A view from the behind the walls

Antonio Williams/MSR News Online

Why does it confound the free world that people who are stacked on top of each other and have nothing prey on each other? Why does it seem like everyone is okay with those same people being preyed on by the institutions that are holding them?

Well, seeing as the nation’s and state’s constitution permits slavery if one has been convicted of a crime, it should not be a surprise. But let’s be honest, if it was removed from both constitutions tomorrow nothing would change! Why? Because unless there was an amendment or some kind of legislation passed to hold those who would still engage in the practice accountable it wouldn’t stop.

If we want time out of our cell, Minnesota’s prisoners would still be forced to work in the prison industries for pennies an hour. Our families would still be forced to give the DOC a cut if they want to send us money for phone time, food and hygiene products. And the price gouging for those items would go on.

 We would still be charged “Cost & Confinement” fees, although the state is getting other funds to warehouse us. Corners would still be cut when it comes to health care, food and sanitation provided by the DOC.

There is another, insidious form of preying that the system is engaged in that is tied directly to the 13th Amendment. It is a stark representation of a racist ideology and strategy that has deep roots in America’s soil. Identity preying (or theft) was and is a fundamental component of slavery. All of those terms—criminal, inmate, offender and monster—coupled with the treatment and conditions, have a very damaging effect on the identities of the men and women who are imprisoned.

One of the definitions of prey is “to commit violence or robbery or fraud.” Fraud is defined as, “the intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right.”

Policymakers, police departments and the Department of Corrections have intentionally perverted the truth of who we are to the public. To justify the inhumane treatment they subject us to, they simply refuse to acknowledge our citizenship and our human status.

They have gotten us to surrender our humanity by making us believe that we are no longer human beings because we committed a crime. They house us in a zoo-like environment that naturally breeds uncivilized behavior as a means to cope.

So how does the incarcerated person resist? On an economical level we have to become financially literate; learn how to properly manage our finances. And, stop giving our slave wages right back to the plantation!

Minnesota’s prison system has a monopoly on every commodity available. There is no shopping around for the best, most economically sound product. If you don’t buy it from the DOC’s handpicked vendor you won’t have it.

 In Minnesota prisons, there is a $140 weekly spending limit and we can purchase shoes from the prison or from the Eastbay catalog. Every week, many men spend their family’s and their own hard-earned money on items that are not necessary. In a misguided attempt to hold on to their humanity they rush to buy the newest shoes, or the latest model TV, even when nothing is wrong with the ones they have.

And while some of the food that we can purchase is healthy, for the most part, it is helping turn up the diabetic and obesity rates because it’s being bought and eaten in excess.

The most powerful and effective step we can take to keep our humanity is by learning who we are. We are not the crime we committed. We must demonstrate that knowledge of self through our everyday conduct.

Pressure must be put on policymakers to make prison conditions and rules more humane. Prison industries should have to pay workers at least half of the state’s minimum wage, and we should be able to shop for the best prices available, not be forced to pay whatever the DOC’s chosen vendor asks.

To make this realistic solution happen we must have help from the greater community or the cycle of preying and being preyed on will continue.

 Antonio Williams currently resides at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City.