Prison is a complex and demanding environment that can take a toll on a person’s mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing. The loss of freedoms, the abilitiesto move around as we please, will affect anyone who is incarcerated. There may be differing degrees of effect from one person to the next, but nonetheless there will be an effect.
Prison is a world within a world, one that has as many layers as individuals. The word prison can bring many different thoughts to mind. Secure, dangerous, violent, school of the hard knocks, a deserving punishment . . . to name a few. But prison is much more than any of those concepts. For most of us, it is home and a way of living.
I spent a little over a year in the Illinois Youth Department of Correction (I.Y.D.OC.) from the age of 14 through 15. I spent five years in the Mississippi Department of Correction from the age of 16 through 21. Since I was charged as an adult, I went straight to an adult prison (one considered among the most dangerous in the United States). I am now on my 19th year in the Illinois Department of Correction, a sentence I began at 22 years of age. I am now 40. So, in all, I have way more prison experience than I would like to have, but since I live here, I need every bit of it.
The freedom to go when and where we please exists no more for the incarcerated person. It’s mostly the same for those in solitary confinement as it is for those assigned to work although those who work may feel a very small sense of freedom. I have spent time in confinement and held prison jobs and in both instances my ability to go when and where I pleased was not under my control.
As secure environments, most prisons operate under the gun, meaning that armed correctional officers (c/o’s) monitor all inmate movement. There is also constant monitoring by mounted cameras, and round-the-clock visual checks by walking officers. Everyone in prison is being watched -- even the officers, by the inmates. Whenever an officer begins his count, someone watching out from their cell will yell “keys,” informing everyone within hearing distance that a c/o is walking through. (“Keys” is a term referring to c/o’s because of the loud noises their keys make as they walk.) If someone is behaving illegally in his cell, he would be warned to stop because a c/o is coming through. Another call will go out when keys have left the gallery. It is not a foolproof system. Sometimes no one is watching out. C/o’s have many times walked up on a cell to find some kind of infraction happening. Even though some give out a warning call whenever they see a c/o walking the gallery, each inmate is responsible for his own “security”. If someone gets caught doing something, he cannot blame anyone but himself. Each person is responsible for his own “eyes on the gallery.” I know a guy who went to segregation because he was getting tattooed by his cellmate when a c/o walked up on their cell. On another occasion a guy went to segregation when he failed to check if the gallery was clear before testing his homemade wine. He was caught in the act by an officer making his rounds. But much goes unnoticed because of the surveillance inmates do for one another or themselves.
Even with tight security, prison is still a very dangerous place. Especially maximum security prison, where violence erupts without warning whether a spur of the moment conflict or a well thought out plot. I found myself in the middle of many incidents twenty-two years ago in M.D.O.C., considered to be one of the worst prisons ever.
I met a guy, H.D. who I became very tight with because of all we shared. We were both from Illinois, and serving time in Mississippi, both still teenagers (when the incident occurred, I was 18 years of age), and we shared the same gang affiliation. One morning, I went on a trip to Jackson, Mississippi to one of their biggest hospitals in the state to have some test run on my heart. Several hours later, I was back on the prison grounds but before returning to my unit I had to first go to the prison hospital. Upon entering the holding tank, I noticed someone from my housing unit name R.J. I’d known him for a couple of years. He was much older than me, in his mid-50’s. We shared ties to the same gang. I went to greet him and noticed he wasn’t his usual self. He was reluctant to engage in the casual conversation I was trying to hold with him, sitting in the corner as if he wanted to be left alone. I noticed he had some scrapes and bruises across his face, but I didn’t think too much of it. Very quietly he told me that he and others had been attacked by rivals during the morning roll out for work. He told me that H.D. was attacked when another housing unit merged together for work, which resulted in a brawl between the two groups. A guy in a different housing unit had been waiting for the opportunity to cross paths with H.D.. The guy’s brother had been killed and H.D. was in for it. There’s an unwritten rule in prison that whatever happens in the outside world should stay in the outside world. It makes perfect sense – there are already enough situations to be navigated in prison, so why bring in more. However, that was not a rule he had any desire to follow when it came to the killing of his brother.
I was in the prison hospital’s hold tank along with R.J. and several others there because of the morning incident. Several prison ambulances took off from the hospital heading to the unit where the brawl had taken place. That unit has 12 buildings, two of which had been involved in the morning clash. The ambulances’ departure signaled further conflict taking place. There was quiet in the holding tank between the two rivals. Everyone knew something major was happening, given the need for several ambulances.
Because of my trip off the prison grounds, I hadn’t been at the earlier incident. Tension in the holding tank would only increase with the arrivals of those in the ambulances. It was looking like I was about to experience my battle for the day. Several guys belonging to the rival group emerged from the returning ambulances, some walking and some on stretchers, all of them suffering from some physical trauma which caused much excitement among their comrades who were in the holding tank looking out the window.
When I got back from my trip, lines in the holding tank had already been drawn between the two rival groups. Everyone knew what had gone down earlier -- I was the only one who didn’t know, until I was made aware of it by R.J.. So, there I was, along with four others (R.J. didn’t want any more hand to hand combat for the day, so he stayed in the corner pretty much with his head down. He would have made six of us but we would have still been outnumbered 2-1.) I never held it against him for not standing shoulder to shoulder with us; he had done that earlier and another beating would have been just too much for him to suffer. We didn’t need a fortuneteller to know our chances. The odds were against us. The holding tank became a little more crowded. New arrivals were coming in after the treatment of their wounds, all of the opposition. They gathered with their own, those who had already been at the hospital for unrelated matters and from other units, units yet to hear about the two incidents. The new arrivals told their comrades how they’d gotten ambushed in the chow hall during lunch. They were all seated and eating, they said, when they were attacked with homemade knives, fists, feet and anything that wasn’t nailed down. (After the morning scuffle, word was sent to another building informing the guys affiliated with H.D. and R.J. about how they’d gotten sneak-attacked while going out for work. Those who received the message plotted retaliation for what happened that morning. The result was the assault in the how hall.
After recalling the incident, there was a call to action by some of them to go after the four of us rivals. Anticipating an attack at any moment, I was very alert, but the attack never came. It was thwarted by one of their own when he spoke up and said that until they had done an investigation nothing would be done. That decision saved me and the others a great deal of misfortune. Later on that day many people I knew throughout several units wouldn’t be as fortunate.
Months went by, altercations erupting now and then because of what had taken place that day. The one seeking revenge for his dead brother kicked off a series of events that left many hurt, some not even knowing why they were fighting. If you could ask them why they were fighting, their answers may sound like this: “ brothers of mine were attacked early in the morning” or another would say “a surprise attack in the chow hall left a lot of my brothers seriously injured.” Statements like those would continue to be said because one conflict will lead to another one.
It is vital to be alert at all times and aware of one’s immediate surroundings. If an inmate is not cognizant of such, he can easily find himself in the middle of something he wants no part of. A situation that can cause him physical harm or administrative punishment for simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time and not being aware of it. I almost had to learn the hard way in the hospital’s holding tank. Now, many years later, I can see without looking when something is about to go down and I just move clear out the way. I’m no longer affiliated with any group and haven’t been in many years, so I have to monitor my actions more closely than maybe others. I’ve found that some who are affiliated with gangs tend to be more reckless in their actions because they have backing as opposed to those who have to be their own “security”.
It has been said that no man is an island. That statement couldn’t be any truer than it is in prison. In some instances, it’s a matter of survival to interact with others. There’s strength and safety in numbers. That’s why some join gangs in prison and those who were already hooked up before coming in tend to remain in for the same reason.
Many years ago, early in my prison sentence at I.D.O.C., I made the decision to cut ties with the street gang I belonged to because the spiritual journey that I had begun to travel was in conflict with gang life. It wasn’t an easy decision. I would pretty much be on my own with no one to aid and assist me if there was ever a situation. My cellmate at the time also wanted to step away from his affiliation because he was discouraged with it. He hated the fact that every time something jumped off between his gang and another he had to get involved. He was looking for ways to better himself while in prison, and constantly being involved in altercations with others was not the way to achieve that goal. He commended me for making the decision to step away and actually following through with it, something he also wanted to do but didn’t. He told me he didn’t want to be in prison by himself, without any support, in case he ever had a problem. Strength and safety in numbers is a real thing in prison and a big reason why people join and stay in gangs.
Besides safety, inmates interact for their social well-being. Humans are social by nature and being social doesn’t stop just because a person has been given a prison number. Long periods of isolation can breed depression, an antisocial attitude, or just a bad state of mind. Not all interaction is beneficial -- there are some people to just avoid. Interactions between inmates will go on as long as there are prisons, choosing when and when not to can be very critical.
For the vast majority of the population, the connection between the outside and inside world still exists; it may be with family, or with a friend, a church, a lawyer, or some kind of organization, by mail, phone or visitation. Whether all of the above or only one means with one person, it helps the prisoner to push forward in his environment. To be cut off from any and all outside communication can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental and emotional stability. I’ve found myself at my lowest when I feel all alone in the world. Getting up to face another crazy day in prison without any outside support has often made me not want to get up to see it. I’ve gone years without hearing a single word from any family members. It felt like I’ve never existed out there. Their presence in my life would make my time here bearable.
In 2016, I received my first visit in over 16 years from my cousin Danielle. The happiness a visit gives is indescribable, but especially for those who don’t know if they will ever see the streets again. An unexpected letter, a brief phone call, or even a surprise visit, from those on the outside can go a long way. Besides the recent arrival of some family members in my life, I’ve also been blessed with the blossoming of a wonderful friendship. She is the inspiration and reason this article has been put together; without her it would have never happened. These types of connections with the outside world help prisoners thrive in a place that is anything but nourishing. The inmate that doesn’t have any outside support from family or friends tends to be among those who are very problematic, whether with other inmates, staff, or even towards self. I’ve been there. It was a bad emotional experience, a struggle that I was constantly battling with on the inside. Because of a long prison sentence, and the absence of family, hopelessness was front and center. I never wanted to give in to it but it was a constant struggle. I pushed forward not succumbing to the thought that I had nothing to lose.
When thinking of prison, one may picture each inmate being supplied with everything he would need: food, water, clothing, shelter, health care, etc. That is true, or at least it should be. But there are needs the government doesn’t have the ability to meet, ones just as vital as those provided. We need peace of mind -- without it a person is subject to act on any thought whether it’s reasonable or not. I’ve seen up close how a deteriorating mind can be very harmful to others as well as to the individual who is suffering from it.
Several years ago I knew someone who didn’t have peace of mind. Troubled by his own thoughts, he would cause harm to another. While on the yard at the weight pile he struck a guy in the head with a dumbbell, which resulted in a serious head injury. An unprovoked attack, one that was only reasonable in his mind. He had been in a group of guys hanging out together talking and laughing while lifting weights, and in his own head, they were laughing at him and plotting to get him. But because they were not in fact plotting on him or even laughing at him and so they paid him no mind when he approached, something they would soon learn to never do again.
He struck one of them in the head with a weight. After the initial shock, every one of them except the guy with the busted head charged after the attacker. They began to beat him down for what he’d done. His actions were the result of not being grounded in reality because he lacked peace of mind which caused another harm as well as himself. To be able to gather ones thoughts and be free of worry or anxiety is very much needed. Not having that will be harmful for that individual person and possibly for those around him.
The approach of freedom, the hope of freedom, the ongoing pursuit of freedom are all major factors that will keep an inmate from sinking into a vast well of despair. Whether an inmate has been incarcerated for 20 days or 20 years, the promise or hope of being free will prevent the concrete walls from closing in on him. In ten months, I will have served 19 years with 31 years remaining on my sentence. In all reality, that’s not much to look forward to. I’ll be 72 years of age in 31 years. Yet I have a hope that I’ll be released much sooner than that and that hope pushes me forward to fight through another day in prison. Just last year, a friend of mine who I had gone to elementary school with was released from prison after serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit. A federal court ordered his release and the state attorney declined to retry him. I was around him early in our sentences and he’d gotten a hopeful attitude about his situation way back then even though he had a 55-year prison sentence for a crime he hadn’t committed. That attitude wouldn’t allow him to give up the fight. A man who has lost all hope is truly a dangerous man, not only to himself but to those around him. For some of the incarcerated, freedom is a very distant memory but a dream that is so very fresh. The dream of freedom will push them forward in an environment that can easily bring a stop to all hoping. When all is stripped, taken, or demanded of an inmate, it’s the thought, the hope, the prayer, the belief, the realization, that freedom is reachable or even nearing that will continue to get him through the prison life.
|LC Gatewood K74709|
Menard Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Menard, IL 62259
I'm LC Gatewood. I was born in Mississippi and raised in Champaign, Illinois.
I have been incarcerated several times
and I'm on my 19th year of a 50 year prison sentence.