For prisoners, the holidays are extremely painful

After spending the past year and a half socially distancing, millions around the country will be coming together to celebrate the holidays this year with a renewed appreciation for seeing and being with loved ones. For those who are locked away in prisons and jails, however, the dehumanizing separation from family, friends, and community will continue. Having spent 44 years as a political prisoner, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway has an intimate knowledge of just how painful the holidays are for incarcerated people and why suicides, violence, and depression spike for prisoners this time of year. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Conway and TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez have an open and emotional discussion about what it’s like to be locked up during the holidays and about the importance of doing what we can to help prisoners maintain contact with the outside world.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Eddie Conway:     Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. Since it’s the holiday season, we thought we would have a conversation about the impact of holidays on prisoners in the prison-industrial complex. Joining me today as an honor and a special guest is our editor-in-chief, Max Alvarez, of course. Max, thanks for joining me.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Hey, Eddie. Thank you so much for having me on the show. It’s a real honor and a pleasure to be here.

Eddie Conway:         Okay. Max, you talked to me earlier about what it’s like being in prison during holidays. Are you still interested in that?

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah. I mean, it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot. I mean obviously I watch Rattling the Bars every week and we’re truly honored to be putting it on every week, and you and Cameron do such incredible work covering the violence and victims of the prison-industrial complex week in and week out. And obviously you yourself have a very intimate knowledge of just how brutal this prison-industrial complex can be. And I don’t know, I guess just, there were moments over the past couple of years where I think, for those of us who were kind of socially distancing or even quarantining ourselves, that may have been the first time people really felt that sort of distance and isolation from their families. I know that I personally, over the summer I saw videos that my family was sending of the family getting together in California. And I was looking at them and it felt like I was sitting on the moon looking at pictures of something that was just so far away that there was no way I could get back there.

And I mean, that’s not even close to the kind of isolation that prisoners feel on a day-to-day basis. And so, I just wanted to make sure that as we wrap up a really incredible year of work here at the Real News, as folks are perhaps heading back home to see friends and family after perhaps not being able to next year, that we all spare a thought for our… The folks who are locked away right now and who are kind of living deep in the gut of an incredibly brutal prison system completely separated from their loved ones and their communities. And I think it’s important for all of us to think about what that’s like, to think about what we can do to bring some semblance of humanity back to those who have had it ripped away from them in the prison system.

And so, I figured there’d be no better kind of chance than for maybe you and I to chat a little bit and talk to viewers about what that’s like. I mean, I know that there’s probably no way to communicate what it’s like, but I guess, if you were talking to someone who asked the question, what do you think people need to know about what it’s like being locked up around the holidays?

Eddie Conway:          It’s interesting though, because of the pandemic I have been telling people, because people have cabin fever, they’re bored to death, they’re jumping out of their skin because they can’t have contact. Some of them are even so desperate now that they’re willing to even take risks to go to events. And I was telling them, that’s just a small fraction of what prisoners feel when they’re isolated in cells surrounded by strangers, because you’re never alone except maybe in solitary confinement and so on. But most of the time there’s people coming in, people going out, but there’s never really close friendships. There’s a few here and there. Then there’s a certain amount of macho-ism that goes with being a prisoner. You can’t show kind of weaknesses, you can’t show that you’re vulnerable to certain things, you can’t cry, you can’t even hug prisoners man-to-man. They might come up and do a manly hug and a slap on the back and whatnot.

But the most debilitating time of the year for prisoners is the holiday seasons because that’s the memories that they bring into the prison system from their childhood: The happy times, the good food, the grandma’s cooking, the presents, the interacting with families. All that’s taken away, and it’s taken away and it’s not replaced with anything. There’s no packages. Used to be Christmas packages, you could get stuff. There’s no special events during the holiday season because the guards are taking off their vacations and so on. So, most of the time you are locked in the cell, and so you don’t even get to talk to your family on a regular basis on the telephone. And the depression is so intense throughout the whole area that it creates a sense of doom.

Everybody’s sad. People that can get high are getting high. People that can get drunk, get drunk because they can make… jump study or whatever. People that have no recourse at all might go out and run the yard, or might do calisthenics all day. But the absence of relief that you get during the holidays with the family and friends and all that stuff, it’s so intense that every little incident is exacerbated. I’m angry. I’m mad. And so, it’s the transfer of hostility and it’s transferred because the oppression of the prison system doesn’t allow you to speak out and say we want this or we want that or so on. And so, we transfer it to each other. You bumped into me. Watch where you’re going.

But it’s really about the turkey. It’s really about mom and grandma’s cooking, but it translates like that. And so, you get not just violence but then you get a level of depression that leads to suicides. So suicides during this particular period. This is the worst time in the world to be in prison and be cut off and isolated from your family, because that’s the time that’s more depressing and people tend to opt out or to end their life, or get reckless.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Right. Well, I –

Eddie Conway:         So, it’s… Yeah. Yeah, Max?

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, I was just going to follow up on that because I know this is something that you have talked a lot about yourself, not only on this show but even when you were on the inside organizing, right? You were constantly bringing up the importance of maintaining some semblance of connection between folks on the inside and the outside because of what it does to you, the ways that it dehumanizes you, the ways that it almost turns you in and your soul starts eating itself, if you are completely cut off from the outside world. And that is something that you see happening, especially… It becomes very apparent in times like these where maybe in the past loved ones could travel to jails or prisons and touch their sons, their spouses, but now they’re behind glass or they can only talk to them behind these video phone calls.

I guess I just wanted to ask if you could connect that to what you’ve spoken about before of what it does to you as a person to be so thoroughly disconnected, even in the sense of being able to touch your loved ones, what that does to you?

Eddie Conway:     Yeah, and I think I would kind of reinforce that a little bit because cards, letters, pictures, phone calls, or anything that you get during that time helps you kind of survive through that time. Because not only do you suffer the consequences of wearing uniforms and being a non-entity, and recognizing because of the 13th Amendment that you’re treated as a slave, but then you’re further dehumanized by the guards, by them coming in happy and joyous and celebrating and then, and talking and high-fiving each other and all of that. And you’re tucked away in that cell with nothing and no contact, no comfort. It’s really, I mean, that’s kind of like the final level of dehumanization, because you can’t even develop the memories that we need to have experiences with our family. In other words, holidays and those kinds of gatherings, that’s what we remember. Being with Aunt Lou or Cousin Billy or so on. We remember those experiences, but when you take those memories away then you have not just a blank slate of what’s going on with the family, you’re not part of it, but you’re not part of anything.

And so then – And in fact I just want to go a step further, because it’s important for people to reach out to their people while they’re inside. It’s very important to do that. But a step further is that it causes most people to try to make up for that lost time, and that’s what creates the recidivism. They go out and they try to catch up. They try to get the memories, the experiences, the resources, the stuff that they know that they missed for the last 10 years. And they try to get it within a year, and they end up running afoul and end up back in the prison system within a year or 18 months, and that’s 80% of the people that get released. But it’s the missing experiences. It’s the missing comradery with the family. It’s the missing good times that they remember that they’re trying to catch up. And you can never catch… They’re lost. They’re lost forever. You can’t catch them, that’s an empty hole. You have to bury them, and you have to put them to rest and move on.

But most prisoners don’t do that, and most prisoners end up suffering a big, empty space in their life, like 10 years. And they come out and they’re desperate to fill that space, and you can’t. So it’s long-term consequences, too. And so, I think it’s just very important for any and everybody that can reach out. It is through the glass now. It’s through the emails. It’s through, even when you send pictures you’ve got to send them certain ways. Even when you buy books you’ve got to send them certain ways. The prison-industrial complex, it’s getting rich off of this, but it’s important to keep your loved one, your family member, as whole as possible. That means you have to suffer some of that exploitation in order to reach out and to have that person whole, and have that person share as many family photos around the [inaudible] and that kind of stuff. It seems trivial, postcards. Even $5 in the commissary. It seems minor but it’s so important to that person in that cell.

Maximillian Alvarez:    I bet. I mean, and like you said, the stakes here are incredibly high. I mean, I guess it’s not surprising, right? That this is the time of year where suicides go up, where, like you said, you take all that hurt and you turn it towards one another and so violence inside the prison goes up. And I guess, again, that’s just something I wanted to stress for folks watching and viewing. If you have it within you to please look for ways that you can, in some little way, help someone out, help them maintain that connection with the outside world, help them maintain that shred of humanity in a very inhumane system. And I guess, obviously, the overarching theme of Rattling the Bars is that we don’t need a kinder prison-industrial complex, right? The system itself is violence. It is perpetual violence. This is what it’s designed to do.

So we’re not saying, let’s do this as a sort of salve while keeping the system in place, but while that system is in place there are things people can do to, again, keep that sort of fire of humanity burning, however weak it is, and do something that may mean only a few minutes or a few dollars for you, but it’ll mean everything for someone on the inside. And so, I just wanted to kind of end up there, Eddie, and ask if you had any kind of final thoughts for people about what they could do and what that does mean for someone who’s there on the inside, and at the holidays like now.

Yes. And I’ve said it and you’ve said it. Reach out in any kind of way you can. Send a card, send a letter. If it’s an email system, email. Send money for the commissary. Send books. You can definitely send pictures. You have to go through some process. But try to reach out and make as many contacts as possible with your loved one. Encourage the family members to do the same thing. Every little bit helps. Every little bit lightens that burden of the massive depression that holiday seasons bring in the prison system. And you will hopefully bring somebody home that’s less damaged than the prison system intended to make them. Max, I want to thank you for joining me. Hope –

Maximillian Alvarez:    Eddie, it’s all a pleasure, brother. Thank you so much for having me.

Eddie Conway:          Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Eddie Conway

Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.