When writing about prison and what life is like in prison it is difficult to convey in words to someone who has not experienced it what prison is really like. It is like trying to retell a funny story that happened and the person you are telling it to just gives you a blank stare and doesn’t laugh, so you finish by saying, “I guess you just had to be there.”
Richard Wurmbrand, founder of ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ was imprisoned by the Nazis and then the Communists in Romania. In his book “If Prison Walls Could Speak” he described the struggle to explain what prison is like to those who have never been there.
“I do not publish my experiences in prison, but the words in which these experiences are expressed. There is a big difference. On one hand there is your experience, and on the other hand a very poor attempt to put it into words developed by men whose experiences have been totally unlike yours.”
Prison is an experience like no other and for the vast majority of those unfortunate enough to have spent time there they do not possess the communication skills to even make the attempt. There is a very strong correlation between education and prison. Those who fail to graduate from high school are far more likely than someone who has a college degree to end up in prison. I unfortunately defied those odds and came to prison with both an undergraduate and graduate level college education plus twenty years of work experience as a technical professional including work as an auditor.
After spending a total of ten years in prison and on parole I can speak from experience with insight about what life was like serving time in the Michigan Department of Corrections. My earnest desire is to convey a sense of the scope and magnitude of the issues faced by those hidden from sight behind walls and fences. Those forgotten men and women who are often thought of as both a menace to and a burden on society, who endure hardship and abuse at the hands of those in authority over them and from their own fellow inmates.
As referred to by Richard Wurmbrand, the key issue is language itself. Not only the language used to relate prison experiences, but also the language used by those who are experiencing it. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I’m not sure this applies to the reality TV shows that try to depict what life is like behind bars is like by taking a camera crew into prisons or jails. As the narrator speaks the camera shows a bleak land scape of cinderblock walls, iron bars and reinforced glass, which is true. Prisons are very utilitarian structures meant to be both fire proof and escape proof, unfortunately they are not fool proof. And it is the foolish nature of the inmates and staff that is on display when the cameras are present.
The first thing the viewer notices is that the language used by everyone on camera is full of profanity that must be bleeped out. Cursing, swearing, vulgarity, obscenity or profanity, whatever you want to call it, it is the use of base, demeaning, degrading language that substitutes for civil discourse in prisons.
The punishment for using this type of language in an earlier era, when we were young children, was for our mothers to wash our mouths out with soap for using such filthy words. Now it is so commonplace that the animated TV series ‘South Park’ on Comedy Central, about a group of fourth grade boys, did a whole episode about the socially acceptable and unacceptable usage of the word S#*T. The acceptable usages involved swearing while the unacceptable usage involved its scatological meaning.
The explicative most commonly used in Michigan prisons is F#*k, the ‘F’ bomb. It is a word that is used as a noun, pronoun, adjective, verb and adverb, yet has no meaning of its own in the context in which it is used. It is simply a substitution for words that have actual meaning. The result is a conversation that is devoid of meaning unless the context is known.
According to Webster’s Dictionary the word ‘Ineffable’ (pronounced in-ef-a-ble) is an adjective that means- beyond expression, indescribable or unutterable. This would be something like trying to describe the glory of God in heaven, sitting on his throne. It is the frustrations and limitations of human language that the Apostle John experienced when he wrote the Book of Revelations.
In contrast to this is the common, base, vulgar cursing of man: “F’ing this” or “F’ing that.” Where we profane God and his creation in a way that is beyond belief, inarticulate, and unprintable. What I call “F’able” language is the lingua franca of prison.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis for his role in the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, in his personal writings published in his ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’ commented on the coarseness of the language used in every day conversation between inmates and inmates and inmates and guards. Since his time, I can only imagine that the degradation of the language has only gotten worse. However, I shall attempt to translate for the reader so that the meaning is clear while still conveying the underlying tenor and veracity of the reality experienced by those I represent.
The language used to describe prison and the prison experience is what hinders understanding. In Genesis 11 in the account of the Tower of Babel the Lord says in verse 6, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them. Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” The result was the project to build the tower ended and the people where scattered. Language became the barrier to unity of purpose because of misunderstanding. Now even though the English language is the national language we can’t understand each other because we aren’t one people. We are separated by more than experience and barbed wire, we are separated by attitudes, opinions, ignorance, and fear. Communication is the only way to overcome this situation and this blog is my humble attempt to contribute to better understanding in the hope that positive lasting change can be achieved to address a shameful aspect of our society.