The Not So Great Divide

Conspire alum Lauren Johnson continues her series on incarceration, recovery and life in general. 

I have recently been getting into some intense and tiring conversations with a friend of mine. This is a guy who I use to buy drugs from, and I also used to babysit his two year old daughter. He was arrested in Williamson County for possession of methamphetamine and was sentenced to LIFE! A life sentence these days translates into 40 years. I know someone else that served 10 years on a murder charge – go figure! Part of the reason for such a large sentence is that they used a criminal history from 20 years prior to enhance the charge. I have been writing him for the last 9 years. In the beginning of his sentence he accepted Jesus into his life and you could see it in every letter. I enjoyed getting his letters because you could feel the positive energy seeping out of the paper. Even in the midst of his circumstances he had such a positive attitude that it helped me to keep a positive perspective too.

In the last year or so I have noticed a different undercurrent in his letters. I started a dialogue with him about it and asked him what was going on with him. I got a few vague answers: he hasn’t been at peace, he hasn’t been cultivating his relationship with God the way he should, and reasons such as that. I believe him, but the theme that I detect is more like an infection and now I feel hateful energy coming out of his letters. It isn’t anything direct but it is noticeable. Not too long ago he asked me to look on the computer and see if I could find any information about a racially motivated riot at a state fair in Wisconsin. (Ed. note – much of the coverage of this incident is highly charged and could be triggering, especially the comments.)

I read some of the article, and then sent it to him, not really aware yet that I was fueling a fire. In his next letter, he asked me to research something else for him. He wanted to know what race is most likely to commit violent crime. In the hopes that I could find some statistics that would level the fire out, I did do a search. Unfortunately the majority of the results that search led me on, all came to the same page. A page with information from the KKK. This time I decided not to send the pages to him. I did tell him the basics of what I found and also mentioned that it held a lot of bias considering the source.

He has since written me back with the goal of having a debate. He asked me to do more research and said he is willing to accept being wrong if I can prove it.

I did write him back, I sent him the statistics that I found in my research on drug laws and arrests and statistics on those along with some information that I found from a website I found. I included that information to get him thinking in a different way. I also told him that as far as I am concerned the statistics he is looking for, are irrelevant. In my eyes, anything that spends time fueling hate or ill feelings towards others is wasted time. The time spent looking for reasons to separate us from others could be better spent on education or spiritual development.

I know that a racial divide exists in prison. It appears intensified there and has become a part of the culture that seems impossible to change. This seems to be even more true in the men’s prisons. My experience in the woman’s prison system is limited. I have only been on a few small units, where most of the women had small sentences, I don’t have first hand knowledge of how the entire system operates.

I do get an idea based on the things I see in the letters. It is subtle, but it is there. Why is racism more pronounced in prison? My best guess? Because when inmates arrive to get processed in, they are all essentially the same.. It is a method similar to what is used in the armed forces boot camps. Everyone starts on the same level – for men that means the same hair cut, same clothes, and the same basic belongings. When they walk in the doors they are just like everyone else there. First timers don’t know what to expect and try to find a way to fit in. The most obvious commonality would be skin color.

I remember an ice breaker activity we did in a training session for the peer educators there. The instructor placed stickers of various colors on the foreheads of all the participants and then told everyone to find the people they belonged with. There were no further instructions given except that we couldn’t talk. Interestingly everyone still managed to group themselves by the color of the sticker.

Sometimes I struggle with how to deal with dialogues like the one I am having with my friend. There is a part of me that wants to fix it. The part of me that wants to say something to change the way things are or the way my friend thinks. There is a part of me that wants to give up and says stop wasting your time writing these people. I have prayed about how to handle it as well. I keep coming up with the same answer. I don’t have to fight, I don’t have to argue. It is not my responsibility to convince these people to change. The best thing I can do is operate out of love, and by doing that, be a good example. That is often the most powerful thing anyone can do. It may not be an immediate effect. It is, however, highly effective. Looking back on my life, the people that have had the biggest impact on me weren’t those who preached, or scolded. They weren’t the ones who talked the talk. It has always been the people who lived as the example. So I will continue to write my friend. I will answer his questions to me honestly. I will live as an example, and not give up. I will allow love to transcend the disagreements. If that doesn’t change anything for him, that is okay. It may impact someone later on down the line.

-Lauren Johnson

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