Our Voices > Reform Debate

Do You Live in a Mansion or the Woods?

Sep 12, 2022

By Rob Barton

“If I leave here, I will leave nothing behind. They’ll never count me among the broken men. But I can’t say I am normal either. I have been hungry too long. I have gotten angry too often. I have been lied to and insulted too many times.” Lionel Stoddard, aka Oose

I’d add that anyone confined behind these bars for so long has been physically and mentally abused and suffered too much trauma. So, if there is anything I know, if I’ve ever felt anything intensely, with every fiber in me, it’s this same sentiment. I have thought many a time, “What’s the point? I am never going home.” I too felt like my back was up against the wall and it was me against the entire world. I have felt abandoned, dehumanized and debased…so much so that I swore not to be counted among the broken men. As a result, I learned to fight back with the only tools at my disposal: I got angry and bitter. I took on an “F the world” mentality. I adapted. I acted/reacted in subhuman ways, since this is the language that is the currency in these environments.

We’re not alone

As I write this, I am thinking that a lot of my comrades from DC (and prisoners all over the country who have been abandoned, disregarded and shipped like human cattle to federal gulags, far from their loved ones) have shared these sentiments plenty of times.

I was just reading Theresa Vargas’ article in the Washington Post about the struggle of DC prisoners in the feds, which unfortunately resulted in the murder of two of my comrades in the penitentiary in Pollack, Louisiana. And although this was an especially tragic series of events, since I knew both men, I want to commend Ms. Vargas for understanding that other than being prisoners, Oose and Mario Harris (aka Mink) were fathers, grandfathers and nephews who were loved. At the same time, she told “our” story, the story of what DC prisoners are up against in the feds, and why the District needs to build a local prison and bring us home. Thank you, Theresa.

But there is more to say about the story of Oose, Mink and other DC prisoners. So, I’ll pick up where Theresa left off and explain what adversity looks like from the perspective of a “functional survivor” who has lived this nightmare since I entered the federal system in 2002.

The mansion vs. the woods

There’s an adage that goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This is basically what most prisoners do once they enter jail. However, a more apt phase that I think better fits what I am attempting to convey is the quote I stole from my honorary sister Crystal Carpenter that goes, “People live differently in the woods than they would if they lived in a mansion.”

Just think about a person living in a mansion (actually, for us, a home or even an apartment in the heart of downtown DC would be a mansion). They order food from a trendy restaurant they read about on a local news site using Uber Eats, then they savor it while they watch their favorite series on HBO Max. When getting ready for bed, they luxuriate in a hot shower, with the privacy they need to sing or just enjoy the relaxing water. They’re comfortable and free from fear.

Put this same person in the woods, and they have to scavenge for their food, gobbling down what little they are able to find while hunkered down in the dirt (in prison, that means eating often-rotten fruit, bologna and cheese—a serving so insufficient you’re still hungry afterward). They have to defecate under the moon and use leaves to wipe themselves (in our terms, a toilet in the corner of the cramped cell you share with another adult man you may not even like). At all times, they have a weapon at the ready to protect themselves against predators lurking nearby (other prisoners are too often just that—predators). Whether it’s their nature or not, they adapt or perish.

For one moment, try to put yourself in our shoes. Imagine that the woods (prison) is your home. Imagine it is highly possible that the ability to spend time in a mansion is years, maybe even decades, in the future. Now imagine there’s a different set of rules that govern the woods. They dictate violence as the only method to earn respect and that only the strong survive. You must fight to use the phone and protect the extra food you buy at the commissary. And if you’re from DC, all the other animals (both staff and prisoners) are against you. What would you do? I’ll quote my friend Pete Petty, who lived 30 years in the woods and who has now successfully transplanted to the mansion: “When you enter a place where violence and negativity fester, you adapt to the environment.”

Imagine living where we do

This is what politicians, judges, parole officers, etc. don’t understand, and why the environment in which we do our time should be considered as mitigating circumstances when considering the disciplinary reports most of us receive during our time inside.

Several times, I have stood on the front lines in these penitentiaries, ready to go to war just because I was from DC. The “rules” dictated that I participate or be a victim. This is prison politics. Yes, as you mature and establish a reputation for taking care of yourself or get close enough to release that you can “see” freedom on the horizon, it’s possible to defy those rules. But I have seen a guy from DC be stabbed while asleep in his bed by a prisoner from another state, simply because the assailant’s homie was feuding with a dude from the District.

I was in the Atwater penitentiary (California) with both Mink and Oose when about 30 of us had a standoff against about 100 Mexicans, and no one from another state would assist us because we were from DC; they wanted to see us hurt. The dispute was over prison politics, which “designates” certain cells as Black, White, Mexican and gang. A staff member had put one of the DC guys in a Mexican cell, knowing full well it would create a problem.

I’ve also seen all prisoners from across the South (all Southern states, west to Texas) come together against DC guys after a “simple” one-on-one fight. Before I even got to the feds (before the District closed its prison), I had heard stories about how we were hated by the staff and prisoners, which made me feel I needed to be extra vigilant.

And I witnessed firsthand how the BOP’s method of scoring the criminal history of DC prisoners (the subject of a class-action lawsuit) has adversely affected us by making it harder to get to lower-security institutions where there is less violence and more programming. That hinders us from taking advantage of the few rehabilitative services offered to help us successfully reenter society.

In closing, I’ll say this: Although there is a huge problem with how DC prisoners are treated in the feds, and I’ll be the first to say that the District needs to build its own prison and bring us closer to our family members and useful resources, the real problem we face is how we incarcerate in America. We have a punitive lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the key mentality, leading to long sentences, warehousing and hopelessness. The result is that there is no incentive to resist or try to change the violent culture. In other words, what’s the point if you’re not going home anyway? And even if we have reason to want to act otherwise, it’s hard to buck the system when everyone else is thinking like that. If you don’t go along, you’re at a distinct, and dangerous, disadvantage.

What we need to do is design how we incarcerate more around what it should do: rehabilitate. The way to do this is by switching from negative reinforcement to positive, bringing in more educational opportunities (college courses, apprenticeships that teach skills that are truly marketable in today’s economy, etc.), as well as activities and people “from the world” so we won’t lose touch with society/reality. And we should incentivize participation in these type of activities by offering good-time credits. This would give us something to look forward to…some hope.

And that means it would stop most of the violence. We would no longer have to adapt to the woods and could prepare for the mansion.

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