21 September 2023

A Strange Sort of Mourning

By now, most of you know that I volunteered at the Sioux Falls prison for 12 years (Alternatives to Violence Project and the Lifer's Group), and then for the last year have been working from home in a kind of advisory capacity for the Lifer's Group.  I still hear most of what goes on from those who are still going into the prison, both news and gossip, so I don't feel too isolated from it, and I'm glad of that.

I've gotten to know a lot of inmates very well over the years.  I know a lot about their families as well as their crimes. I've gone to hospital when they've had surgery.  I'll never forget showing up at one inmate's hospital room (with my bona fides to let me in), and the surprise on the guard's face.  Inmates just don't get many visitors. Some inmates have stayed in touch after they've gotten out either on parole, or flatting (slang for doing all their time).  And I've written letters in support of some inmates' applications for parole.  

But there's a lot of sadness.  

The 18 year old kid, coming down off meth, who's still trying to think straight (and not succeeding), and trying to grapple with a 40 year sentence for the manslaughter he committed while tweaking, and he really doesn't remember much of any of it, because he was tweaking so hard and then he crashed so fast, and when he came to he was being arrested, and...  he doesn't know what the hell he's going to do.  

The 56 year old guy who used to be one of those 18 year old meth-heads who got federal time because he used a gun and had too much meth in his possession, and is at the pen because the feds are moving him - again - from one facility to another because that's what they do, and he's lost track of his family so many years and prisons ago, and there's no sense in making friends in prison because they just keep busting everybody up and moving them, and he's just there at AVP because it's something to do, but his eyes are freaking dead.  

The 75 year old guy who's been in for 45 years and ain't never getting out, because this whole "compassionate release" thing doesn't happen, not really, unless you have family who will take you in OR you are so close to dying they can just send you to hospice, and he's not there yet, so he's still working because you lose points and privileges if you refuse work, and he takes care of people in the hospice area of the pen, and so he knows exactly where he's going to end up and how it's going to be.  (He was the model for Papa Bell in my story, "Cool Papa Bell" in Josh Pachter's anthology, Paranoia Blues.)

The years pass slowly / quickly in a penitentiary.  Twentysomethings change into Fortysomethings into Sixtysomethings, and all that time they've been in a cement and metal world with 40 minutes outside rec once a day except in winter.  South Dakota winters are long.  And in those years, everything's changed, from technology to cultural norms to dress codes to their health, and after enough decades, they're seriously frightened of getting out.  

The Vietnam Vet in his 70s who was fixing to flat (finish his time) and talked to me that last AVP weekend about his PTSD, never treated, and how certain sounds still made him want to curl up in a ball and hide under his bunk, but he never dared do that in prison because someone would kill him sure or worse.  And when he finally was released, he asked to be taken to a nondescript motel which rented rooms by the week or the month, and there he is, holed up with his small remittance - enough for the rent and his fast food - and his TV, and plans to never see anyone ever again.  

Did I mention health problems.  Enough years on prison food and just about everyone has hypertension and diabetes, because it's heavy on carbs, low on protein, and very low on fresh fruit and vegetables.  The stud muffin of 18 is now 50 pounds overweight, and worried about a having a heart attack.  There's HIV and hepatitis everywhere, from prison tattoos (the tattoo artists brag about using new needles, but there's no guarantee) or blood-to-blood contact (gang fights, gang rape, gay sex).  And there's cancer.

Recently I found out that an inmate had died in a local hospital. I wasn't surprised.  He'd been part of Lifer's Group since it was restarted in 2017, and he'd had cancer then. Aggressive cancer.  He looked like a bone thin Alun Armstrong (Brian in New Tricks) in a wheelchair, with a strong speech impediment and a bad temper.  We watched him get thinner and weaker, but still showing up - wheeled in by one of the other guys - and trying desperately to communicate (it was throat cancer).  He could be a pain in the ass - when he got on a rant, he stayed on it - but he could also make valuable contributions.  God knows he knew what the prison hospital and hospice (ideally) should have been.  

Because of all of this, I've thought a lot over the years about how horrible it would be to grow old, get sick, to battle loneliness, guilt, mental illness, addiction, heart disease, cancer in prison.  And to die of it, ANY of it, in prison.  

Prison Alun was a felon, guilty of a terrible crime - but he paid for it.  He paid a lot, and it was more than just time.  


  1. A good post. I admire you ability to stay positive and to continue work that has rewards but clearly a lot of sorrows, too.

  2. Thanks Janice. The stories will stay with me the rest of my life, that's for sure.

  3. Wow. What a powerful post. Eve, I've always been a fan of yours, but now even more so. You are such a good person. When you say the stories will stay with you the rest of your life, I am reminded of my personal traumas having worked in health care. And the feeling that somehow - I don't know how - we really should be able to do more.

  4. Thanks, Melodie - I wish our society could / would realize that locking people up without treatment (health, mental health, addiction, etc.) is probably worse than any death penalty...

  5. I've paused, not knowing what to say.

    I'm thinking about sheriffs who are allowed to keep whatever they save in their food budget, so they feed their charges moldy balogna and 3-day old white bread. I'm thinking about Orange County jail where rapes occur over and over again… even to the innocent… perhaps especially the innocent. It's part of the punishment, right? They would be in jail if they hadn't done something wrong. And that's not a fraction of what you've witnessed.

  6. Leigh, it's a hard, hard, hard place to be, and I have nothing but contempt for their hard, hard hearts to all those who say, "well, they're criminals, so who cares?"

  7. I've heard of AVP before, and I stumbled across this blog looking up something else, but I paged down the last couple of entries and read this and...I've now signed up as a monthly donor to AVP. Thanks for the unintentional nudge.

  8. Cindy P., on behalf of AVP, thank you so very much!


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