Letter from Prison | Constant Surveillance and Male Anger | September 13, 2003


One of those things which incessantly tormented me when I first arrived was the continual feeling of eyes on the back of my head. A cunning authoritarian regime does not use brute vigilance as its preferred method of control. Instead, it enlists volunteer eyes from among those under scrutiny. This has a dual advantage: with proper nourishment, one authoritative eye can cultivate many traitorous eyes, thereby saving skilled (and paid) labor one-hundred fold. And, it divides the ranks of the watched, fomenting distrust: creating division, thereby undermining the solidarity which enables united action.

When people live in constant fear of their fellows, the watcher’s eye becomes engraved in their own minds and hearts. The potential for betrayal becomes fear of one another. Cautious men don’t trust anyone and live their dangerous thoughts on the inside. This was the way of the old Soviet bureaucracies and Orwell’s “1984”.

As convicts, we already mistrust each other. Some people take the freedom from reality as license to create their own realities. They become the people they never were: the guys with the Persian rugs and the yacht. It is pathetic the lengths some people will go in order to impress other people and gain the social status they believe to be contingent upon such possessions. But they’re easy to spot because most of what they say revolves around their own greatness. Of course, what sucks even worse is that their boastings are accurate reflections of the values of the culture at large. Many of the cleverer manipulators of respect are less easy to spot and ultimately are able to acquire their own sycophants.

So, basically, even without premeditated and purposeful division, there are obstacles to trust. One begins to miss the real and careless trust of friends and family. The long separation from reality wounds and bruises people. The men have such a hard time dealing with their own grief and separation that they don’t necessarily want to connect. What wants to rub wounds together? Some snap at anyone who comes close like wolves with a foot caught in a bear trap.

Men experience just as many little emotional cuts and scrapes as women. The difference is that most of their emotions get translated into anger, especially in the face of perceived threat. And, of course, anger is one step away from aggression. Anger is a clever tool to transform wounded pride and sadness into dumb dominance and submission. This turns compromise to weakness and aggressive ignorance to strength.

Behind all male interaction lingers the threat of violence. Respect is distance. Men are careful of each other and don’t meddle too much. All this tension eventually must find release. I have never seen such combative sports games. All this pent up frustration, built up from powerlessness, attempts to empower itself through the symbolic victory of sports. Actually, this week, I decided I had enough of the silly game of soccer stretched across the poles of life and death. It was some ghastly parody of battle they were playing at instead of a harmless sporting game. Well, anyhow, I transferred myself from my “job” in “electronics” to “landscaping”. Every day I get to walk across this grandly wide, open field. I leave behind the clamoring intercom with its voice of command. I relieve the claustrophobic feeling of the Eye. And I am away from the devious inmate who sought to enlist me as his underling. Ugh.

In spite of all these barriers, I have made some really good friends here, especially among the Muslims.

I guess I have painted a fairly bleak picture of the inmate relations. I imagine some of the observations I have made would be true of any group of men set apart from general society, such as soldiers at the front. On the other hand, we are dealing with a set of individuals specifically selected for their greed and disrespect for authority. But really, people here are like so many other groups of people. They just live in this surreal segregation from the rest of the world.

I haven’t read much lately, but I think I shall binge on reading soon. I did read “Scarlet and Black” by Stendhal. The first half didn’t engage me, but the ending quite made up for it. This is exactly the opposite of the way I felt about “War and Peace”.

By the time y’all receive this letter, we will be a full one-third of the way through our time. The birds are flying south . . . It’s going to get colder and colder; and when it gets as cold as it’s going to get, we get to come home. How many tubes of toothpaste away? How many sticks of deodorant? How many pads of paper? How much time staring out the windows of the hall? Ah, not long. Soon we’ll be halfway through our bit.

Intellectually, I haven’t much new information about people. But much of what I already knew has been reinforced viscerally. I suppose I’ve always been this absurd hybrid of cynic and idealist. Ultimately, though, I’ve learned a lot and I feel like our action achieved a lot. I’ve sure learned a lot about the way our society is structured. I guess I have learned a lot about families and men in separation and all that. But, I already knew all those “big surprises” in store for youths bound for the “real world”. I guess what I am saying is that I’ve learned different things than people seemed to think I would.

solidarity and struggle,

Fact of the Letter: Did you know America right now has a higher per capita prison population than any other nation? And (in 2002) 58% of them are non-violent offenders? (Human Rights Watch)

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About the Author

Hi. My name is Jeremiah John. I'm a sf/f writer and activist.

I just completed a dystopian science fiction novel. I run a website which I created that connects farms with churches, mosques, and synagogues to buy fresh vegetables directly and distribute them on a sliding scale to those in need.

In 2003, I spent six months in prison for civil disobedience while working to close the School of the Americas, converting to Christianity, as one does, while I was in the clink.