Black Youth like Shaquanda Cotton:
Clueless of the hell that awaits them inside prison
4/16/2007 9:31 AM
[Don’t even go there]
The last place on earth anyone would want to be is in prison. It’s not what you think even in your wildest imagination. But not all prisons are alike. When they send a man down the river from one tough penitentiary to one tougher than the others before it, you began to realize it's all downhill when you meet a different class of characters- lifers with nothing to lose. The toughest of the tough pens is where the government cares less if a person lives or dies. They would rather not put them back on the streets alive. For them, there is a special prison. It’s the End of the Line.
As I write, there are hundreds of young people being released from juvenile detention in the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) system. Among them was a 15-year old named Shaquanda Cotton from Paris, Texas. Straight from high school, in her freshman year, she was sent to prison, for up to her 21st birthday. For good behavior and cooperation, she could have been released in a year. But it took a scandal and a series of protests to free her, after her prison time was extended by a minor disciplinary infraction- possession of contraband, to wit an extra pair of socks.
I’ve seen it before, so many times. I remember being written up for a prison disciplinary infraction, to wit possession of a knife. The report did not say it was a peanut butter knife. They set off my parole date by two years. And, every time I went before review the knife would come up as an issue to deny me freedom. In the privacy of my cell, I cried. They did me wrong.
So, I can empathize with Shaquanda Cotton, sent to prison for shoving a school hall monitor. Nobody believed her side of the story- that she was pushed first- except her mother. If it were not one thing, it was another. Her daughter was constantly being written up for infractions in school.
The funny thing about infractions is their capriciousness. I was written up once for an “insolent stare”, because I was looking a prison guard funny (like a man with murder in his eyes). They took some of my good time and lengthened my stay in prison.
In an enclosed system, like the prison system, cases on the inside usually never see the light of day. There is a curtain of brick and steel, where out of sight means out of mind. So it seems normal for people on the outside world to ignore petty complaints from those confined. After all, who would even give second thought to a prisoner being clubbed over the head by a prison guard? The thinking usually goes: Because he is in prison, he probably deserves clubbing over the head. Prison officials usually feed off this silent consent and take it as a blank check to straighten out convicts by any means necessary. Framing a prisoner up to get more time is not unethical when they don’t want you to go home again.
I was so ashamed that prison officials charged me with making a sexual gesture toward a female guard. My locker had been burglarized by another inmate. When I reported to the guard, she asked for the two pieces of my lock as evidence, so she could write a report. When I put the male end of the lock into the female end, she called it a “sexual gesture”. I was sent to solitary confinement and, again, good time was taken, and my sentence lengthened. In the privacy of my solitary cell, I cried because they had framed me. But whom could I tell?
I didn’t consider myself a crybaby in prison, and no one else did. But some injustice hurts so bad, a person just cannot stop the tears from coming. Next comes rage.
The problem with rage is that the person enraged often suppresses it. I took my rage out on paper. That’s how I became a writer, a jailhouse lawyer, and an advocate of the oppressed.
There are children in school who are suppressing their rage, mostly due from some perceived or real injustice. The approach to these angry youth has usually been zero tolerance, as oppose to channeling all that energy into constructive avenues. It beats me how a schoolteacher can send a child straight to prison. Hopefully, the Texas legislature will put a stop to this direct railroad line to prison for school age youth.
The object is to save as many children as possible. The recent release of some 400 youth from TYC is a good start. But for many releasees, it may be the start of a downward spiral, becoming frustrated at new obstacles, scaling down their own life expectation, overcoming a time gap, and trying to live in a non-combat zone with a combat mentality. (All prisons are combat zones. Fighting and killing is part of prison life.)
In a piece entitled “anger management” for ex-offenders, I took a different approach to the self-guilt trip of accepting some perceived "responsibility" to a more objectivist approach. The rationale to this approach deals with the realization that anger is justified in some cases, as in the cases of injustice. Accepting guilt for an injustice is an internal contradiction. A person cannot get me to accept guilt for “insolent stares”, although it was a penitentiary infraction, its interpretation was purely in the mind of the observer. It requires reading intent behind my eyes, something no man can do.
Angry people look angry, and some people care less about pacifying their anger. Hard-nose convicts in the toughest prison love to play mind games to see who can play whom “out of pocket”. If they can provoke another man to anger or fear, they can set the stage for a showdown. And, nobody gets through prison without a showdown. Everything is geared for the face-to-face showdowns that will surely come. It is the only way a person can earn a place in prison society. And, climbing the hierarchy ladder to earn the reputation of being the toughest guy in prison means going down the line, until a man reaches the end of the line. And,no man cheats death.
But sometimes in my post-release days, I fell that I actually did- cheat death.
I am thankful, therefore, that Shaquanda Cotton has promised to make a new start and be “a better person”. I would hope that the rest of the youth do likewise. But being a better person means more than wishing to be a better person. It takes faith. In Shaquanda’s case, it will take faith and healing.
Here, again, healing is a stumbling block, especially in a society that prefers to aggravate the wound. An ex-offender has to endure prejudices. Even with a sanitized prison record, Shaquanda will face prejudices and discrimination. First, there were those who were opposed to her being released. Second, after the City of Paris became scandalized with allegations of racism, some do not want her to return to her home community. There was no grand “Welcome Home” for the youngest civil rights hero. And, third, wherever she goes, whether to college or into the employment world, somebody is always going to say, “Aren’t you that girl?”
Whether Shaquanda Cotton is broken or healed, she will still have to deal with it. In the lonely hours, where there are no witnesses, and no one to blame, she will have to suck it up and move on. She has not been to the end of the line, as I have. Juvenile detention is just a start of a long downward fall. There are worse places, and worse places than those. Some people call prison “hell on earth”, but if you haven’t been there, you have absolutely no idea how true this is until you sink to the bottom of society, where no one cares if you live or die.
One of the biggest secrets in the prison system is the statistics on how many prisoners die from being beaten and stabbed to death. The public would be horrified. Where I’ve been less than 10% made it home alive, and those who yet survive are still there- 20, 30, 40, and 50 years later.
REMEMBER LENARD PELTIER, organizer of the American Indian Movement (AIM) among the Sioux tribes, imprisoned since 1975. I was there when they brought him into prison at USP Marion. Peltier led the last American Indian revolute against the United States government, from the same tribe as Crazy Horse, and an offspring of the Wound Knee Massacre. They keep him imprisoned in order that there will be no more Indian uprisings, like the shootout at Pine Ridge Reservation.
REMEMBER HERMAN BELL, leader of the Black Liberation Army (BLA). During the J. Edgar Hoover COINTELPRO counterinsurgency raids and shootouts with the Black Panther Party, some members went underground and took up arms against the United States. The BLA was the armed wing of the Black Panther Party, which grew out of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s. They were defamed as cop killers and later romanticized as heroes, because the illegal shootings went both ways. As they shoot up Black Panthers, the Panthers struck back
As a nation, there can be no healing until the country recognizes that there have been injustices committed against oppressed people, and people sometimes reacted to those injustices in very angry and passionate ways. When punishment is used to suppress anger, it merely inflames the situation, whether it is a child like Shaquanda Cotton or a violent put down of an angry Indian uprising, punishment cannot suppress anger, and neither the threat of punishment will quench righteous indignation.
Eddie Griffin, BASG
Fort Worth, Texas
4/16/2007 2:44:50 PM