A Light Exploration of Prison Mentality

By Mike Powers

One of the enjoyable past times of incarcerated citizens is taking pieces of the stale bread we are sometimes served and breaking it up for the birds of the air to enjoy. I toss these pieces outside my window so that I can watch them eat. They exhibit many entertaining behaviors, but none so silly to me as fighting over a little crumb of bread when much bigger pieces surround it untouched. I don’t know if they’re just the selfishest creatures on planet earth or know something that I don’t about what will become of the bigger pieces if they lose the fight for the crumbs. As a matter of fact, it might be that they have learned the behavior by watching the inmates who throw them the bread in the first place.

We’ve had a lot of squabbling in our dorm as of late, and sadly, it almost always concerns the stupid television. It is also, unfortunately, split pretty solidly down racial divides. As you’ll recall from previous discussions, there are generally two TVs in any given dorm with a few exceptions, and one of these TV’s is usually the “sports TV” while the other is the “movie TV”. The designations are not set in stone. For example, The Price is Right and The Young and the Restless, almost always are put up on the sports TV while the Super Bowl or a good UFC matchup might make it on to both TVs at the same time. Also, car racing, which is a sport, is usually shown on the movie TV. This is because, alas, the even softer and underlying designations between “sports TV” and “movie TV” are the difference between “black TV” and “other TV”.

These loose distinctions have become more pronounced to me since I arrived on the Diboll Unit, and it’s because we have a lot of good cable television to choose from. This means that the sports TV might spend just as much time on BET as it does on ESPN. Likewise, the movie TV might spend just as much time on Discovery or the History Channel as it does on IFC or FXX.

To complicate matters, musically inclined individuals have recently influenced a lot of the decision-making process, and almost every morning, where the sports TV featured ESPN’s morning fare, now they watch a music-only channel that streams hip hop behind a series of cycling picture slides.

Now, there are rules that go with these TVs. One of them is that “channel checks” are supposed to be democratic. Another is that the sports TV, for example, is to be on a sport if any person prefers to watch sports rather than Young and the Restless... or hip hop videos. Perhaps you’re beginning to see where some of the tension has ratcheted up as of late. Especially since football is over and ESPN’s new Bottom Line feature sucks, the crowd who usually wants ESPN left on doesn’t care so much. Now, one white guy ventures over and wants to know what happened in last night’s baseball games and, BOOM, you’ve got loads of racial tension - not a good thing in a prison environment at all.

Now, back to my bird analogy. While these two little birds are squabbling over their little crumbs, down swoops a raven and makes off with the big chunk of bread. We have all these wonderful channels - so much variety. But, if we keep arguing and fighting over whether baseball or music should be on the TV, an exasperated warden will probably just cut off the cable to the whole unit. That’s bad, but to me, it hurts even deeper than that, because this unit and the way it is run is a statement to the world that the way the Texas Department of Criminal Justice usually does things is screwed up and that we inmates can be given more responsibility because we can handle it. It would be tragic if a stupid thing like an argument of TV channels caused us to lose one of the real privileges we get on this unit, one of the privileges that shows we can handle the freedom. Also, there’s this whole universalist mentality with the officers. Just because Mr. X and Mr. Y are arguing over the TV, no one can handle the freedom of extra channels, so we have to cut the privilege for everybody.

In so many little ways, this mentality reveals itself daily. A friend behind the serving line gives someone an extra biscuit, so the jealous inmate behind him cries foul and so no one ever gets an extra biscuit. The lieutenant, asked for a special privilege responds, “Oh, but if I let YOU do that, I’d have to let EVERYBODY do that,” even though not another soul knows about it. The list of pettiness could extend to the moon and back, but you get the idea.

Sometimes the foolishness extends even beyond the wire fence. An inmate was called to the door today, “You got a visit, Ross.” “But I’m in the middle of a chess game!” Wow. Your family drives two hours to see you, and you make them wait, because you’re in the middle of a chess game? Prison is just the place for you, I’m afraid.

Well, it will be interesting to see what happens in the dorm tonight. After putting hip hop videos on the movie TV all night because some other folks wanted to watch a basketball game, one frustrated man walked over and unplugged the TV. All hell nearly broke loose, and the only thing that kept a full-blown race riot from breaking out was the intervention of one of the largest and most cool-headed men in the dorm, but I’m not sure he wants to play nanny to the kids all the time. Somehow, a few grownups are going to have to start acting like their grown, or we’re going to have a problem.

In the meantime, I’m going to go over to the window and watch what the birds are up to. I threw some bread to them after supper - lots of big chunks mixed with a few crumbs.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez