In this urgent, exclusive interview for Rattling the Bars, Mansa Musa speaks with Carla J. Simmons from inside the Georgia prison system, as well as Page Dukes of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Simmons, who has been incarcerated since 2004, recently published an article in Scalawag magazine on the irreparable psychological damage our inhumane system of mass incarceration inflicts on incarcerated people, prison staff, and the communities returning citizens re-enter upon their release. “There needs to be accountability for the psychological damage caused by incarceration as more and more members of society experience it, for longer periods of time,” Simmons writes. “If society upholds the pretense that jails and prisons act as a rehabilitative service, we must consider what condition these people will be in when they re-enter society.”
You can find Carla’s artwork at the Justice Arts Coalition.
Pre-Production: Frances Madeson, Kayla Rivara, Cameron Granadino
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. And as I always do, I’ll update you on Eddie Conway. We ask that you continue to have Eddie Conway in your prayers or whatever medium that you use to invoke a spirituality towards humanity. We ask that you channel that towards Eddie Conway as Eddie Conway recovers through this journey that he’s undergoing right now.
Today we have Carla Simmons, who is making a phone call from prison, and this is not an easy task. So we ask our audience to really pay attention to this subject matter because it’s important. She’s been incarcerated for 20 years. She recently wrote an article entitled “Sentenced to Trauma: Inside the Volatility and Disorder of Prison”. It was published in the Scalawag magazine. Scalawag is a leftist organization that has the agenda of abolishing prisons, humanizing people that’s coming out of prison, and challenging capitalism as we know it.
Welcome, Carla. First of all, why would you take on such a monumental subject? And second of all, why do you think people in society should care about what a person undergoes in prison mentally?
Carla Simmons: So why I would take on it is monumental, but it’s the thing that I’m most passionate about, the thing that I have been most deeply affected by. So I have experienced all of these different afflictions throughout my incarceration, and trying to soul search and improve myself and survive my experience. I’ve dug down to the root of each of my struggles, and at the bottom of each one I find an aspect of trauma, a way that I have been damaged or affected negatively, in the way that trauma is understood by science, which I’m also extremely interested in. So I feel like it is a very, very important topic. It’s very close to my heart. And also, if I had a career dream or a goal, it would be to research trauma and to work with the Center for Disease Control and really bring to light the science and what incarceration does to the physical mind.
Mansa Musa: Why do you think, and I’m just asking this question more so for the purpose of educating our audience, why do you think people in society should care about the mental… We’re talking about an environment that creates such oppressive and dehumanizing events and circumstances that, mentally, a person lacks the ability to be able to make the necessary adjustment, therefore they suffer some type of traumatic experience and recognize that it has a physiological impact on them. But why should people in society care about –
Carla Simmons: Right. Yes, sir.
Mansa Musa: The mental –
Carla Simmons: It’s so important, and I could think of a lot of reasons why we should care about the humanity of individuals and their health and wellbeing. But from the perspective of society, I think that what they could focus on would be that most people understand the carceral system to be a system that intends to reintegrate its population back into society. And so we could go on and on about all the ways the system fails to prepare people for that, whether it be job skills, social skills, emotional intelligence, and whatnot. So not only does it neglect to provide people those things that would be really helpful and beneficial to society, it damages people, making it harder to see the results or success that they’re looking for with re-entry. So if you expect to understand that 90-something% of them will reenter society, we should be very, very concerned about their mental state when they get there.
Mansa Musa: All right. Now, in your article you wrote that it’s a different type of trauma that comes from long-term imprisonment, because here in your analysis that you was making about trauma in particular, was more specifically the impact that it has on long-term imprisonment. You saying that it’s a different type of trauma that comes from long-term imprisonment. How so?
Carla Simmons: Yes, sir. So the one thing is that there’s science behind that. So we have a parasympathetic and a sympathetic nervous system. And the sympathetic nervous system works like the gas. It’s the thing that triggers our bodies that says that we are in danger. And so when you have a one-time traumatic event, like you’re in a natural disaster or a bad car accident or some sort of an assault, your body hits the gas because it’s in danger, and it’s providing you with what you need to know, fight or flight responses. And then when the event is over with your parasympathetic nervous system [inaudible]
Mansa Musa: …Solitary confinement, I went through being isolated 24/7. But to reflect on your point, I want you to give me some examples. Because as you said, when we find ourselves in a long-term environment, long-term imprisonment, we lack the ability to make the distinction. Or because we are in that hostile environment that we always got our foot on the danger pedal and less on the brakes. So do we find out, is it safe to say that that’s why when we see situations in prison where the issue don’t be that severe, it might just be no more than somebody getting in front of you in the line in commissary, or the shower’s crowded and people standing outside waiting to get in the shower and somebody root the line and wind up come from a minor incident to something more volatile and violent. Would that be an example, or would those type of things take place, or can you give us some examples of what you just outlined?
Carla Simmons: Oh, yes, sir, for sure. I think that those examples are good. They highlight a particular aspect of that, and that when you put a body in a high stress response, a perpetual high stress response for years and years and years, the resilient zone, meaning the place where we can handle life’s ups and downs and little stressors: being cut in line, being in an anxious or crowded environment, maybe having where they say line up, no, get back, no, line up and then all frustrated and running into each other. Those are naturally stressful. But when you’ve pushed people to the breaking point, or when people’s bodies have been stressed to the max here, then those minor aggravations become major because the threshold is very, very small. So those examples are great when you’re talking about how this plays out, where little things become big things.
And I think that another thing to think about is that, in a cumulative nature, is how it all just piles up and piles up and piles up on each other. And it could be, I talk about in the article about how the noise inside the institution is maddening. And so how people are always very vigilantly listening because you never know if there’s a fight or if there’s an instruction or if there’s a fire or if it’s nothing. And so you just get up and look, look, look, look all day long. And of course, at the end of the day, nothing has happened, but you’re exhausted.
Mansa Musa: Right, right, right.
Carla Simmons: …All the time. And then of course, at any time during that, if there’s an actual problem or an issue that would require us to regulate ourselves and to use good social skills and some sort of ethical interaction with each other where we would require patience and good listening skills, it’s very, very difficult to expect people to be able to do that under those circumstances when they’re exhausted and have been exhausted by the sheer unpredictability of the environment.
Mansa Musa: And talk about some of the things that go on in terms of the administration, because we recognize that in the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration being the new form of slavery, we also recognize that there’s no iron curtain between the guards and the prisoners. So is it safe to say that the traumatic experiences that people are undergoing in prison, is it safe to say that the guards are not immune to it or immune to being traumatized? Or have you made this observation?
Carla Simmons: Oh no, that is a really good point. And I’ve actually been talking about that lot. Because as we see that the staff in our institution, and I’m sure [inaudible] has decreed, that there’s much more pressure on the guards to perform with less and less resources, so they also are experiencing trauma. Personally, I think that there’s a certain moral injury that becomes involved when your career asks you to lock human beings in cages and deny them their basic human rights. Even if you don’t recognize it, I think that there’s something that shuts off inside of us that would make that possible to do as a vocation and have some sort of pride or even feel decent about it, would be to sort of cut off that part of your humanity that is denying another person’s [humanity]. Whether or not anyone is willing to recognize that, from my observation, I see it as a very traumatic act, even on its best day.
And now that the system is getting crippled over time, and the job has become much harder, and they’re exposed to violence more and more and less and less resources, then they in turn become more stressed, more on edge, and less and less able to perform their job in a humane, ethical way.
Mansa Musa: And then, too, we recognize that, from your article, that you made the observation that, I think it was in there, where they were saying, you said that the rec officer and the [inaudible] officer, they was getting ready to go the blows, or something. Am I correct?
Carla Simmons: Oh, yes, sir. Yes, sir.
Mansa Musa: [inaudible]
Phone operator: You have one minute left.
Mansa Musa: Okay, we’ll come back.
Carla Simmons: Uh-oh.
Mansa Musa: Just come back in. Just dial back in.
Carla Simmons: Okay. Yes, sir.
Phone operator: The caller has hung up.
Mansa Musa: Carla?
Carla Simmons: Yes, sir. Hello?
Mansa Musa: Oh, okay. Okay. Okay. We are back. Look. Carla, talk about the correlation between the trauma as it relates to the staff and the fact that we know that if you’re in this type of traumatic environment and you work in this environment to retirement like 20, 30 years, is it a correlation between that and alcoholism on their part, or domestic violence on their part? Or the fact that, is it a correlation between that and the guards being the most, you find guards in prison, some of them to be the most brutal? In your observation, have you been able to discern either of those things?
Carla Simmons: Yes, sir. Actually, and I haven’t done a lot of research to know what research would say about it. From my own experience, though, being here for 20 years, I’ve seen some officers throughout their career, so they would start off as CO1s and work their way up into administration. And I know that on more than one occasion, I watched their health deteriorate, their appearance deteriorate. I heard them talk about alcoholism and their struggle with substance abuse. I’ve seen, or at least heard, of their marriages failing and their estrangement with their children.
I mean, yeah, it is obvious that working under these, and their health, did I mention that? Their health just deteriorates. I’ve seen them experience cardiac arrest and having all sorts of really negative physical responses to the stress of being here and the poor conditions and the long hours, and then the trauma that I’m sure that they experienced by being here, and also that they witnessed being inflicted upon the population. So I would be very, very interested to read studies to see if people have been looking at these correlations. But just from my experience and observation, as narrow as it may be, I would say that it’s obviously a problem.
Mansa Musa: And talk about how, ’cause we spoke on this a minute ago about how we become desensitized to certain things going around us. And you was talking about the noise. And I remember my own personal experience when I was in prison, I did a lot of time on lockup. And one of the environments that I was in, lockup environments, in order to get the police attention when somebody was sick, we were banging on the doors, and the police would shut the door and try to muffle out the sound until it become so deafening they had to respond. But I spent maybe a year, two years, or three years in this environment, and the noise don’t affect me. During the years of incarceration, they could be banging, I go straight to sleep. But I became so desensitized to that type of environment. Speak on that and how you might have witnessed some of the desensitization of some of the women that’s around you in terms of them being traumatized and not being able to process it.
Carla Simmons: Oh yeah, sure. So I think desensitization is a major topic here, because I’ve got tons of examples. And the one that pops to my mind, the most obvious, is where people have seizures. And several years ago it was like an epidemic. People were having seizures all over the place. And I don’t know if it was the medicine or the water or maybe the heat. We don’t have central heating and air, so it gets really, really hot in the summer. But regardless, people would just fall out and have seizures all over the place. And of course, it was hard to get somebody’s attention, so people would be running around trying to get help for the people who were having the seizure. But by and large, most people just carried on with what they were doing while people were just falling out. People would keep playing cards and they would keep eating lunch [inaudible].
Mansa Musa: Right, right, right.
Carla Simmons: And you would just have folks on the ground. And then as the environment has become more violent, I’ve heard stories – Which I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve lived in the honor dorm since our environment got incredibly… Since the shift has happened where it’s not the same place as it used to be. But the stories that I hear. I had a close friend who watched this girl, they had been in a fight and there had been an injury, and the girl had passed out, and they had sort of drug her body by the door into a room to try to revive her or hide her. I don’t know what they were going to do. And she said that she just watched the trail of blood slide past her door, and then she went back to reading her book. ‘Cause she can’t get involved because then she could get hurt. And even if she could, there isn’t really an officer to tell. And so people have just had to turn their heads in many, many circumstances where in another environment, without this sort of conditioning, we would be compelled to intervene and to assist.
And I think more and more, I’ve seen people express how detrimental that is to their humanity and their wellbeing. And they live with all kinds of guilt and shame and regret, but it’s buried down so tight underneath the sense of survival and the sense of not really having a choice. You just get used to this. It’s just the way that it is.
Mansa Musa: And do you think it’s a correlation between people leaving out of prison long-term, short-term, and recidivism? You think it’s a correlation?
Carla Simmons: Yes.
Mansa Musa: If so, how so? How so?
Carla Simmons: Well, we know that life is hard. We know it’s hard out there. And if you’re suffering from some socioeconomic disadvantage to begin with, which there’s many, then you’re already at a higher risk for incarceration to begin with. And then we’re going to add on a felony conviction, which makes it harder to get a job. And then of course, it’s difficult. You have to reinstate your license, which takes money that you don’t have, and a job that you can’t get, and a probation or parole fee that you can’t pay, with transportation that you don’t have. And on top of that, you’ve got your system in an uproar, your resilient zone at an all time low, your stress level incredibly high. And then most people will leave with the subsets of the PTSD problems that make it difficult to socialize and interact in normal ways.
We have this desensitized behavior so that we don’t know when to intervene and when not, and our agency has been crippled. And then what else is there for us to do it? Foucault is one of my very favorite historian philosophers, the French guy. And in his writings, The Birth of the Prison, he says something that I’ve always found as very, very profound. He said that the institutionalized prison system as we know it today was established about 250 years ago. And that 10 years after it was established, there was such a thing as recidivism. And that his claim is that if 200 years later we haven’t freaking figured it out, it’s because it’s not broken, but designed to do exactly what it [inaudible]
Mansa Musa: Exactly, exactly.
Carla Simmons: – Which is to oppress and to segregate. And it’s very interesting, because the act of confinement as punishment in and of itself rose into being at the exact same time that the body began to earn hourly wages for labor. So when the body became a method to make money is when it became held captive for punishment. And so there’s this idea that if we can keep people working and we can keep money and we can keep doing this for free, then the systems designed to do that are perfect. And that clearly we’re not trying to help people or integrate people into successful lives where they can go on and live the dream. It’s just not possible.
Mansa Musa: I know. And I was thinking about my own, when I got out, and I’m working with an agency that deals with men and women coming out, helping them get situated. But when I got out, the first thing I got was mental health for myself and mental health space. I already knew that I had issues, but I remembered one incident in particular where I was getting some dental work done. The dentist told me everything he was going to do, and he was doing it. But somewhere along the line, my teeth became so sensitized that when I started eating, I couldn’t hardly eat. So I’m thinking that he did something wrong.
But in my traumatic thinking, I was thinking about how, when you in prison, you have to go to sick call, and you get in and your arm could be falling off, they say, well, put a sick call slip in. They don’t have no emergency mechanism. So I was telling my sister, I said, look, I’m going down to this dentist, and if you do anything other than fix my mouth, I’m going to wind up going back to prison, so I need you to intervene. And she said, very simple, oh, they got to take care of you because you paying for it. But I had lost that ability in that moment to make the connection that I’m in society and I’m paying for a service. And I consider myself relatively intelligent, but the trauma. But talk about why you don’t think that the prison-industrial complex overall should have a more trauma informed type agenda.
And when I say trauma informed type, CDC that came out with a study on what trauma informed environments look like. And one of the things they talk about is safety would be a key component of it. Peer support would be a key point of it. It would be like a culture, historical, and gender recognition would be a key component of it, but it’s another thing. But why do you think that the prison-industrial complex, overall, recognizing that PTSD exists and it exists in prison, why do you think that there hasn’t been a call to have a more trauma informed approach to the prison environments?
Carla Simmons: Yes, sir. I think that’s an excellent question. And it’s really at the heart of why I started doing this writing, because it occurred to me how beneficial it was for the facility, the institution, the system itself, to continue and to perpetuate trauma in this way. Because what we know is that if we can deregulate, desensitize, and completely destroy people, then they are much less likely to become a security threat. And I would argue that it’s done intentionally. Now, I recognize that it may be just a byproduct of all sorts of other factors, just a lack of organization, a lack of resources and staffing, or whatever. But I also know that counterinsurgency is a thing, where if we can take a population and we can imbalance them to such an extent that they will not organize, they will not communicate, they don’t have the mental strength or capacity to demand their basic needs, to talk about their rights.
And so it’s like if there’s the study from the ’70s with Seligman and he is talking about learned helplessness. They use dogs. And so they just shocked them, shocked them, shocked them. And then when they quit shocking them, the dog had been so deteriorated by the shocking process that when it was free to go it just sat there, because it didn’t know what even else to do. And so I make the connection with, if I have to constantly worry about if I have toilet tissue to wipe my ass, then I won’t even be thinking about how I could get out of here or how I could demand that we have clean water or a new pair of pants. Much less to look to my neighbor and see what maybe we could accomplish together, because I’m too worried about whether or not I’m going to miss lunch and if my socks will come back in the laundry, or if there will even be laundry, or if there will even be lunch.
Mansa Musa: Right, right, right.
Carla Simmons: I don’t know if it’s –
Mansa Musa: Go ahead.
Carla Simmons: Go ahead. I’m sorry.
Mansa Musa: No, go ahead. Finish your thought.
Carla Simmons: I’m just saying that, again, I believe that it’s intentional, but I don’t know that it is. And even if it’s a byproduct of a lot of other flaws in the system, that it definitely works to its advantage. I don’t see anyone stepping in and say, oh, well, let’s make these people healthier, when it’s doing such a good job allowing us to police ourselves in the way that we just become very compliant.
Mansa Musa: Well, we know that, according to penology, the concept of punishment is that the punishment is the sentence, and the carrying out the punishment is not to further punish a person, but to prepare a person to return, ultimately, back to society. And that’s in stages. But talk about where are you at right now in terms of, what’s on the horizon for you? Tell our audience. And tell our audience some of the things that you think that they might want to be doing in terms of helping to raise the awareness of the trauma that goes on in prison, and more importantly, the necessity to have a proactive approach to resolution of trauma in prison.
Carla Simmons: So what I think is that, for me, I know that I’m getting near the end of this, and whether that’s two years from now, five years, within the next 10 years from now I’ll be gone. I’m serving a life sentence here in Georgia, so we don’t know what that looks like. It’s been uncertain in its nature from the beginning. And I used to think that if I could emotionally survive this, that I’d be good. So then I got strong enough to handle it, and I think, well, if I can psychologically make it through it. And so I got some therapy and I’ve been reading a lot of books, and I’ve been examining my own self in the traumatic environment and trying to do healing work and whatever it takes to make myself capable of making it –
Mansa Musa: That’s right. That’s right, that’s right.
Carla Simmons: Lately, I’ve been on this kick where I was like, well, now it’s a physical survival, my body we don’t have vitamins and we don’t have adequate nutrition. And like I said, medical care is scant, and the people around me, they get a really bad cancer diagnosis. Now, if we can just make it physically, then we’re getting near the end of it. But that’s just my experience. And what I know is that there’s young people that come into the system every day and the life sentence in Georgia, it used to be a 14-year policy before you were considered for parole. And then, of course, a long denial process. But the kids that are coming in right now, they have 30-year life sentences where they’re not even eligible for parole until after 30 years.
And they’re coming into this very, very crippled environment where, for me, 20 years ago, it wasn’t quite like this. And more and more, we see this rise in violence, this lack of resources, the staff dealing with their own trauma, and the stakes just get higher and higher. And so I think that what we need to really be focusing on is where we’re headed. And where we’re headed is down the freaking drain. It’s not getting better. People are getting hurt, people are being harmed. And that’s something that we really need to reckon with as a society that has the pretense of rehabilitation.
We really need to decide, are we punishing people or are we trying to help them? And riding the line, using one when it’s convenient and the other when it’s convenient is bullshit. And I think that when we confront that and say, no, we really need to be clear about what it is that we’re doing, and then once we get clear, we need to do that. And then that requires society to really take a good hard look at their values, their collective values: who are we and what are we aiming to do? And then taking accountability for the steps to back that up, leave that in. Really, it boils down to policy.
Mansa Musa: And Carla, there you have it. The real news about trauma and the impact that trauma has on the prison-industrial complex. Carla, how can our audience get in touch with you? How can our audience become more aware of some of the things that you are doing?
Phone operator: You have one minute left.
Carla Simmons: Oh yeah. I don’t know. Keep reading, keep watching, keep listening for the voices that go unheard. I think a lot about power and how it is that we try to generate power from this point in society, this very oppressed place. And I know that, culturally, is the only place that I can interject any kind of power. And that’s through art, through writing, through recording this experience. And so as we continue to cultivate these records in our culture, then it becomes ingrained and it becomes, in its own way, powerful. And then one day it will affect the values of an upcoming generation.
Phone operator: Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.
Page Dukes: It looks like Carla may be trying to call back. Do you want me to try and patch her back in? Okay.
Mansa Musa: Yeah, yeah. Tell her to come back so we can wrap her up. And then Page, at the end, you can say something like –
Phone operator: An incarcerated individual at Arrendale State Prison. This call is not private. It’ll be recorded and may be monitored. If you believe this should be a private call, please hang up and follow facility instructions to register this number as a private number. To accept this free call, press one. To refuse this call… Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.
Mansa Musa: Looking forward, you expect to be out maybe in the next two to five years. Looking forward, what can we expect from Carla from that point on out?
Carla Simmons: Oh yeah. Okay. That’s a good question. What can we expect? Well, you can expect me to keep writing and to keep talking and to keep reliving the hell that we’ve seen and been through. I know that there’s members of my family who would like me to walk out of here and never look back, and I think that that’s impossible. And I think it’ll always be a part of who I am and what I do. And anything that I can do for the rest of my life that can reach back and bring some awareness, that would shed some light to make this a more humane experience while it exists. And I hope to live to see one day when we’ve erected justice to such an extent that it doesn’t look like bars and wire and cages and punishment and torture. So I want to keep writing and I want to keep talking.
I do a lot of art. I hope that somebody can find me out there expressing this experience and this trauma and the healing that I hope to one day accomplish. I also want to get involved in the scientific side of these things so that we can make real hard proof that it’s not just criminals talking about not getting their way or not having what they want or wanting less steel and more cushion or something, but that we’re talking about a real human experience and real psychological damage that’s irrevocable, and that we can have scientific evidence that proves that it’s wrong. And that way, if we can’t do it on the moral side, then we can do it with the hard evidence that things need to change and that we can do better.
Page Dukes: Hey, Carla, do you want to stay on or do you want to go?
Carla Simmons: Oh, it doesn’t matter. Yeah, I’ll stay on a while, if that’s okay.
Page Dukes: Okay, cool. Carla and I met in prison. We were both in the choir, the Voice of Hope Choir together. We also took a lot of classes together about trauma and how we could manage that with things like zen meditation. We took a class on cognitively-based compassion training, and so we had a lot of conversations about trauma and the way that we could mitigate it in our own lives and also help other people to cope.
Mansa Musa: And overall, what do you think about the overall attitude of the criminal justice system or the prison-industrial complex in terms of their approach to resolving the impact of trauma?
Page Dukes: I think that it is nonexistent. There’s not much of an effort to mitigate the impacts of trauma. At least in my experience, the prison response to mental health is to give you a level. They assign you to a mental health level, and then often they prescribe medication, sometimes very heavy medication. And so medicating people, sedating them might work for the prison-industrial complex, it might work for an individual on the level that they’re able to survive or cope on a medicated basis, but it’s not really doing anything for a person to deal with their trauma, either the trauma that they came with or the trauma that was impounded by incarceration. So I think we have to support each other, because the prison’s not doing anything to help us resolve that trauma.
Mansa Musa: All right. Thank you. We appreciate you being the link between us and Carla. This is a good opportunity for our listeners to be able to get a broader perspective of the overall effects of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration. A lot of times people have an attitude or a tendency to think that people incarcerated have a cushy life, but we recognize that overall it’s not like that. It is really brutal, hostile, and dehumanizing. Thank you very much, Page.
Page Dukes: Thank you so much. I’m glad I could be a part.
Mansa Musa: All right, there you have it. The real news about trauma in the prison-industrial complex where we recognize that the ultimate goal of imprisonment is to help a person change from what they was to becoming a better human being. But as we see from this interview will Carla, the prison-industrial complex is using the most harsh, brutal living condition to affect the mentality of most men and women that’s incarcerated, damaging them beyond repair, and not taking any effort to provide them with the necessary mental health that would allow them to remain in society upon release. Thank you, Carla, for this enlightening conversation, and we hope to see you out here making an impact on the prison-industrial complex.
Carla Simmons: Well, thank you so much. It’s been an honor to speak with you.