Building New Communities, One “Hello” at a Time

January 28, 2019, 2:41 am

In the hallway where I live in prison, most of the cells are occupied by other prisoners who are also in the same college program I am in. A few others who are not in the program are dog handlers who raise puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind, and a handful of other Vocational Village students who have been in our unit for quite a while. We’re all familiar with each other, and to some degree we trust each other. Most of us even leave our doors unlocked much of the time when we are in the unit, which is unheard of in most other prisons. Normally, leaving one’s door unlocked (and even one’s locker within the room) is an invitation for thieves to steal whatever isn’t tied down. Although the security cameras in our unit help stop most thieving, the fact is that most of us don’t fear being robbed by others in our hallway. 

Earlier this week, I noticed that a new person had arrived in the unit from another facility. He now occupies an empty bed recently vacated by another prisoner. Because of the community we have in our unit, especially in our hallway, I greeted this prisoner, introduced myself, and asked his name. His response was aggressively restrained and suspicious, although he did give me his name. At first, I thought the guy was just being rude and hyper-suspicious, until I reminded myself that he probably came from a prison where it paid to be suspicious. I greeted him anyway and moved on. He has continued to eye me suspiciously, which I expect probably won’t change until he feels more comfortable and gains a better understanding of the culture in this unit. Friendliness is generally not common in prison. 

I’m very grateful that the prison where I am currently housed generally has far fewer problems than most other prisons in Michigan. There are very few fights, thefts are mostly confined to a swiped soap dish from the bathroom, and people are generally learning to practice good citizenship. That doesn’t mean this isn’t still a prison where people manipulate, lie, cheat, fight, and fake good behavior for the administration. That still happens often, but many many men are genuinely trying to transition into a life outside of prison. When you put people who want to be good citizens together, they encourage and support behavior that is respectful and responsible. Some of the others who are perhaps not sold on changing their lives yet will see good citizenship modeled and may still decide to change after all. But not all will. 

Despite the stories we hear of people leaving prison just to commit another crime and get sent back again, I still maintain hope for the rest who want something different with their lives. It’s exciting to hear of a prisoner who leaves this prison and gets a great job because of his education in the Vocational Village. He’s able to provide for his family and to perhaps change the future stories of his children. It might be easier to be pessimistic and to treat every prisoner with contempt and suspicion, but I’d rather encourage good citizenship, even if the investment doesn’t bear fruit 100% of the time. After all, what investment ever pays big dividends all the time? Maybe helping someone with math problems, or explaining budgeting, or even greeting a new stranger to the unit isn’t the “Ah-Ha!” moment people need to want something different with their lives. But it could be. Unless we’re willing to make those small investments in the lives of others around us, whether in prison or not, we can’t expect our communities to change for the better.

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Author: Bryan Noonan
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The opinions expressed within posts and comments are solely those of each author, and are not necessarily those of Women Against Registry. Women Against Registry reserves the right to edit or delete any content submitted.