Back to top

View From A Young Black Prisoner

June 19, 2020 (“Juneteenth”)

One of my former NVC students at the Oregon State Penitentiary was transferred to another prison out of state many years ago, and we have kept in touch by mail from time to time. I’ll call him Joe, to protect his anonymity. He wrote to me recently, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd murder, and I was so struck by his words, I want to share them with you. Joe has given me permission to do so, and I have only edited lightly for clarity. As a bit of background: Joe has been in prison since he was 15 years old, and he just turned 40. He writes:

“At this point the institution is on lockdown. It’s not related to COVID-19, or directly. There has been outbreaks of physical violence. I could tell there was tension and anxiety since COVID-19 precautions were taken. I guess the prevailing thought amongst convicts is that a staff member is going to bring coronavirus in to infect prisoners. And that hardens into an attitude and so forth. There is also inmate on inmate violence. So my days are spent in a cell, reading and drawing mostly. I try to watch a little TV. There seems to be nothing but protest and demonstrations.

I feel anger when I see images of a dying man with a knee on his neck. And in his last and final moments he calls for his mother. That’s chilling.

I also have empathy for the officer, who seems to be somewhat detached from his own humanity.

Then you have a system of laws, attitudes and core beliefs that tend to detach or reinforce detachment from humanity. As one of your students, I learned that it was ‘life-alienating’ language. If you read over most state policies, statutes, and codes they are wrote in life-alienating language. They literally refer to people as “subjects”; if not subject, then ‘suspect’, etc.

I don’t think that the officer who murdered Floyd was alone in his malice. He wasn’t unsupported or a rogue agent. He was acting within parameters of written and unwritten rules of supremacy, dominance and ‘rule over by any means’ systematic obligations. He wasn’t alone and that’s why I have empathy for him, because I can relate (sympathy) to being in a gang as a teenager, and being supported and reinforced in my life-alienating speech and behavior.

I think the terms ‘racist’, ‘racism’, etc. are flat. It’s cultural. These are cultural practices which could fit into any scheme. Racism, classism, etc. People are culturally trained to be indifferent, and in the police line of work, to dominate and rule over ‘subjects’ to maintain so-called law and order.”

I find Joe’s empathy for the officer, his assessment of him as “detached from his own humanity”, and the likening of the police culture to gang culture, profoundly moving. Especially as coming from Joe, a Black man who has spent his latter adolescent and entire adult life behind bars.

I hope you find this thought- and feeling-provoking. If you have feedback for him and/or me, please send to tina@EmpathyEverywhere.org.

s h a r e