Monday, May 10, 2010

All the doors locked...

*A fictional piece on prison brutality.

By: Alonna Berry

All the doors are locked, and everyone is finally setting in to go to sleep. After a long day of work, they only thing I want to do is rest my head. I slowly walk to my room, barely able to make the semen block under my legs move. Every time I step it feels as though my legs are locking. I just have to make it to my room, and then I can rest my head. I have been waiting all day for this – the one thing I my life that hasn’t been stripped away from is, the one thing and the only place I can call my own - it is complete bliss. When I lay my head down to sleep, I am finally free, free to dream and explore the world beyond these four walls – I am free to fly. As I finally make it to my room, I am so relieved to be in the comfort of my home. As I slowly begin to take off my clothes for the day, my roommate come in. We have a brief conversation about what had happened today, who had been taken away, and about a letter he had received from his daughter. Even though the conversation wasn’t long (a relief), it was touching, and it gave me warm thoughts to think about as I would drift into freedom.

As soon as my head hit the pillow, I began to fade away. The ways of peace and serenity began to wash over my face. The rhythmic sound of the ocean numbed my body, and lulled me to sleep. Oh I loved the ocean, I dreamt about it always. I would never try to imagine when I would see it again, because it would depress me, I would only remember the good times I had there. Dream were the only place I could…


I’m not going to open my eyes yet, I will not give up my dream. Why are they banging? We just go to sleep. They haven’t called my name; they haven’t called anyone’s name. Maybe it’s not for me, maybe it’s not for anymore. Maybe there just being CO’s and thought it would be fun to wake up all up after we just went to sleep.


I could feel the blood pressure in my body rising. I was going to lose control, I hated loosing control. The only place in my life I had control is at night, and they strip that away from me to. I cant…


Why won’t they…


I can’t live like…


UUUGHHH! That’s it!


“Shut Up!” I exclaimed before I could even catch myself. Oh no, I shouldn’t have spoken, I shouldn’t have done that.

-Did you have something to say Monroe?

-No sir, not at all, I must have wake up from a bad dream.

-A bad dream, I coulda swore I heard you say something. What did ya say boy?

-I don know sir, sometimes I talk in my sleep, maybe I was doin that again…

-In ya sleep you yell boy?

-When I am havin a bad dream

-You were havin a bad dream tonight boy?

-Yes sir.

- I don’t take very kindly to lyin – Monroe. Get your ass up and out here now

He unlocked the door; I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. By now a few other men had woken up, and as I walked from my door I felt my legs begin to shake.

-You lyin to me Monroe?

-No sir, I was dreamin.

-You were havin a bad dream?

-It turned into one

-You bein smart Monroe?

-No sir

-What did ya say?

-No sir

-No ya stupid fuck! What did ya say when ya woke up from ya dream?

-I’m not sure sir

-I was right beside your cell, Monroe, I heard you clearly….

He began to move his night stick, slowly back and forth. I noticed, and he wanted me to. He was giving fair warning that if I continued to lie, I would have to suffer my punishment. But I knew if I ad mitted to lying, I would suffer as well. I would stand my ground.

-You got something to say boy?

-Uhh, no sir I don’t remember

He pulled his night stick up and began patting it on his hand.

-You said “Shut up” boy! Ya don remember that?

-No sir

Then I felt it his stick came down on the back of my head like a ton of bricks. He was yelling something as he continued to hit me. I lost all sense of what was going on. I began to fade away. But not to a place where I had control, I was drifting to the bottom of the sea. Soon I would feel the big thud, as my body would slam against the ocean floor.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ask me anything

Pencils, Pages and Power

It’s amazing the how significant a small detail can become when it’s the little things that you live for. In a prison the smallest object can send the most pungent point. Let’s take a pencil for example, it is a utensil used for writing, it is a utensil made to allow mistakes to easily be erased, it is a utensil used for learning. Each and every week I step into Auburn prison prepared to teach, prepared to learn and prepared to tutor. The Auburn GED program is promised GED books to tutor with, pencils to write with, and scrap paper to work on. Each week we roll a small cart containing these materials into Room #10 and the other tutors and I prepare to help one another and the inmates.

Every week one of the first questions the inmates ask if for pencil and paper. Unlike other classrooms I have been in (for learning) these students are prepared to learn and wanting to learn. In order for that learning to take place simple tools are needed to encourage that learning (pencils, paper, and a textbook). Each week I dread when that question is asked. “Judge Alonna” they call me.

-Hey Judge Alonna can we have a book and a pencil?
-Sure one second.

I slowly walk across the room dreading the implications of my actions. I slowly lift the book. It reads GED. It is falling apart at the seam, the pages are ripped. They are not ripped out of frustration or anger from a misguided or “troubled” student like other textbooks I’ve seen. They are ripped from use, from countless nights of relentless studying and work. I pick up the book with two hands, carefully, not wanting to rip another page.

-Here you go.
-Are there pencils?
-Oh I almost forgot… one sec..

I turn to get the pencils. There is a pile of over 20 pencils, all of them smaller then my hand – none of them sharpened. I pick up a few, desperately searching for a point that is usable. I can’t find one – not a single a pencil. I begin to frantically look for a pencil that is large enough to fit into the pencil sharpener. I slowly turn and glance around. The inmates are making their way to the cart – one book out, two books, three… I’m going to need more than one pencil.

I slowly lift my hand to the sharpener and shove the pencil inside. I can barely hold on to the edge of the pencil. By the time it is finished sharpening I couldn’t imagine it fitting into any of the inmate’s hands. I try another… then another…

-I think I have one for you to use… Sorry it’s so small…
-Thank you Alonna.
-Your welcome.

I sit down to tutor. We begin to work algebra problems. As I sit and watch the inmate struggle to hold the toy sized pencil in his hand as he flips through the ripped pages I realize that this is the system. It’s an institution built with subtle and constant reminders of what the system think they are worth. They give you a classroom to learn it but no tools to learn with. Who are they really helping?

-That’s good! You did a good job here.
-Is that the right answer Alonna?
-That’s what I got! Let’s check in the back of the book to make sure…

As my finger slid across the page I found the page number with the answers.

-Its page number 357.

We flip through the pages. The last section has been ripped out.

The book ends with page 345…

Monday, December 14, 2009

We are humans too...

“I don’t know what you mean ms?” one of the inmates said during a lengthy discussion on an excerpt from a poem another prison had read aloud. “What don’t you understand?” the two teachers in the front of the room said in unison. “Juxtaposition… what does that mean?” The other tutor and I went through a brief discussion explaining what the work juxtaposition meant. After the inmate began to nod in agreement the discussion continued. As the conversation continued to evolve it merged from a discussion about literal analysis to a discussion about life experiences. I listened as experiences bounced one mouth to the next and it began to seem hard for the teachers to keep the class under control.

At the end of the class one of the other tutors, Joe, older white haired man, came to speak to the inmates about a topic Victoria and I had been too scared to talk to them about ourselves.

With 20 minutes to go he re-directed the. As he makes his way to the front of the class, the laughter and smiles on the inmate’s faces turn to concern. For a brief moment I saw all the pain and torment in their faces. Joe moved to the front of the room. He began to explain that he had been informed by the female’s teachers that there had been some inappropriate comments between the inmates and the teachers. He explained that in order for this program (The GED Program) to continue, there are certain rules that need to be followed. If those rules are not followed – this program would be in jeopardy.

“You have to understand that this facility is set up to dehumanize us. They tell you to be scared of us, because they want you to be scared. They tell you to not sit on the same side of the table as us because they tell you we will touch you, and try to harm you…” A prisoner said.

“Look at the poster on the wall over there?” another prisoner chimed in. In unison we all turned our heads and looked. Prisoners are human too – is what the sign read. “They tell you that we aren’t human, but they are the ones that spit in our face, they yell at us for wanting a drink of water or to take a piss. They have the power and they know they have the power, and because they have it they use it without hesitation. Now that we have an opportunity to learn, think, and talk in class… they want to take that away from us as well; it’s cruel.”

The conversation continued on until the end of the class. I was astonished at the depth of the conversation.

I left that day learning one thing: verbal brutality can sting as much as physical brutality, but neither should be accepted.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Prison Brutality...

This semester in particular it seems like the prison has begun to consume my life. Each and every Thursday that I leave the prison, the thoughts, stories, and experiences from each and every one of the inmates leave me with as well.

For another class this semester we were asked to choose a topic that we thought was a problem in society. The topic I picked was prison brutality. Every week I walk into a prison and there is an unmistakable mistreatment and overpowering of the inmates. Almost every class like clockwork several times in the middle of class there is a CO (Corrections Officer) yelling down the hallway at a prisoner because he wanted to take a drink from the water fountain, or use the door less bathrooms. The sound was cruel and exaggerated as they yell and curse at the freedom-less men.

Well after witnessing these atrocities each week and hearing a heart wrenching story from one of my closest friend I thought that prison brutality would be a perfect topic for this assignment. As one of the components of the assignment I decided to create a video recording my friend recounting her story of prison brutality.

Here is the youtube link for you to view....

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Could you decide?

“March 16, 1996. Somewhere in Merced County, California, this morning, a judge of the Superior Court will wake up, shower, shave, eat breakfast, kiss his wife good-bye, and drive to the county courthouse where he will dress in black robes, mount an elevated dais, and preside over a gathering of attorneys. He, in concert with the others, will decide the exact date and precise time that the state of California will kill my best friend (102).”

– Excerpt from Steven King Ainsworth, in his piece Danny, from the book Undoing Time: American Prisoners in Their Own Words, edited by Jeff Evans.

This is the opening paragraph in a piece written by Steven king Ainsworth, in San Quentin, California. This particular essay stood out in my memory for many reasons. One the entire essay analyzed the Criminal Justice System as a whole. The author starts with his understanding of how the government, (a judge) has complete control over determining someone’s death date, and in this case his friend Danny died on May 3, 1996. But as he continues the essay he reflects on what events brought his friend Danny to his death, and how those event played into the strucure of the prison system. The opening paragraph of this essay struck me the hardest. I want to be a judge, this is what the prisoners always question and challenge me about. Thus far, all of their questions I have been able to answer with confidence. But now it is me asking the questions…

“Alonna could you decide someone’s death date?”

I am thankful I have never been asked that question. My answer at first would be to defend my stance. I want to be a judge, that would be a part of the job – it has been determined that this persons punishment is death, and then I would do my job to carry out that punishment. That is exactly why this essay in particular interests me. He is not writing about punishment, he is writing about life. Steven’s friend Danny was the last true friend he had in life, Danny was a father, and a grandfather, he worked in the prison mentoring first offenders, and juveniles to change their lifestyles. Is that not enough a reason to live? How many future criminals could he have affected? Danny (Steve’s friend) was described as a prisoner of the justice system…

“The state raised him from the age of nine, fried his brain at twenty-five, and killed him at forty-eight (106).”

The biggest realization for me is that Danny is not the only prisoner who has had to live through this experience. Unfortunately for many – this is their reality. In aspiring to become a judge, I think that it is necessary to have an understanding of experiences such as these and how they develop throughout the US Criminal Justice System. How can the system be changed and reformed to create better society, and its citizens (yes that includes inmates).

He ends the essay with this…

My friend is dead and I do not think the world is any better for it. His poisoned cadaver joins the rising body count from death row since reinstatement of capital punishment in 1977:

Four men have been executed.
Two men have been murdered.
Eleven men have committed suicide.
Nine men have died of natural causes.
One man was shot and killed by a guard (106).


Evans, Jeff. Undoing Time: American Prisoners in Their Own Words. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

They are humans too...

As I previously mentioned. Throughout this internship I have been reading several texts and books that have helped me to gain a better understanding of the prison system. Another book that I have been reading is entitled, Undoing Time: American Prisoners in their Own Words edited by Jeff Evans. This book, it just a book of stories written by prisoners from people incarcerated all over the United States. This particular text has been eye opening for me because this book actually takes you into the mind and experiences of The United States incarcerated humans. I use the word humans because prior to starting this internship I struggled with the idea as prisoners at anything other than prisoners. This is an issue that until now, until after working in the prison system, I would have never realized. In society we tend to talk about the idea of a prison, and the institution of the prison system, but in general “prisons” are abstract ideas; a human face is never really placed on prisoners. I am guilty of this as well.

Throughout the semester, surprisingly my blog has maintained somewhat of a steady audience of readers. Though many of my readers do not comment in text on my actual blog, their comments have played an important role in conversations since. This week I was confronted about my use of the word “prisoners” in my blog. I though this question to be a bit puzzling. My answer was simply, “that is what they are… they are prisoners.” My answer was followed by a look of astonishment. “When I read you blog, you paint a human face on these “prisoners,” you talk about sharing human feelings and understandings with them… yet you continually call them “prisoners.” You cluster them into this group, isn’t that what society does; we say the “wrong-doers, prisoners, inmates” but no one actually stops to hear about humans who are locked behind bars. Humans without rights… that is what your blog allows me to do, to stop and for the few minutes I’m reading you have given them a voice – they are humans…”

Wow. That has been my goal in this blog; I have wanted to help to dispute the negative stereotypes about prisoners and our prison system. In attempting to do so, at least for one person I was effective, but have I been critical enough of myself? I feel like this semester I have viewed myself (like I have been jokingly called) “superwoman.” Don’t take that the wrong way? But like most things, when you are doing something good or when you are helping someone – you feel good about yourself. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having those feelings and having the ability to be able to understand the immense impact of a good deed… but sometimes you can get wrapped up in those feelings. So if I care so much about the individuals that I teach, if each and every man in that class has touched me each in an individualistic way… then why can’t I think of them as individuals? When I started to think about the immensity of my actions – I wanted to stick my foot in my mouth… How could I do that? Was I even really making a difference?

I think my answer to that question is yes. While reading the book, Undoing Time: American Prisoners in Their Own Words, I saw it. “American Prisoners…” – Prisoners are what they are. Categorizing and grouping people is human nature. We do it every day of our lives; the inmates themselves refer to themselves as prisoners. It is not derogatory- it is reality. The truth is that sometimes reality stings. Being a prisoner is an instance where reality hurts a little. I sit and tutor 20-27 adult males every Thursday in Auburn State Penitentiary. Each and everyone one of those men have names, families, and most have children. My experience in the prison doesn’t allow me learn each and every inmate I tutor’s life story; but it does allow them to change mine. Though I may talk about each of the prisoners as in a group, they will each always have an individual space in my memories, and in my experiences. This experience not only allows me to grow and learn, but it also provides a space and opportunity to me to speak up, and raise awareness about the “forgotten Americans” – the prisoners.

Similarly, to Jeff Evans, the editor of this book, he did not live in the prison or experience half of what the writers of his book experienced. But Jeff Evans care enough to use his time to ensure their stories were heard, and that is all I could even hope to do.


Evans, Jeff. Undoing Time: American Prisoners in Their Own Words. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.