This week I am sharing my reflections on Norman Theriot’s journal entry from 09/27/2021. I encourage you to visit the Journal Archive if you are interested in seeing more works directly from prisoners.
Norman Theriot (Journal from 09/27/2021)
Theriot’s journal is a combination of things—of self-reflection, growth, perseverance,
and what prison life is really like. While prisons are constructed with the intent of isolation and separation, the metal bars and barbed wire have done little in the way of keeping COVID-19 out, as Theriot writes: “Since I last wrote, I have found myself in a wheelchair, transferred to another unit and I too had COVID and was on a ventilator for two weeks, another month in ICU with yet another month in a rehabilitative ward. None of this has been any fun. Now they say I have long COVID. It’s a mess to say the least.” The SARS-CoV-2 virus has (and continues to) infect and debilitate without discrimination, so much so that masks and hand sanitizer have become fixtures of our culture and lifestyle.
The pandemic is not just a struggle between humans and a constantly mutating virus, but also a reflection of the divides that are so apparent in our society: “Racial disparity, political division. Mass shootings everywhere. What will happen next? Then we have to deal with climate change.” Theriot is right when he writes that “all people need to come together and seek to change the way we live and interact with each other. Change the way we live and become more friendly with Mother Earth.” Disrupting the environment is not without consequence, but “change begins with the individual.” It’s not enough for lawmakers to enact legislation, because putting pen to paper is not going to save the country or the planet from the dumpster fires that threaten to envelop us in flames.
The prison system is not intended to be a place of growth or change, but a place where people who have wronged are prevented from further harming society. At least that’s how I understand it. That’s not really what happens though. Theriot writes: “Long term prisoners (ten years and up) come in with different attitudes. The environment supports a feeling of permanence. The prisoner can make no plans for the future because he sees no future. He eventually looks to receive “jailhouse respect” if he can operate inside the system and get things done. This can be by way of a gambling ring, drug distribution, food supply, smuggling etc. And because many long-timers know that they will never be able to earn respect from society or from prison administration, they choose to enhance their own status with other long-term offenders.” I think the problem here lies in three things: (i) “people today are greedy,” even if it’s for something like “perceived respect,” (ii) in many cases a background and upbringing that almost normalizes prison, and (iii) a lack of support and resources to encourage these prisoners to change. Change isn’t something that can just be imposed. To a large extent, people have to want to change, and I think it’s important to realize that not everyone wants or is receptive to change. I hope that outlets such as Prisoner Express encourage even those who will not be released to examine their lives and realize that they are capable of good.
I think that we can learn from Theriot’s reflections on the realities of prison life on the outside as well. In a lot of ways, our country is a “dog eat dog world.” The legitimacy of the pandemic, which at its core is about protecting ourselves and our communities, has been challenged by groups since its beginning. Politics isn’t so much about considering the future and the betterment of the country as it is about a party or agenda gaining the upper hand. The “dog eat dog” mentality clearly isn’t particularly effective, and “if we would only come together great things can and will happen.”