appear in court) but no one ever attacked me.

    I became aware of a number of other raided packages and widespread sexual exploitation after my return. So with two suicides of inmates in mind, (another sexually abused inmate had jumped head first off the second story railing returning from his shower on Christmas night of all nights while I was held in the hole for fighting off a sexually aggressive inmate that had been testing me) I let it be known amongst the most likely victims that I would place their packages in my room for their protection. It was my way of responding to the suicides. However this didn’t make me popular with those accustomed to raiding the packages. The truth is I didn’t know if I would be able to keep them from being taken from me as well but the difference was I was ready to fight to prevent it.

    For my efforts I learned of an organized effort to recruit people to assassinate me and those that I had helped. When I overheard the leader in the act of recruiting I acted first using only my hands to beat him down. A search of all our cells resulted in the collection of 80 deadly weapons amassed for the purpose of dealing with us. I spent time in the hole even though no weapons were ever found in any other rooms other than the group of predators planning the attack. The leader who admitted his motives was sent up stream and thankfully I was paroled before another attempt on my life could be organized. I was lucky but I understand why few choose to intervene.

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