[Pnews] What I Learned in Prison

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 4 10:32:30 EDT 2015

August 3, 2015

  What I Learned in Prison

*By James Kilgore

I was paroled to Champaign, Ill., in 2009, after serving six and a half 
years in federal and state prisons in California.

When I arrived in Illinois, I ducked questions about my years behind 
bars. People would ask me where I had been before. "California," I’d 
say. "What were you doing there?" I’d look away and mumble something 
about being a writer (I did write a lot in prison) or just say "a lot of 

Since I’m an older white guy, with no tattoos or bulging biceps and all 
my teeth, no one assumes I’m a thug or a meth cook. Class and race 
stereo­types help steer people away from specifics.

Then one day I met a man at a birthday party who started in on the 
"where were you before you came to Champaign?" routine. I didn’t feel 
like playing the game anymore. "I was in prison," I told him. He went 
bug-eyed. All he could do was repeat the word "prison."

I, on the other hand, felt great. I realized the power of truth, even if 
it does come with stigma and judgment. Since we have nearly 20 million 
people <http://paa2011.princeton.edu/papers/111687> in the United States 
with felony convictions and an estimated 65 million 
with some kind of criminal record, people need to get used to dealing 
with "background" as part of people’s biographies. Of course, those 
millions are not spread evenly. Many black folks either have a family 
member with a felony or have one themselves. Ditto if you are Native 
American or transgender. It’s not much different in Latino communities, 
especially if we acknowledge that immigration detention is the same as 

After that fateful birthday party, people began asking me: "What was 
prison like?" At first I talked about the most painful things: that your 
children grow up without you, that you never get to hold your lover, 
kiss your mother, or walk down a quiet street in the rain. But I decided 
that I didn’t like sharing that pain with strangers. I put together four 
talking points about how prison changes a middle-class, educated white man.

First, the abnormal becomes normal. This occurs in ways that you might 
expect: You get called "inmate" or referred to by your prison number, 
not your name. You get handcuffed and put in waist chains and leg 
shackles when you have to leave the prison to see a doctor (and at other 
times when the guards see fit).

But the most abnormal thing that becomes normal is the endless stream of 
black, brown, and poor white bodies flowing through those gates. And 
those bodies will spend 10, 20, 30 years in prison. Some will do life or 
double life or life without parole. I had one friend who was doing 555 
years. Most of those prisoners have not committed crimes that any 
rational society would punish so severely.

When I was in the federal prison at Lompoc, I was a GED teacher. One of 
my best students was Weldon Angelos, whose case exposes the madness of 
mass incarceration. He is serving 55 years for selling marijuana while 
possessing a gun — with no prior record, a family, a job. Even his judge 
says he should never have gotten such a long sentence. I met too many 
Weldons behind those walls.

Second, there isn’t much violence in prison. That always shocks people 
because they think that men in prison spend their days stabbing and 
raping each other. But instead, people find ways to live together: to 
share tight spaces and meager resources in a way that puts getting along 
at the center of their lives. I have a lot of respect for that.

The minute you arrive at a new prison yard, someone will approach you, 
find out where you are from, connect you to one of your "homies," and 
make sure you have the basics needed to survive: soap, deodorant, a 
couple of Top Ramens, a pair of shower shoes. The assumption is that we 
all have to live together in this hellhole, so let’s find a way to do 
that; let’s make sure no one starves, no one stinks, no one has to walk 
around in bare feet.

Every prison has a well-­developed service economy, all run by 
prisoners. I have paid for the following from my comrades-in-arms: a 
massage, getting my shirts ironed, a haircut, a delicious burrito, 
oatmeal cookies stolen from the kitchen, color portraits of my entire 
family, a picture frame made from old potato-chip wrappers, and, of 
course, white lightning and the prison wine known as pruno. People find 
ways to make money, to barter, to improve their lives through systems of 
production and cooperation.

You can cram 150 "convicts" into a converted gym and make them sleep on 
triple bunks, and they will develop a way to get along without violence. 
They will make rules, carve out territory, and respect boundaries. 
Anyone who breaks the rules may be forced to do a few burpees or even 
get "checked" (punched), but the rules are clear. If you put 150 CEOs or 
MacArthur geniuses in the same space, they wouldn’t do half as well.

My next point contradicts Point No. 2: Prisons are steeped in hate and 
violence. Guards generally loathe prisoners. Since so many prisons are 
located in rural areas with mostly white populations, whereas those 
locked up are overwhelmingly poor people of color from big cities, 
prison hatred has a powerful racial tinge. Most guards have learned how 
to avoid using the N-word, but institutional racism lurks just below the 

Then there is white supremacy. In prison I acquired the social skill of 
making polite conversation with someone with a swastika tattoo on his 
forehead or a nicely inked "thank God I’m white" across the back of his 
neck. Prisons are hotbeds of white supremacy, a special form of hatred 
that keeps prison populations divided and makes it difficult to mount 
resistance to the myriad ways in which the institutions violate the 
rights of their charges. Unfortunately, the ideology spills out into the 

While I hate white supremacy, I don’t hate all white supremacists. Most 
are victims of circumstances — but still dangerous.

Finally, in prison you always know someone is benefiting from locking 
you up. People make money designing those crepe-paper suits they put on 
you when you move to another prison. Companies like Bob Barker 
("America’s Leading Detention Supplier") profit from a range of 
disgusting products, like one-inch razors and canvas shoes with black 
and white stripes on the side. Other companies make millions designing 
and building prisons and supplying them with everything from food to 
toilet paper.

Guards are the most obvious profiteers. They’re constantly cooking up 
overtime schemes. Thousands of guards in California make more than 
$100,000, and last year more than 100 
had paychecks surpassing $180,000. That’s a criminal misuse of 
taxpayers’ money.

Prison changed me. I’m a little less fun now, less prone to look for the 
lighter side of things. I do try. But most days, prison is all I can 
talk about. I’ve become an obsessed campaigner against incarceration, 
against the madness of solving social problems with concrete and steel 
cages. My obsession may not make me an ideal party guest, but I can’t 
think of a better way to spend my time.

/James Kilgore is a visiting lecturer in global studies at the 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He spent six and a half 
years in prison for crimes related to his participation in political 
violence during the 1970s, and a subsequent period of more than two 
decades as a fugitive. Since his release, he has published three novels. 
His most recent book is /Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s 
Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time/(The New Press, 2015)./

James Kilgore
Research Scholar
Center for African Studies
University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign)
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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