The following essay was submitted as a writing assignment by an incarcerated person who has agreed to allow us to present it on our web site. We feel it is another witness to the racial attitude still prevalent in our state and that supports the accusation that racial bias is a factor in the often excessive and harsh sentences given to minorities.
Reid Danell, English 151 Writing Assignment – Lesson 1
The Riverside Reader Topic #5 Essay
The state in which I live, Montana, has an overwhelmingly white population. Our prison system is a reflection of these demographics. One of the smallest minority groups here are African-Americans. Most Black inmates come to Montana from out-of-state, whether for college or with the military, and thus normally have few ties to Montana communities. For these, and possibly other cultural reasons, Black inmates are seen as “different” by white inmates within the Montana state prison system.
A subtle undercurrent of racism pervades the prison population here. Subtle, because it is rarely blatant or out in the open. It’s far more craven than that. When behind closed doors, after making sure all of the faces within the room are white, out come the jokes and snickers. Stereotypes about Blacks are widely held by white inmates, and even by some of the other ethnic groups. Yet, none of this is ever voiced directly to a Black man, or even in his hearing. Instead, when a Black inmate is present, it’s all smiles and pats on the back.
These attitudes are very prevalent here. I’ve been guilty of them myself, even if it is by omission, rather than by commission. Being white, with a shaved head, goatee, and “Irish Pride” tattooed down my forearms, I’m seen as one of the “good ol’ boys.” Many times I’ve stood there and listened to someone say the most offensive and hateful things about Black people. Deep in my heart I want to shout, “You ignorant piece –of-sh-t! That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! Unless you have something intelligent and meaningful to say, do us all a favor and shut the f-ck up.” Yet, I never do. On my best day I may maintain a disdainful silence. At my worst, a halfhearted chuckle. Thus, an opportunity for heroism is sabotaged by cowardice. While no excuse, the fear of being ostracized, and group conformity, are powerful societal forces.
Possibly even more insidious, is the institutionalized racism among prison staff and officials. Blacks and other minorities are more often singled out for pat searches, cell shake-downs, and investigations than white inmates are. Some of it is informal. It’s not uncommon for a guard to feel comfortable exchanging racist jokes with white inmates. The implications of that are profound, given the “us vs. them” mentality between staff and prisoners.
There are heartening moments though, even if they are born of tragedy. The recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, has ignited universal outrage and disgust among inmates here, regardless of race or background. For however fleeting of a moment, the terrible injustice done to this young man has united many of us as men; as Americans; as human beings. It often takes tragedy and injustice to unite people across perceived boundaries, and that’s tragic in itself, but with it has come a small glimmer of hope for the restoration of human decency and solidarity.
The question remains to be asked, “Will there b any lasting change here as a result of what happened to Trayvon Martin?” Sadly, it is not very likely. Attention spans are short and human ignorance runs deep. Still, not all is bleak. As our nation becomes more and more pluralistic, perhaps an increase of bi-racial and multi-racial families will make racist attitudes and stereotypes a thing of the past, even in prison. Or, more heroically, maybe a brave man, or men, will take a stand for what’s noble and virtuous, and cease to tolerate racial prejudice within their sphere of influence. Perhaps they will combat ignorance with truth, and turn the time of racial hatred here. Perhaps. And, so, hope remains.