Since being held in both Attica and Southport Special Housing Units (SHU) for the past several months (12/5/16 to 3/21/17), each week, once a day, a psychologist stops at each cell asking its inhabitant, “How are you doing? Are you feeling all right?” When the prisoner responds “I’m Okay,” the psychologist moves on to the next cell.
I have witnessed and experienced this weekly ritual and responded with the customary “I’m Okay,” and contemplated on the routine of it all. This form of crisis management, if there were to be a crisis, attempts to discover predictors before a crisis manifests, and lends thought to the origin of the need for such management.
How should I delineate the origins of this man-made-created dilemma, perhaps as far back as the advent of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 (ending private holding of slaves, appropriating and inventing its “lawful” practice by the State), when slavery and involuntary servitude were codified into law for those “… duly convicted of a crime.” Maybe it would be best to consider the slaves in the cotton fields, and a psychologist one day, each week, traversing the plantation asking each slave is she/he “all right,” “how are you feeling”. Or even further back, as Afrikans are being piled in the bowels of slave ships, that would be the perfect place to pose this crisis management question.
Indeed, for many this thinking would seem ludicrous or cynical, knowing a need exists to address this man-made-created problem because there are prisoners who succumb to the mentally debilitating conditions of 23 to 24 hours locked in a prison cell. Just as some Afrikan slaves during the Middle Passage jumped overboard to their watery demise, some 21st Century slaves commit suicide in their cold desolate cells.
Nonetheless, the question to be contemplated is not the asking of the prisoner/slave how he or she is doing or are they all right (?); rather, the question needs to be asked of the person(s) (prison guards/administrators/ society) who lock other human beings in cells 23 or 24 hours—are they Okay? Don’t ask the enslaved, ask the enslaver; for it is the choice of one’s humanity or lack thereof, that cultivates, grants and permits this kind of brutal soul-snatching treatment that needs to be questioned. The laws and regulations that permit the caging of human beings need to undergo psychological evaluations to determine if they are humane in their totality.
The social order and criminal laws demand the punishment of imprisonment at a greater socio-psychological and moral determinant than the obvious deterrent to criminality—i.e., redistribution of wealth to eliminate poverty, drug and alcohol addictions, unemployment, dilapidated schools and homelessness. It is well established the problem of crime and punishment leading to imprisonment is not intractable. There are a plethora of studies that offer irrefutable cause and effect solutions. Yet, given the availability of these studies, the criminal (in)justice system continues to deliberately operate as big business, exploiting the human misery created by the collective failure to truly address Americans’ historical and racial pathology. Such social and racial pathology has now become rooted and metastasized in the White House, consolidating and morphing into a dangerous enterprise of xenophobic empire building.
But I digress from the principle issue under discussion. This writing was triggered on 3/15/17, as I was meditatively pacing in this Shawangunk SHU cell for about an hour. It is one of my coping mechanisms after completing 350 push-ups and other exercises. A middle-aged good looking Black woman appeared in front of the cell, announcing she is Mrs. Buchanan, a psychologist, asking me the expected questions. As I answered, “I’m Okay,” “No, I’m not feeling suicidal,” a smile crossed my face. She observed “You’re smiling,” nodded her head and walked away. She did not ask what I was smiling about, whether I found her amusing, and I can only imagine what she conjured—but it’s safe to say it wasn’t of me being suicidal. If she only knew my thinking was “Are you Okay?” for even asking me that question! Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?
What I’ve experienced in the last several months in SHU and endured for 45 years of imprisonment, is symptomatic of a much larger societal problem, as here contemplated and shared. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans suffers from an acute malady of cognitive dissonance to the severe detriment of the poor and oppressed, prisoners included.