Prison Through the Eyes of a Former Inmate
By Willow Edidin Locke
A look at the U.S. prison system through the eyes of someone who has lived through it.
Imagine you are twenty, fresh out of high school, and thrown into the prison system. You are told you are going to spend ten years at Rikers Island and will spend the majority of your time in a maximum security facility. Regardless of how you ended up in this position, you are still practically a child, and now, instead of navigating adulthood like your peers, you are navigating the empty cells of prison alongside a number of grown men you don’t know. You might feel a sense of panic and fear.
Regardless of the emotions that are coming up for you, it is likely that your identity plays a key role in your feelings surrounding the criminal justice system. To understand your reaction to the scenario mentioned, let’s take a closer look into where the law enforcement system started in the first place. This is a huge factor in the way the system works today—we see time and time again Black people being disproportionately targeted by police officers and then being in jails. Considering the history of the prison system, this really isn’t all that surprising.
In the 1700s and the 1800s, due to the fear that slaves in the South would rebel against their masters, slave patrols were formed to catch runaway slaves and make sure slaves were doing what they were told. The slave patrol that was founded on oppressing Black people evolved into the police force—and therefore the criminal justice system—that we have today, which continues to perpetuate the oppression of Black and brown people. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017, while Black Americans made up only 12% of the adult population, they made up 33% of the sentenced prison population as a whole.
The racist history of law enforcement has threatening implications on the real lives of people of color. Looking beyond the statistics, to understand the impacts of racial disparity in prisons, we must hear from the people who have experienced it firsthand. I will bring you along as we take a closer look into the life of former inmate Peter Roman. I came across Peter, who had been incarcerated for ten years, and found his story particularly profound. I got to hear firsthand from Mr. Roman how he got to prison, what his time there was like, and the impact it will have on his future.
Peter grew up attending what he described as an “overcrowded” public school in New York, where he received his early childhood education.Throughout his childhood, he had family and friends who were incarcerated. While describing his relationship with law enforcement previous to being incarcerated, as well as during the time he was in prison, he said, “I’ve never seen police officers as friends or allies.” He graduated high school, and received two additional years of graduate education, before being charged with attempted murder at the age of twenty. Peter was in jail from ages twenty to thirty, missing out on a significant part of his early adulthood. During Peter’s time in prison, he describes the relationships between prison guards and incarcerated people as if there were two teams, one being the police, and the other those punished by them, telling me, “It was really like war.”
In addition to tensions with the staff, mental health issues contributed greatly to the hardships faced by those who were incarcerated. Peter used his time in maximum security prison, where he was only let out of his cell one hour of the day, to read books and work out. While this might be a productive way to spend time, keeping sane was not always easy. Some prisoners left in a worse mental state than they had come in, which Peter says is due to a lack of mental health resources.
We are told that the goal of prisons, and other forms of punishment by law, is to keep us safe, hence the name “justice system,” but what if the system that is supposed to protect all citizens is actually doing the opposite? This begs the question, is the prison system actually effective in reaching its goal? As someone who’s been through the system as a person of color, here’s what Peter had to say: “I lost out on a lot. It definitely did not serve me for the better.” When it comes to law enforcement specifically, after his time in prison he said, “I still don’t feel like they’re there to protect us.” This means law enforcement really does not have its supposed desired effect.
What needs to happen in order to make a more effective “justice” system is often debated. Here’s my answer: a system that was literally founded on the oppression of Black people cannot also be used to protect them. For a system to be truly just, the foundation must be built on mutual aid, equity, and justice. The current system is not broken, it was meant to work this way, and the only way to stop it is to take it down entirely.
I knew that I wanted my written piece to be nonfiction and about something I was passionate about. Originally, I was planning to write about racism in America as a whole, but soon realized that diving into a more specific topic could be more impactful for the reader. I decided to take a closer look into the U.S. prison system. I knew that I wanted to hear first-hand from someone who experienced being incarcerated what their time there was like. I came across Peter, the interview subject, through a mutual friend and drafted out some questions with my mentor that I would be asking him. Our conversation lasted about 10 minutes but was super helpful for me to get insight into prison life. While working to incorporate Peter’s anecdotes into my writing piece, I realized that his experience had such profound meaning and that his story alone was so big, it should be a big aspect of the writing’s focus. In the piece, you will read about the impacts of policing history on today’s society, and what that means for people who actually have to experience it.
Willow Locke is a sophomore in high school currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Her passion for writing developed when she got a journal for her 7th birthday, and she now journals every day. Willow's interest in social justice has been a constant during her childhood and adolescent years. As for her hopes for the future, Willow plans on going to law school and becoming an investigator for abused children