Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Full audio: http://tal.fm/119
Ed Ryder plays the trumpet. He was sentenced to Graterford Penitentiary in Pennsylvania for 20 years for a murder it was later shown he did not commit. He played jazz when he was in prison. He played jazz when he got out. And he says that it is a completely different experience playing jazz to inmates.
Oh. Inmates are the most critical people in the world. They criticize anything you do. And you know, you try to play for these guys, but you know, nothing's pleasing to them. If you can play for a Graterford audience, you don't even look for an applause. Just as long as they don't boo you, you're all right.
Well, you know, in prison, you have a lot of musicians. After all, musicians, they don't make no money. So I guess the first place you find them at is in prison.
But, Ed Ryder says, musicians and jazz fans in prison, their take on jazz gets warped. In a world where everybody's wary, everyone's always looking for weakness in someone else, in a world of strict rules, where everything always has to be just so-- it's like they take that ethic and they transfer it to one of the loosest, most improvisational art forms we have, jazz.
You can say that prisoners have a tendency to think like classical musicians would. You know, everything has to be perfect and exact, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], and everything has to be like that. You know, they'll be quick to criticize you, whether the chord is not right, or whether you didn't flatten the ninth, whether you didn't raise this fifth. You know, you guys didn't play the changes right. Although it might not have took away from the structure of the music.
If they can't find nothing wrong with the music, they'll tell you, you know, you just didn't turn right. You know? When you had the horn up, you didn't hold it on a 45 degree angle. It didn't look right. The way you grinned when you left, whatever. You know? So they'll find something.
Life in prison is not only different from life on the outside. It's a growing part of American culture, one of the fastest growing parts of this country. Thanks to tougher sentencing laws, mandatory minimum sentences, long terms for drug offenders, three strikes and you're out laws, laws bouncing 12 and 13 and 14 year olds into adult court for long adult sentences, the prison population has grown by 50% just since 1991. Well over a million people in state and federal prisons.
Today on our program, their lives and the lives of the people close to them. Their families, their kids, many millions of others. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Act One of our program today, I Mess with Texas. How one little radio show in Texas is doing something for inmates and their families that no one else in the state is able to do. Act Two, Mother's Day. What do you say to a five year old whose mother is in prison when he wants to know, is my mom a bad guy? Act Three, Who's Your Daddy? We have a guide for new prisoners written by an ex-con about how to choose a man to protect you while you're in the joint, and what you'll have to do for him in exchange for that protection. Act Four, Open Your Big Mouth. Rick Reynolds provides a case study about what happens when you go into a place, prison, where there are all sorts of codes about what you are never, ever, ever supposed to say, and what happens when you say every single one of them. Act Five, Color Bar. Former South African political prisoner Breyten Breytenbach on how prison changes all of your perceptions. Changes them in ways that last after you're released. Stay with us.
Act One. I Mess With Texas.
Act One, I Mess with Texas.
Over two decades ago, not long after he finished four years in Texas prison for robbery, Ray Hill drifted from job to job until he ended up at his local public radio station, KPFT in Houston. His time in the slammer-- in dreadful facilities, with no money or resources-- turned out to be the perfect preparation for a career in public broadcasting. And it was not long before he was running the place.
As program director, he started his own show about the Texas prison system. It has become the leading muckraking voice in Texas, exposing graft and corruption in the state and federal facilities there. But it also does something else. Every Friday night, something that makes it one of the most unusual and remarkable radio programs in this country, though when Ray started, he had no idea that's where he was headed.
I had envisioned interviewing judges, most of whom, local judges, I know. Prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers. And that's all I expected. And I gave myself an hour in time. And we were doing quite well with that. I was building an audience, especially among inmates.
And then one day I was coming in to do my show, and I'm minutes away from show time. And they say, Ray, you've got a telephone call. And I said, look, I'm fixed to go on the air. You know how we are. We don't take calls that close. And they say, but she's very insistent. So I put the receiver to my ear. And I said, lady, I've got about 30 seconds. What can I do for you?
And what I heard was a distraught woman's voice, and weather sounds, and traffic sounds, and a really heartbreaking plea. She said that she had been saving money for three years or so to get enough resources together to go visit her son, and there had been an accident of some kind, and been forced off the road. And she wasn't going to be able to make it. But she knew he listened to my show. Would I please tell him that she loved him, and that she would work to get resources?
And I suddenly realized, I do pretty damn good radio, but I can't do radio this good. And so I got the number and called her back. And after I did my introduction, I put her on directly.
It's interesting, because now that is the entire show. Most of it is people talking to their loved ones in prison.
And they're obviously not even aware that I am there or don't care. Once in a while, somebody will have something to say to me. But they go right on and talk to Johnny.
Hi, John. This is Cookie. I hope you've had a wonderful, happy Christmas day. I'm at home at my apartment now. and I made them bring me home yesterday, because I wasn't about to miss out on calling you tonight.
Hello, Ray. Merry Christmas to you.
Merry Christmas, Nanny. That's two weeks in a row you got in. So you go ahead.
OK. Eddie Jr., this is Nanny. I'm going to tell you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year's to you. And I got a gift from your son. His mother gave it to me, him and [UNINTELLIGIBLE], his little brother. They gave me a little jewelry box. A little round jewelry deal. You pick the lid up, and you can put jewelry or anything in it, really. It's real pretty. And I want to tell you I love you. You take care, OK?
Hi Junior. This is Mami. How you doing? I hope you had a real nice merry Christmas. We'll see you tomorrow morning. So go to bed early, so we can see you tomorrow.
Hi Dad. When I go back to school, I got a new schedule. I'll be in shop. And I got my bike. Thanks. Real nice.
Hello, son. How you doing? We're doing OK. It's kind of cold. But everything's going well.
Ray, explain why it is that people would call a radio show instead of simply calling directly or getting a call from their loved ones in prison.
In Texas, we don't have telephones in prisons.
And so right now, if I'm a prisoner in Texas, there's no way I can ever get a call in home?
Well, if you're a prisoner, and if you're a trustee in a Texas prison, and you're on very, very good behavior, you can get one opportunity for a telephone call home for five minutes every 90 days. And if you're in the free world, like my callers, you can't call at all.
This is Marcy for Chance. And I had a very thankful day for Thanksgiving. I was just thankful that I survived Texas and arrived alive in my little hovel. Felt like a big fish in a big pond. Not much to say. A lot happening. Glad to be home. Feel like Dorothy. I just wanted to let you know I arrived alive. All is well. Taking care of the home front. And I miss you. I love you. Bye.
Ray, one of the things that's striking about this is how it's almost like a real conversation, how somebody calls up not exactly sure what they want to say, and then just launches into talking.
Well, Marcy's not an unusual caller. Marcy calls regularly. This particular call, she had come to Texas to visit. She's from out of state. When you visit from out of state in Texas, you get a four hour visit. And if you're a spouse, it's a contact visit. If you're not a spouse it's still a four hour visit, but you have no contact. And that likely was the only quality time she got to spend with him in several years.
Let me ask you to talk about the range of what people call and say.
Well, almost a third of the calls are honey, we make it home all right. Or we're going to visit Saturday.
Hi, this is Claudia from Houston.
I was calling for my husband Steve in the Terrell unit. Babe, I was calling to tell you I'm not going to be able to come this weekend, because they put me to work. I wasn't able to get the weekend off. I was thinking I would come to see you Saturday, but I wasn't able to.
I want to say hi to Bobby Brown in the Wynne unit. My precious son-in-law. I want to urge you to be kind tomorrow, OK? Because Sandy will be coming to see you.
Hi, John. I hope that your radio's not fading out tonight. Kay and I aren't going to make it this weekend. Bless her little heart, she got her a job. And she just can't hardly go. It just wore her out.
Then another third of the calls are people for whom this is the only communication. People who can't afford, don't have the resources. Even if they made it to Huntsville from Houston, then would have to use a cab, which is $70 or $80, to get from downtown small town Texas out to the prison, and they just don't have the kind of resources to do that.
Hi. This is Carol and David, say hello.
Hi. And we're calling from Mackinaw, Illinois for Joe Paul. Hi, Joe. We love you, and we're doing--
This is for my son John. I got your letter. I'm glad you got it all off your chest, but right now there's no way I could move back to Houston. I wish I could. But maybe once you get out, then Roseanne and I can.
Yeah, OK. This is Uncle Henry. And Lee Junior, I love you, man. I haven't forgotten you. I haven't forgotten either one of you. And I'll be so glad when you get home, man. Just hang in there, you hear? All right. Merry Christmas.
And the remaining third are incidental conversations. People who don't call in regularly. The first 2/3 are people who call in regularly. And usually-- well, not usually. But occasionally they call in in a matter of crisis. You know, like, Johnny, this is your sister Sue, and mama died.
Does that actually happen a lot, that someone will call to inform someone who is in prison of a loved one who's died?
Well, Ira, it is even worse than that. The Prison Show is famous for hearing voices that, over a long period of time, weaken and diminish. The one that comes to mind is Ms. White. Her son was sentenced to a long, long time. And when he first went, she was a regular caller. And then she announced one day that she had had some surgery about some cancer. And that didn't work, and the cancer grew, and her voice grew weaker. Ms. White was with me a couple of years. And then her daughter got on and said she died.
This is Keith's mother. Keith, I wanted to let you know, yes, we did get your letter today. And I did have laryngitis about two weeks, and I couldn't talk to anybody, so that's why I didn't get to put the call through. And just love you much and miss you.
Earl, this is Mama. I love you and merry Christmas, and we'll be together next year. I can't do that.
Hi, honey. This is me. It's Theresa. Well, I've kind of sort of got a little bit of bad news. I'm not real sure. But I think I told you in my letter that I was going to spend Thanksgiving with my mom and my stepfather and everybody. Well, I did, and it's not real great. Course, you know, they offered the car, but they also offered the other things I was telling you about. So it's an either or situation. So you know what I'm talking about. At least I hope you know what I'm talking about.
Ray, let me ask you. What is she talking about?
What we have here is the radio prison show equivalent of the Dear John letter. Apparently, reading between the lines of course, Theresa's been calling him several months. And there has been a struggle. Her family does not approve of her relationship. And so over the Thanksgiving dinner, they had come to an understanding, they would give her a car and other things if she would leave him.
So people will just call up and break up with their boyfriends and husbands over the radio?
It's just another form of communication, Ira. This is the way people can communicate. And I get everything. I get "You SOB, you sent me-- I got the letter you intended that other woman." And what we have here is we have a mail officer deciding, this guy's running a sham on these two women. It may be a woman mail officer. So the best way to fix that is just to switch the letters in the envelopes.
Has that happened more than once on the show?
Oh, yes. That happens pretty regularly.
Hi Joe, I love you. And we miss you with all of our hearts. And we just are so grateful that you're our brother. We feel like we're the ones that are blessed. I know you say you do in all the letters. But we're the ones that are blessed to have you.
David at the Wynne unit. Honey, I love you and I miss you, and I'm going to try. I want you to know that I had a very, very bad accident. And I'm going to try to make it down there, because I haven't seen you and I need you to see me. I need you to be strong, because it kind of messed up my left side of my face. And I need to have your strength and your faith to hang in there with me, OK, when I come down there.
Ray, talk about some of the other regular callers who you have.
Well, [? Gladewater ?] is this kind of rough Texas-accented older man. He's a very easily identifiable voice that calls in. And he calls his son Sweetheart. And I have actually met Sweetheart. Sweetheart weighs 300 pounds, and he's not all that heavy-set. I mean, we're talking about a seriously large human being.
Big, big man. Big, brawn, broad-shouldered tall man. He's doing life. He's not going to get out in time for Mama and Daddy to see him. They're going to die before he gets out.
What do you think it's like for Sweetheart to be called Sweetheart over the radio in a setting where people are pretty mean, and they can hear him being called Sweetheart.
Well, at his size, maybe he doesn't have anything to worry about.
Good point, yeah.
He is at a unit that is designated for older inmates.
In a broader sense, in general, I mean, what do you know about what it's like for prisoners to have such intimate things said to them, and then to have it heard by a lot of people in an environment where people are not so open with each other?
Actually, I think that's probably the best thing that happens. You know, what's wrong with prison is that there's no trust in that society. There's no caring in that society. There's no sharing in that society. It's one to a box kind of scared insecurity lifestyle. And I think that Sweetheart and things like that breaks that down. I think it's very healthy for inmates to come out of different cell blocks, and get in line in the chow hall, and somebody say, I heard your mama last night, and she sounded like she's getting better. Or I heard your daddy call you Sweetheart.
Ray Hill, host of the prison show, heard every Friday night on KPFT in Houston.
In thinking about what song to put after his story, we decided to turn back to Ed Ryder, the jazz musician we heard from at the beginning of today's program. It's a song that Ed used to listen to all the time back when he was still locked up.
When I was in Graterford, I always listened to it. I had a tape of it. "God Bless the Child Who's Got His Own" by Billie Holliday. And what it meant to me when I was at Graterford-- when she said, "Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose, so the Bible says, and it still is news. Mama may have, papa may have, but God bless the child that has his own."
Well, in my mind, at Graterford, I thought that yes, I was the child that had his own. Because I was out here on my own. I had no help at the time. There was no hope. I seen no way. I was like a child. I was like a child, because I had no one I could turn to. My parents had passed. I had no one I could turn to. And I felt like, every time I would listen to that, I felt as though she was talking directly to me.
So you guys want to hear it without any music? Without a guitar or keyboard, or--? Let me see. All right. Here you go.
Them that's got shall get. Them that's not will lose. So the Bible said. And it still is news. Mama may have. Papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own.
That's basically some of it. A little cold, but that's basically it, I guess.
Act Two. Mother's Day.
Act Two, Mother's Day.
As the prison population rises, the proportion of female inmates has also been on the rise. Women now make up 6% of the nation's prison community. And on Mother's Day, visiting rooms are packed as relatives bring the children to these women. Amanda Coyne just made the trip with her nephew to see her sister, Jennifer.
You can spot the convict moms here in the visiting room by the way they hold and touch their children and by the single flower that is perched in front of them. A rose, a tulip, a daffodil. Occasionally, a mother will pick up her present and bring it to her nose when one of the bearers of the single flower, her child, asks if she likes it. And the mother will respond the way the mothers always have and always will respond when presented with a gift on this day. "Oh, I just love it. It's perfect. I'll put it in my Bible." Or "I'll put it on my desk, right next to your school picture." And always, "It's the best one here."
But most of what is being smelled today is the children themselves. While the other adults are plunking coins into the vending machine, the mothers take deep whiffs from the back of their children's necks, or kiss and smell the backs of their knees, or take off their shoes and tickle their feet, and then pull them close to their noses. They hold them tight and take in their own second scent, the scent assuring them that these are still their children, and that they still belong to them.
The visitors are allowed to bring in pockets full of coins, and today, that Mother's Day flower. And I know from previous visits to my older sister here at the Federal Prison Camp for Women in Pekin, Illinois, there's always an aberrant urge to gather immediately around the vending machines. The sandwiches are stale, the coffee week, the candy bars the ones we always pass up in a convenience store. But after we hand the children over to their mothers, we gravitate towards those machines. Like milling in the kitchen at a party, we all do it, and nobody knows why.
While my sister Jennifer is with her son in the playroom, an inmate's mother comes over to introduce herself to my younger sister Charity, my brother John, and me. She tells us about visiting her daughter in a higher security prison before she was transferred here. The woman looks old and tired, and her shoulders sag under the weight of her recently acquired bitterness. "Pit of fire," she says, shaking her head. "Like a pit of fire straight from hell. Never seen anything like it. Like something out of an old movie about prisons." Her voice is getting louder, and she looks at each of us with pleading eyes. "My daughter was in there. Don't even get me started on that place. "Women die there." John and Charity and I silently exchanged glances.
"My daughter would come to the visiting room with a black eye, and I'd think, all she did was sit in the car while her boyfriend ran into the house. She didn't even touch the stuff. Never even handled it." She continues to stare at us each in turn. "Ten years. That boyfriend talked, and he got three years. She didn't know anything. Had nothing to tell them. They gave her 10 years. They call it conspiracy. Conspiracy? Aren't there real criminals out there?" She asks this with hands outstretched, waiting for an answer that none of us can give her.
The woman's daughter, the conspirator, is chasing her son through the maze of chairs and tables and through the other children. She's a 24 year old blond whom I'll call Stephanie, with Dorothy Hamill hair and matching dimples. She looks like any girl you might see in a shopping mall in middle America. She catches her chocolate-brown son and tickles him, and they laugh and trip and fall together onto the floor, and they laugh harder.
She has done the tour, and her son is a well-traveled six year old. He has spent weekends visiting his mother in prisons in Kentucky, Texas, Connecticut, the pit of fire. And now at last here, the camp, minimum security, Pekin, Illinois. [? Eli ?] looks older than his age, but his shoulders do not droop like his grandmother's. On the contrary, his bitterness lifts them and his chin higher than a child's should be, and the childlike wide-eyed curiosity has been replaced by defiance.
You can see his emerging hostility as he and his mother play together. She tells him to pick up the toy that he threw, say, or to put the deck of cards away. His face turns sullen, but she persists. She takes him by the shoulders and looks him in the eye, and he uses one of his hands to swat at her. She grabs the hand, and he swats with the other. Eventually, she pulls him towards her, and smells the top of his head, and she picks up the cards or the toy herself. After all, it is Mother's Day, and she sees him so rarely. But her acquiescence makes him angrier, and he stalks out of the playroom with his shoulders thrown back.
Toby, my brother and sister and I assure one another, will not have these resentments. He is better taken care of than most. He is living with relatives in Wisconsin. Good, solid, middle class, church-going relatives. And when he visits us, his aunts and uncle, we take him out for adventures where we we walk down the alley of a city and pretend that we are being chased by the bad guys. We buy him fast food, and his uncle John keeps him up well past his bedtime, enthralling him with the stories of the monkeys he met in India.
A perfect mix, we try to convince but another. Until we take him to see his mother, and on the drive back, he asks the question that most confuses him, and no doubt, all the other children who spend much of their lives in prison visiting rooms. "Is my mommy a bad guy?" It's a question that most seriously disorders his five year old need to clearly separate right from wrong. And because our need is perhaps just as great, it is the question that haunts us, as well.
Now, however, the answer is relatively simple. In a few years, it won't be. In a few years, we'll have to explain mandatory minimums, and the war on drugs, and the murky conspiracy laws, and the enormous amount of money and time the federal agents pump into imprisoning low-level drug dealers and those who happen to be their friends and their lovers. In a few years, he will have the reasoning skills to ask why so many armed robbers, and rapists, and child molesters, and, indeed, murderers, are punished less severely than his mother. When he's older, we will somehow have to explain to him the difference between federal crimes, which don't allow for parole, and state crimes, which do. We will have to explain that his mother was taken from him for five years not because she was a drug dealer, but because she made four phone calls for someone she loved.
But we also know it is vitally important that we explain all this without betraying our bitterness. We understand the danger of abstract anger, of being disillusioned with your country. And most of all, we do not want him to inherit that legacy. We would still like him to be raised as we were, with the idea that we live in the best country in the world, with the best legal system in the world, a legal system carefully designed to be immune to political mood swings and public hysteria. A system that promises to fit the punishment to the crime. We want him to be a good citizen. We want him to have absolute faith that he lives in a fair country, a country that watches over and protects its most vulnerable citizens, its women and its children.
So for now, we simply say, "Toby, your mother isn't bad. She just did a bad thing. Like when you put rocks in the lawn mower's gas tank. You weren't bad then. You just did a bad thing." Once, after being given this weak explanation, he said, "I wish I could have done something really bad like my mommy, so I could go to prison, too, and be with her."
It's now 3 o'clock. Visiting ends at 3:30. The fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and the few boyfriends, and the very few husbands, are beginning to show signs of gathering the trash. The mothers of the infants are giving their heads one last whiff before tucking them and their paraphernalia into their respective carrying cases. The visitors meander towards the door, leaving the older children with their mothers for one last word.
But the mothers never say what they want to say to their children. They say things like, "Do well in school. Be nice to your sister. Be good for Aunt Betty or Grandma." They don't say, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I love you more than anything else in the world, and I think about you every minute, and I worry about you with a pain that shoots straight to my heart, a pain so great, I think I'll just burst when I think of you alone without me. I'm sorry."
We are standing in front of the double glass doors that lead to the outside world. My older sister holds her son, rocking him gently. They are both crying. We give her a look, and she puts him down. Charity and I grasp each of the small hands, and the four of us walk through the doors. I turn back, and I see a line of women standing behind a glass wall. Some of them are crying, but many simply stare with dazed eyes.
Stephanie is holding both of her son's hands in hers and speaking urgently to him. He is struggling and his head is twisting violently back and forth. He frees one of his hands from her grasp, balls up his fist, and punches her in the face. Then he walks with purpose through the glass doors and out the exit.
I look back at her. She is still in a crouched position. She stares, unblinking, through those doors.
Amanda Coyne is a graduate student in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. This was excerpted from a longer story that originally appeared in Harper's Magazine. 80% of the women in prisons today have children back home. Most of these women are single mothers.
Coming up. What happens when you mix three well-meaning standup comedians with 800 angry, violent offenders in a maximum security prison two days before Christmas? That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Three. Who's Your Daddy?
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters and radio producers to tackle that theme. Today's show, about the tens of millions of people whose own lives are tangled up with our nation's prisons in this period when we have rising rates of incarceration and falling crime rates.
In the first half of our show, we've heard mostly about family members of prisoners. In the second half, the half we turn to now, we turn to a few aspects of life for people behind bars in America. We begin with this item. It is Act Three of our program.
Act Three, Who's Your Daddy? This is an excerpt from a pamphlet written by an ex-convict, Stephen Donaldson. A guide for straight men who find themselves entering prison. A warning before we start. This reading contains material that may not be appropriate for some younger listeners. There is no explicit language or graphic depictions of anything, but it does acknowledge the existence of certain sex acts.
Many prisoners who have been raped by fellow inmates, or who have been threatened with rape, decide to become hooked up with another prisoner. However distasteful the idea may seem, they believe it to be the least damaging way to survive in custody. In most arrangements, the junior partner-- in prison slang, the catcher or punk-- gives up his independence and his control over his body to a senior partner-- the jocker, man, pitcher, or daddy-- in exchange for protection from violence and sexual assaults by other prisoners. This arrangement, it must be said, is never totally voluntary for the punk. But it is preferable to a series of violent gang rapes, and, in the age of AIDS, far safer.
If you want to be able to choose your daddy, tell the other prisoners that you want to hook up. The word will get around fast, and guys will start to talk to you about it. This has to be done quickly. Otherwise, events will overwhelm you, and you may get gang raped or forced to hook up before you can make a choice. Spend as much time as you can with the jockers who want to hook up with you. Ask them lots of questions, and judge for yourself how sincere they are. Ask other prisoners, especially punks and queens, about their reps. The more information you can get, the better your choice will be. Once you make your decision, you are pretty much stuck with it.
Check out how serious the guy is. Discuss what he expects from you in detail, and try to work out the most favorable agreement. Even put it in writing. Protective pairing is a very serious matter for him, too, since it obligates him to put his life on the line to keep you from harm. Ask him about any previous catchers he's had, how they managed together, and why they split. If any of them are still around, talk with them. Ask jockers how they treat their women, because most jockers treat their punks the same way. If they form real partnerships with their women, they are more likely to do the same with you.
Jockers may well insist on having sex with you before putting a claim on you. This is not an unreasonable demand, since sex is such an important part of the deal. You can tell a lot about a jock by how he behaves with you sexually. If he shows affection, such as stroking your body or hair, it is a good indication that he wants to treat you like a human being.
As soon as it becomes known that you are hooked up-- and the news will spread like wildfire-- everyone will stop hassling you and will deal with you only through your man. Hooking up means you have definitely become a punk, and will be considered a punk for as long as you stay in the joint. So if you decide to hook up, you might as well get used to that status.
A jocker frequently loans out his punk to his friends, usually a way of ensuring their loyalty to him or to reinforce his position as a leader. In a way, this is good for you, since the more backup he has, the safer you'll be. And when he's not around, you can turn to his friends in an emergency.
Once the two of you decide to be hooked up, you may well be given duties other than sex. For example, doing his laundry, cleaning his cell, making up his bunk, fixing coffee for him, and giving him back rubs. Although the arrangement is firm-- the pitcher makes the rules and the catcher follows them-- the relationship will usually allow you some room to maneuver and have your wishes considered, as long as you respect the basic rules. While a jocker will never tolerate open rebellion, he usually seeks to get along with this punk and to avoid an atmosphere of constant tension. He would rather relax around his punk, and over time he can and often does develop genuine affection for him. This allows a considerable degree of give and take in the non-sexual aspects of the partnership. But the sexual part is pretty fixed, and you can't really hope to get out of it.
You have to understand that for jockers, the world of confinement is one of constant competition, with everyone looking for a weakness, so guys put up a false front which never admits any vulnerability. This makes them less human. When they get hooked up, they have someone to relate to. They can feel you're on the same team. They can relax as they learn to trust you. They may even show an entirely different and unexpected side of themselves, sharing their own anxieties, fears, and deepest feelings. In turn, they will listen to you as you learn to trust them and talk about your own feelings. Thus, you stand a good chance of developing a human relationship in which each of you really cares about the other and works to keep the relationship smooth.
Human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures. It is true that if you become a punk and are locked up for a long time, you will get somewhat used to the punk role. This varies a lot from one punk to another. Some still hate every sex act after a decade of doing it every day. Others focus on the other aspects of the relationship and find some value there. Some treasure the security it brings.
Many punks who have good relationships actually become fond of their jockers. It is not so uncommon in the unusual conditions of confinement for two straight guys to fall in love with each other over time. Psychologists generally consider adaptation to be a healthy reaction to a situation that you can not change. So don't worry about it if you find yourself adapting to the role. Once you're out, you can reverse the process and work on reclaiming the full expression of your masculine identity.
Unfortunately, many, if not most jockers, will try to get their punks to be as feminine in appearance and behavior as possible, because they are more comfortable pretending that they are relating sexually to some kind of female than to another male. But they also know that you're a punk, not a queen, and that such things don't come naturally to you. You should ask about such things before accepting a claim, and make it clear that retaining your masculine identity is important to you.
Some jockers don't care. I was hooked up once with a guy who let me grow a mustache. Most will still refer to you as him and use your male name. Others may insist that you shave your legs, grow long hair, and use a feminine nickname. No matter what you have to do, remember that it is all an act, and that you can go back to your normal behavior as soon as you get out.
That's a lot of advice, but you'll need it. Good luck finding a decent man. And remember that you will leave it all behind, except for a much better understanding of men and of women, when you walk out the front gate.
Chicago actor Larry DiStasi read from the pamphlet Hooking Up: Protective Pairing For Punks. The pamphlet was written by Stephen Donaldson, who died in 1996 of complications from an HIV infection he received when he was gang raped in prison.
Act Four. Open Your Big Mouth.
Act Four. Rick Reynolds is a guy who does these amazingly honest and very funny monologues onstage. And he tells this story about visiting a maximum security prison in Vacaville, California. Rick Reynolds is somebody who has a compulsion to say the exact thing that you're not supposed to say in any given situation. In this case, he was invited to perform at the facility's Christmas party. Again, a warning. Although this is mild, some content may not be suitable for younger listeners.
I remember driving up to this thing, not knowing what to expect. December 23. A good friend of mine, David Feldman, sitting next to me, going to be the middle act, and Jose Simon in the backseat. We get to this place, and we're frisked, and the metal detectors, and you're led down these long corridors, and it smells of a hospital. And you feel like a little kid in grade school going back to your school at night, and you're not supposed to be there somehow.
And eventually we're led into this big gymnasium. Like your high school gym. Four sets of bleachers pulled out, little stage in front of it. Bleachers packed with about 800 pissed off guys in blue denim. As soon as they see us, it is like a scene from a bad prison movie. They started whistling and catcalling and yelling, "Bend over. Whoo. Fresh meat." Apparently it was mating season in the prison. And I'm scared.
We're led into this little room. and this big, pompous, stocky guard starts laying down all of the prison rules. "You're not to mention homosexuality within the prison community. You're not to mention drug usage within the present community. You're not to mention black and white relations within the prison community. We have had riots at this facility." Then he got very serious and said, "If any inmate crosses the yellow line in front of the stage, you immediately turn and run for the double doors in the back of the room. But don't worry. We got snipers in the perch."
Oh, well, suddenly I'm at ease. You hear that, Dave? Snipers in the perch. Nothing to worry about now. What he's talking about, of course, guards with guns up in these towers. And I don't know about you, but nothing says Christmas to me more than guards with guns.
Also, we weren't supposed to mention the guards or the guns or the towers. Basically, we weren't supposed to talk about anything, especially not about K block, which I didn't even know existed before they brought it up. This is where they kept their incorrigibles. This was the cream of the crop out here.
Well, this nightmare gig begins with them announcing "Your host and MC, Jose Simon." Jose runs out. Takes the mike. A nightmare. Just a nightmare. I can not overstate how horrendous this situation is. 800 guys, not one of them listening. They're all screaming at the top of their lungs. "[BLEEP] you! Eat [BLEEP]! Bend over!" It's just awful. I mean, it's just awful.
And I'm watching from the side, thinking, it's going to stop. They're going to stop this. Nobody stopped it. Nobody tried to stop it. It's one of those life situations-- and hopefully you can relate to this. I'm supposed to be paid $500, right? I would have gladly said, you keep the $500. Here's $2,000 more. Let me go home. In two and a half hours, I'm with my wife. Please.
Nobody in the room is laughing except Feldman and I, watching from the side. Nothing funnier then another comic eating it onstage, really. Jose comes off, drenched in sweat. Feldman goes out, tries to do political material. Come on, these guys don't vote. They've been in prison their whole lives. I have never laughed harder in my life. No never. I'm just busting a gut, watching Feldman. He's a good friend, so that's why you laugh. And he's got these jokes that are brilliant, but nobody cares.
And then, not only, to add insult to injury, they start throwing things. They have these bags they're throwing, milk cartons they're throwing. And I'm watching from the side. And he's just dodging. Occasionally he'd glance at me. I'm down on one knee laughing so hard that then he'd start laughing, causing them, I guess, to hate him more. And they'd throw more stuff. It was an ugly cycle there.
Feldman comes off. He can't even look at me. He's staring down, just shaking his head. They announce my name. I drift toward the stage in a surreal haze. I have to be up there for 45 minutes. And I took the mic out of the stand, and moved the stand over, and this vitriolic bile is being spewed at me. And I know if I try my act, they will eat me alive.
So I'm wondering what to say. And in my indecisiveness there, I think they took that for some sort of professionalism, and they started to get quiet. And when they were totally quiet, I lifted the mic and I said, "I just got back from K block, and boy, is my ass sore." Baaaaah! I had the hugest laugh I have ever-- just baaaaaah! They're just roaring with laughter for about a minute.
And while they're laughing, I notice that the entire side over here-- these two bleachers, all black men. These two bleachers, all white men. Without exception. So I look at one of these white guys, then I go, excuse me, sir. If your dick was big enough, could you sit with the black guys? Baaaaaah! Now the black guys are high-fiving. They're crying. I'm a god in the slammer all of a sudden.
And I notice a black guy in the front row, hair in curlers. So I walk over and I say, where are you going tomorrow that you need to look better than tonight, the big social event of your year?
Well, from then on, I'm solid gold. Everything works. At one point, I said, I'm sorry my voice is a little hoarse. I just vomited up a bag of heroin for a friend here. I started talking about how my third dad had been in prison. Some guy in the back yells, yeah, I knew him. So I looked at him, I said, you know, you look familiar. I think your face is tattooed on his ass. And some really fat ugly guy right here starts giving me [BLEEP]. I have everybody move 10 feet away from him, and then I order the guards to shoot him. At one point, I actually started taunting the inmates. I got off of the stage, right behind the yellow line, took out my wallet a $20 bill, and I said, come get it, pussies.
I ended the night with a Christmas song-along. Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Only the rapists now! Let's go! Oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh. Child molesters, join on in!
Rick Reynolds, telling a story from his one-man show, All Grown Up and No Place to Go. It's on a CD from Rhino Records.
[MUSIC - "IN THE JAILHOUSE, NOW" BY STEVE EARLE AND THE V-ROYS]
Act Five. Color Bar.
Act Five, Color Bar.
How are we changed by prison? Breyten Breytenbach was incarcerated for seven years by the apartheid government of South Africa. He was caught reentering the country on his way to work with the political resistance during the apartheid regime. He's a painter and a writer.
In some ways, his time in prison was different from most American incarcerations. In one facility he was in, the prisoners sang each night from their cells. But in other ways, what happened to him is what's happened to many people, everywhere, over the centuries, when left in confinement.
For the first two years in prison, I was kept in a very small area all by myself. So I literally had very little to see or to look at in terms of variety, in terms of what one had become used to. You know what I see normally is seeing people come and go, in different distances, and different colors, and different lights. That was all just one very gray soup. Never seeing further than, say, about six feet away from me. The cell was 13 feet by 6 feet. So that was the limit of one's field of vision. And there was no variety in that field of vision, either.
And of course, one was suffering inevitably from vitamin deficiency. So that one's eyesight was going down all the time. And I hadn't been aware of it. In fact, I remember I became aware of this when they transported me from the Pretoria prison to the Cape Town prison, which took place in a closed truck. And it had an air vent that was slightly open. And I could peek through there and see the landscape going by. And I suddenly realized that my eyesight was shot, gone.
The irredeemable or the unstoppable wearing away that time has on one in prison is a very strong awareness. You know that you are being changed without being able to measure the extent of the changes that are taking place. You know that that this is a process of degradation taking place. But since you have nothing against which to measure this, you can not fight it. And at the same time, you have no sense of time passing at all, because there's nothing to which to tie it. It's like water. It runs right through you.
The one particular prison that I have in mind now, called Beverly Hills-- we called it Beverly Hills, in Pretoria. It's the hanging jail. It's where they execute people. Up to about 200 a year. Now, that has as its central characteristic the actual chamber, the room where people are executed.
But if you live in that prison, you never see it. You're intensely aware of it. You know it's there. You can hear it. You can hear the room, because you can hear the trapdoors opening. There is sort of this shuddering going through the building when people actually are being hanged in the morning. And then you hear the coffins being put together.
Hearing this room, or this enclosure, without actually seeing it, makes it a very mysterious heart of the place. So you really have the sense of being in a labyrinth. I think it's a real way in which the senses merge there. You literally see with your ears. Because I think that when you hear those sounds, that was your thread out of the labyrinth, in a sense.
That was the way you learned about what other people were doing. The quality also of what they were involved in. Because you could sense, you could hear the quality of their voices change when they knew that they were going to be hanged in a week's time. It was definitely-- you could hear, when somebody sang that that person is going to die in a few days, as opposed to somebody else singing who probably still has two months or three months.
And sometimes if it was only one person due to be hanged, he would sing all by himself, in the middle of the night. And then it would be very sad, because it would be much more of a melodic kind of a blues. The interesting thing, or the touching thing about that, is that when that happened, when one person sings all by himself in the middle of the night, due to be hanged in a day or two days' time, you can actually hear the quality of the listening of the other people. Because you know that everybody else in that prison is awake, lying there, listening to this [INAUDIBLE]. And everybody is giving him a chance to sing his song, as it were. You knew there would not be a single person who would be asleep then. You would actually hear people listening, lying with their ears close to the bars or to the walls.
Desperately trying to communicate. Not because one wanted to alert people to the condition you were in, but you wanted to alert people to the fact that you were still alive. Because you doubted whether you were still alive. You suddenly realized, but life's going on outside there. Even the people who were the closest to you are continuing their lives. They must do that. You know, you went down the road to buy some cigarettes, and you just didn't come back again. And people wept and moaned for some time, but then life is such that we must go on. So they bowled around the absence and they go on. And they remember your birthday, perhaps, if [UNINTELLIGIBLE], or Christmas. And correspondingly, you stop existing, since in any event, you can not communicate.
That was a terrible feeling, of really feeling that one was dead. Particularly since you were cut off from the outside world. And you weren't aware what was happening outside. Then when messages did come in, you would experience them as messages from the other side of the grave, another life. Another life.
I remember talking to friends in prison, saying, you know, will we meet again in 10 years' time. And we mustn't forget then what it was like now. The fear that you would lose some of the things you did or were taught in prison, or you learned in prison. We knew that, for instance, as you move away from the experience, the bad parts become obliterated. And you will loop back upon it sometimes even with some nostalgia. It was nice. We were all young together in prison.
That's the way the human mind works, I think. It's always hiding. It always moves away from the tender, from the raw, which is nice, which is fine. That means one dies in glory, I'm sure, thinking that you've had a wonderful life and there has just been one big muck-up.
The colors in prison-- all the no-colors of public places. All sad public places, such as army camps and, I suppose, hospitals during the war years, and things like that. In other words, you see gray. You see metal colors. You see a kind of an off-green. With a bit of luck, you may see a bit of brown. But mostly it's infinite shades of gray and dirty green. We call it in French [SPEAKING FRENCH].
It's like if you deprive somebody of colors for a certain time, and then you introduce color, however small the area of color may be that you introduce, there will be an intense sort of a pang of recognition of that color. A real experience of that color. We live in a surfeit of colors every day. We no longer even notice. We're sitting, looking at pink roses on the wallpaper, you know? The white cover over a bed, or the darkness of a shirt, or whatever it is. These are so much part, we are washed over with the richness of colors all the time. But in a situation like that, when all of a sudden there's this eruption of a toffee wrapper, for instance, or a leaf that got blown over the wall, or even a thread that somehow got blown into the wall, a thread of material, blue, something like that, you can not possibly imagine the intense awareness experience of that color, as if you'd never seen color before.
It makes of you a very nervous, very tight person when you're out of prison. Because you're ultra-sensitive to sounds and colors and things like that. They become too much. There were too many colors when I came out. I couldn't take it all in at the same time.
And it also gave me a strange sense of superiority. I felt like I was moving into a world of zombies. Now, that is a complete turnabout. In prison, you know that you're living among zombies, because you yourself have become a zombie. I mean, that is what a long-term prison sentence does to you in due time.
And yet, when you come out you have a composite feeling of, you're moving among zombies. These people don't really know what life's about. They don't feel walking in the street. They don't see the colors. And they don't know what implications are. They don't feel the people coming up to them. They have no sense of that. They're not alive. Their antennae are not vibrating. And of course, particularly, they're not even aware of the moral implications of what it's like to be walking on the street, a free person. That puts you really out of step with the people whom you move among.
Breyten Breytenbach was originally taped for a radio series called Territories of Art for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1986. He was recorded by Stephen Erickson and interviewed by Lawrence Weschler, who used the interviews in writing about Breytenbach for his book Calamities of Exile. Breytenbach himself recounts his experiences in his book, True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.
Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel, Julie Snyder, and Emi Takahara. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachmann.
If you would like to buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, they make perfect Christmas presents. And my friend, we are running a Christmas special. The phone number here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Our website address, www.thisamericanlife.com.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who insists that you call him--
The jocker, man, pitcher, or daddy.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI. Public Radio International.