Pretense, Prison and the Free World

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Prison surveillance camera. Photo by Job for Felons Hub via Flickr

Pretense—the attempt to make something that is not the case appear to be true. It’s the word that comes to mind when so-called family-friendly events take place at the facility in which I am confined.

Every six to eight weeks, the visiting room at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington State is reserved for prisoners who (due to their good behavior) are allowed to attend special events such as Family Fun Night, the Back to School Event, Summer Family BBQ, and the Significant Women’s Event.

On any other visitation day, the rules of decorum are quite restrictive.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Hands must remain above the table and, if intertwined, cannot move above the wrist. Prisoners are only allowed to briefly hug and kiss their visitor at the beginning and end of the visit. And as for the children, they have little entertainment other than a small play area with a television to babysit them.

In contrast, the atmosphere is far less repressive during these special family events. Prisoners can embrace the “significant women” in their life without repercussions. They can frolic with their kids outside in the sunshine; and everyone can engage with other visitors’ families in wholesome activities.

Sounds awesome if you’re stuck in the penitentiary—and it is.

Still, you might wonder, “What kind of prisoners attend these events?” Devoted fathers who are anxious to get back to raising their children properly? Faithful partners who treat the women in their lives with reverence?

Of course not—let’s be serious.

For the most part they were absent from their children’s lives or, worse yet, negligent parents. They were philanders who had many women in the free world convinced that their relationship was exclusive.

Pretense—all pretense.

In spite of this, many prisons hold family events under the auspice that maybe—just maybe—such interactions will strengthen a prisoner’s relationship with his loved ones and, in turn, better enable him to transition successfully into society.

But in fact, it is well understood that the quality of social support that is available to a prisoner upon release impacts their likelihood of returning to the penitentiary.

For instance, the recidivism rate for ex-offenders who stayed in homeless shelters post-release was increased by 17% in one large-scale study. The reality is that trying to find employment with no place to sleep is a daunting feat.

As one former prisoner explained to researcher Keesha M. Middlemass in Convicted and Condemned: The Politics and Policies of Prisoner Reentry:

When you ain’t got a place to sleep, you ain’t thinking about nothing else, you only can think about a place to sleep. You sure ain’t thinking about voting and stuff like that. Maybe you think about a job to get a place to sleep, maybe, but really nothing else matters except where you goin’ sleep tonight.

As for family members opening their home to prisoners once they are freed, many are sympathetic—but nevertheless unwilling to tolerate the intrusion of parole officers into their residence to interfere with their peace and tranquility.

In other cases, those in the free world have become disconnected from their imprisoned family member and, frankly, had enough of them due to their years of offending.

When prisoners have nowhere to go and no one awaiting them upon release, recidivism is increased. As Middlemass explains, the “effects of homelessness and weak family bonds” in conjunction with a “lack of social capital among [ex-offenders] exacerbates negative reentry outcomes.”

As such, there is a rational basis for prisons to host events aimed at strengthening the bonds between prisoners and their families, even if many of the prisoner attendees were deadbeat dads who treated women shabbily.

It is, so it seems, better that we go home to our “significant women” and children that were treated so poorly, than to end up homeless and on the precipice of reoffending.

There is a flip side to this. As with many things in life there are winners and losers; and, in this instance, those on the short end of the stick are often the children who are now put at risk.

Children whose fathers have a penchant for beating the women in their lives are 60 percent more likely to engage in serious youth violence than children who do not bear witness to domestic violence.

Children who do not have their physical and emotional needs met due to neglect have a greater risk for adult violence than if they were physically abused instead.

Children whose fathers fail to provide guidance and structure do not develop self-control and, as a consequence, are more prone to aggression, according to psychologist Ervin Staub.

This is what the future will bring when many prisoners enter their children’s household upon being released. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

We know who we’re dealing with.

My life illustrates the most extreme example of what can unfold when a child is under the care and influence of such men.

Growing up, my alcoholic father was a sphinx who never fulfilled my emotional needs. He broke my mother’s jaw and let her drive herself to the hospital when I was an adolescent. He used to drop me off in the middle of the night on the corner in the projects knowing that I was selling crack and carrying weapons in the process.

By the age of 14, I was confined for murder and I have not set foot on the streets since.

Sometimes a child is better off without any father in his life, rather than one who “parents” like this.

Far too many prisoners’ lives have been defined by irresponsibility, violence, drug addiction, or just plain ignorance. Moreover, research reveals that maladaptive behaviors—from violence to child neglect—become family scripts that are conveyed both verbally and by example from one generation to the next as “parents reenact patterns of caregiving they experienced as children,” according to Susan Crockenberg.

Prisoners need only review their family scripts to see the truth in this.

One should therefore wonder why prison officials take pains to increase the prospect that the welcome mat will be laid out for prisoners upon release—knowing full well there is a high probability that they are hazardous to their children’s wellbeing.

Then again, the Department of Corrections is concerned with reducing prisoners’ likelihood of re-offending as opposed to reducing the likelihood that children will become offenders.

Indeed, maybe ensuring that the next generation of convicts is developing properly is an ingenious way to ensure one’s job safety.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he is awaiting a decision on parole, after serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He welcomes comments from readers.

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