Letter from Prison | Early October | Alienated Labor

“And I survived because I made a point of forgetting . . . I did not count the days or the weeks or the months. Time is an illusion that only makes us pant. I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time. What I remember are events and encounters and routines, markers that emerged here and there from the ocean of time and imprinted themselves on my memory.” - - “The Life of Pi” (sent to me by Corbin Street)

Hey Everybody,

So I am now assigned to a new job called “landscaping.” Perhaps the word conjures to mind hills carefully contoured, planted, and bricked. Or perhaps tree-planting and red mulch-spreading. No, we mainly mow, pick up trash, or, in the winter, shovel snow. For instance: the other day we felled and dismembered a tree, clearing an area upon which a supply depot will be built. My important mission was to gather up walnuts and transfer them in a wheelbarrow to another part of the field. I asked to use a rake but was mysteriously denied. Later, my repeated request was just as mysteriously granted. Our boss is a man with much inner conflict and no means of self-expression. He has a whim of iron, able to leap the laws of rationality in a single bound.

I am coming to understand more fully the notion of “alienated labor.” Alienated labor is defined as labor which is not self-directed: i.e. labor for a boss. There are two ways of motivating unpleasant labor: the carrot dangling (promise of reward) and the stick that you hit the mule with when it stops (fear of punishment). The stick means of motivation creates most alienated laborers and is perhaps the oldest. The carrot or the stick. Most people in modern capitalist society are motivated by the carrot. However, because hunger and starvation lie in wait for the carrotless, the stick is not far behind the carrot. My rate of pay is $5.15 per month. So we can rule out the “carrot” method of motivation. The only incentive I have for working, aside from the cheerful wellspring of industry in my heart, is the fact that if I don’t, I am guilty of insubordination and will be punished with solitary confinement. Or worse, with just one other person. Ultimately, I really love the outside work: away from the crush of people and authority of the commanding officers.

A lot of things in prison are rather like the old widow alone in the big country house she used to share with her husband. Every day she wakes up, bathes, puts on makeup, and dresses. Because if she didn’t put on her makeup, what would she do after her bath and before she dresses? We keep the lawn as well-trimmed as a golf course.

I have been asked how I am different from the other prisoners. First of all, I do believe that punishments ought to fit the crime. Therefore, a man who committed a crime worthy of one year’s imprisonment on his sixth, I consider vindicated. By that definition, the jails are stuffed to the gills with innocents.

It is also obvious to me that the “justice” system is racist. The facts and statistics point to this quite clearly.

Also, we have a “guilty until proven innocent” system. That is also clear sitting on this side of the fence, subjected to the charade of justice. Not that I’m not guilty, just that my conviction was an example of fine theater. They only pretend to follow the rules. And badly at that. I believe that the blacks who are serving sentences grossly disproportionate to their crimes are political prisoners.

Having said that, I am different from the other prisoners. Most are here because of greed: that self-seeking impulse which drove them to steal the profit of others, dragonish plundering and hoarding. Whether or not the lot they exchanged for their treachery of their fellows was ill or unfair will be ignored. Also, we will ignore the fact that greed is the basic ethic which drives our society. These people are merely the dangerous zealots of capitalism, unfortunate enough not to be CEO’s of multinational corporations.

Anyhow, most made a conscious decision to violate the rules of fair play and decency. Some were just playing too fast and loose.

In all this time (Nothing but time, time, time) most do an above average amount of thinking and reflecting. In this time the spectre of their guilt visits them again and again. On hard days, in grey mornings, lying awake in the inconsiderate noise, and while eating wretched food. Do I deserve this? Is this my just due? Of course, this does not apply to the people who respect only the law of the heavy stick. This is self-torture. Self-reform, self-initiated.

I’m the only one here who chose to be here. And I’m the only one in the whole camp here for a misdemeanor charge.

Most people are here for the flexibility of their principles, where I am here for the rigidity of mine (barring those who were too moral to snitch on their fellows and received double or triple time for their insolent loyalty).

To many of these guys I look like an errant scion of the system: with my white skin, education, and parental privilege. They thought that I was “in” but got a little greedy, or didn’t take authority seriously enough. Maybe I thought life was a game with a Monopoly, jail: Pretend.

How far from the truth. I made the error of taking life and morality too seriously, of taking the vague pronouncements of democracy and human equality as living creed, imagining that history is now and we are the Civil Rights activists and the union organizers. All of my doubt I use to doubt the system that disempowered us from the start. My self-doubt is the healthy self-doubt of continual self-revolution, always striving with self-discipline towards what I believe is right. And for many people, criminal acts are just one mistake to be learned from in the continual process of self-destruction and renewal. It is these people who heal themselves, learning past it. No reform, no change, just killing time. When the immediacy of jail is gone, the hubris takes over and back they go.

But, for the others, the gnawing attrition of guilt works slowly into self-loathing of fellow man. For who regards others as better than themselves? When they debase themselves they debase the image of others-a mark of “criminal” sinks into the heart. The robber robs so as not to be robbed first. And this is how you have an individual who identifies with the criminal class.

Society creates and manages this class of individuals through the prison system. They decide which individuals belong to it and where those individuals live. For instance, much of what could be considered “criminal” behavior (all manner of things which are rooted in the baser inclinations like greed) is condoned by society. For instance, even that a priori crime murder is acceptable at times. Those who murder in unison, what they call “war”: for nation, race and family, are called soldiers. Those who murder for self are called “murderers”. This is not to say that there are not in fact, things which society abhors which ought to be curbed or punished, it is only to point out that society creates those abhorrences: that other arbitrary acts could be regarded criminally or nobly.

This is a ghastly and ramblingly disorganized letter for which I apologize.

This last week, I read “The Magician’s nephew”, “the Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, “The Silver Chair” and “The Horse and His Boy”, all written by C.S. Lewis and being members of the set “The Chronicles of Narnia.” I read Milan Kundera’s (the author of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) “The Joke”, a story of betrayal and tainted love set in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. Also, I read Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle”, the story of fruit pickers on strike. He definitely illustrated the principle that there are no ends, only means. Good book.

I am becoming less erratic in moods: stabilizing. My shoulder has healed enough to start lifting weights (insert manly grunt and snarl). I’ve been reading other books too, but I’ll tell y’all about them when I finish them. No sense getting ahead of myself. A couple guys in my unit were strutting around about chess so I had to help God humble them. A veritable saint I am. Well, off to hang out with the Sisters of Providence. They know about the SOA and they’re very wise and old.



JJ’s Fact of the Letter: In 2003, the United States has a per capita prison rate of 686 per 100,000: the highest in the world. The UK has the highest incarceration rate among the countries of Eastern Europe with 139 per 100,000, the Russian Federation a638, France at 85, and China at 111 (World Prison Population List). Approx. 1 in 37 United States citizens will serve time behind bars (New York Times).

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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.