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~by Grant Tietjen, Ph.D.


Nearly 20 years ago, I was being transported between correctional facilities during my stay with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP). I can no longer remember the reason for the flight. They moved us a lot in federal prison. Thousands of men and women hurtling through the skies in the only airline that never sleeps – “con air,” the prison airline of choice. …and, the only prison airline of its type in the world. You fly with handcuffs, a belly chain, and shackles that rest uncomfortably on your ankles. While Hollywood and the news media often attempt to present a “shock-u-mentary” version of con-air in which hardened and dangerous “criminals[1]fly in airplanes while leering coldly at each other, constantly plotting grand schemes to escape, and/or commit massive illegal escapades, the reality of the real day-to-day con-air is something else entirely.


The process of flying on this prison airline is draconian in its cold efficiency. The experience for the incarcerated man or woman on this airline is, while often ridden with anxiety, often quite tedious and after many flights, quite boring. Given, the first time flying on con-air is stressful, as many major life “firsts” are. The Air Marshalls line up outside of the plane in full gear, bullet proof vests, and shotguns, and form a perimeter around the plane. The incarcerated people are marched out of their transport vans and buses (transported from respective correctional facilities to the airport) onto the runway tarmac, and lined up to be loaded onto the jets. We join the other people who are usually already on the plane, as the jets are constantly bouncing around the country, from airport to airport, moving prisoners around according to a logic only the FBOP understands. As I sit down in the seat that the Air Marshal assigns to me (no priority seating here), I begin the process of assessing my surroundings, sizing up who is near me, scanning for familiar faces, and feeding my general curiosity about encountering a new group of people for the first time.


To the casual observer, this scenario may seem like something out of a suspenseful action packed crime movie, but to the average incarcerated person in the FBOP, this is just another routine in a given day. During the course of an air-transport day, incarcerated people engage in conversations with each other to pass the time, and calm frayed nerves and anxieties. Not everyone wants to talk, so my entreaties to join in conversation were not always reciprocated, and I firmly respected the other person’s choice. Respect is one of the few things that incarcerated people have, and to disregard this is heavily frowned on in prison subcultures. If someone began a conversation with me, I often took part, and welcomed the diversion from the stress of my own thoughts. Also, discussion amongst us fellow passengers was a means of finding out information- also referred to as prison gossip. Although, I cannot remember the specific details from most of those brief chats, I’ll provide a general example of what a brief excerpt from an inflight discussion would look like:


Other person: So, where are you headed?


Myself: To prison XXXXXX. How about yourself?


Other person: I’m going to prison XXXXX. I hear things are better at the prison you’re going to. The place I just came from was terrible. I’m glad to get out of that hellhole!


Myself: Oh? Whoa! What was going on in that place?


Other person: It was wild man! The guards were really mean. There were constant fights breaking out amongst guys (incarcerated people). The cafeteria food was garbage, total dogfood man. They started enforcing that new rule there that doesn’t allow us to watch TV on certain days, and were giving shots (prison disciplinary infractions) to people for no reason at all, dude!


But, sometimes weighty subjects entered the scope of conversation, and life changing issues were bandied about in the matter of a few seconds. Such topics often carried the despair of incarceration, which one sociologist, Gresham Sykes referred to as: “the pains of imprisonment.” When expanding on the impact of such pains on incarcerated people, Sykes (1958) explains that, “It is not difficult to see the isolation as painfully depriving or frustrating in terms of lost emotional relationships, of loneliness and boredom. But what makes the pain of imprisonment bite most deeply is the fact that the confinement of the criminal[2] represents a deliberate, moral rejection of the criminal by free society” (p. 65).


One such weighty conversation took place when I was being transferred from a holding facility (Federal Transfer Center) to a federal prison. We had just landed at an airport in one of the Southern states (the specifics of which I can no longer recall) en route to my facility. I had remained sitting in my seat, because this was not my departure point, and we were not allowed to get up and wonder around the plane unless directed by an air marshal to do otherwise (the only movements usually allowed were arriving at your assigned seat and then departing the plane at your destination). A group of men were leaving the plane for their destination prison, trundling down the narrow walkway between the passenger jet’s seats when I noticed a couple of familiar faces, two guys who I had been in federal holding with, while we were all awaiting sentencing. We had become friends (yes, friendships amongst incarcerated people do commonly occur in jails and prisons) and had shared many an hour talking about our hopes, fears, and memories of our past lives while trying to pass the abundance of time we had on our hands. Because they were related (brothers), the prison system had kept them together. They recognized me and we did the mutual nod of recognition. There was no time for pleasantries, as this airline keeps a strict schedule. I asked them if they’d been sentenced yet (sentence length was a common topic of anxiety and discussion amongst us incarcerated people). They both looked down, a sign of bad news, and said they each had received their sentences – each nearly 20 years. I nodded, yet tried not to act surprised, as this would only add to the strain that they were obviously already grappling with. Prison time feels like weight on the mind and long sentences carry a lot of mental tonnage.


Such interactions, which internally were emotionally devastating, yet appeared calm at surface level to the casual observer, occurred frequently in lives of incarcerated people. We were continually receiving horrible information. Often, this was some of the worst information we had ever received (i.e., long prison sentences, loss of family, loss of our external belongings, failing legal efforts in court), emotional atomic bombs, which few could process with composure. We were attempting to navigate the aggressive and stressful environment of prison with cool and balanced demeanors.


The two brothers continued on down the airplane walkway, and down the airplane departure stairs to the transport bus waiting to take them to their prison where they would now spend many years of their young lives. I never saw those men again while incarcerated, or after, not that I expected to. Yet, I am left thinking about this day, and the immense energy of our interaction, which probably lasted no longer than 20-30 seconds. Their lives were permanently altered; their time taken from them. The burden they were attempting to contain, hurriedly shuffled along in the banal routines of a passenger air-liner full of incarcerated people. Both my friends and myself were now left to confront the stark reality of years of state sanctioned social isolation; a feeling I soon interpreted as being forgotten and unwanted by society.  


While I lost contact with my incarcerated friends, and can no longer speak to their state of mind, for myself, the journey of carceral pain had just begun. It was a process of internal torment that did not end when I was released from prison, and is still with me today. A nagging, questioning, doubting feeling is always present with me now. It is nebulous and difficult to define. A vague sense of not fitting in, of being a round peg in a square hole, of rejection by society. This strange underlying sense prevails even when I’ve accomplished goals and met with success. A significant amount of my post prison life-experiences have been positive, and through the kindness of caring people, I have been given some opportunities to overcome the stigmatizing impacts of prison. Yet, I cannot help feeling that I picked up another “passenger,” on that plane ride; a permanent passenger. The pain of being forgotten by the world, an unsettling awareness of being discarded. I communally shared this feeling with several thousand fellow incarcerated people while in prison, but then my passenger came home with me. I can’t help feeling that this pain followed them home too.


References


Sykes, G. 1958/2007. The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

[1] While I include this quote to provide context for this blog, I do not condone the use of the word “criminal” to label people who have committed crimes. Instead, I utilize person-first language when discussing those impacted by the criminal justice system, in a conscious effort into prevent the dehumanization and stigma contained within institutional/demeaning labels.


[2] Refer to footnote 1.

In the new highly acclaimed 2017 crime drama Mind Hunter (an examination of the early days of the study of serial homicide), featured on Netflix, the spirit of Durkheim is evoked in a discussion between the main character and his soon to be girlfriend (NYT 2017), while they were flirting in a bar. Soon to be girl friend, a sociology graduate student studying social deviance, asks the protagonist, an FBI agent and Quantico instructor, what his thoughts were on Durkheim’s early writings on the function of labeling deviant behavior (Durkheim 1897).


Durkheim, one of the founders of the science of sociology, in his book Suicide (1897), explained that crime serves a necessary social function. Crime defines the borders of right and wrong, more sociologically speaking, the boundary of where normative behavior meets deviant behavior. A healthy society needs crime according to Durkheim. Crime directs institutions of social control towards the deviant acts that should be controlled/minimized in order that society remain stable. Applying the label of deviance to certain individuals within society accomplishes the task of identification of who should be controlled.


Yet, the big question is whether Durkheim’s theoretical writings on labeling deviance being applied correctly within context of a discussion of crime and deviance focusing on the phenomenon of serial homicide? While labeling theory had its origins in the writings of Durkheim, it is usually attributed to the more recent scholarship of Howard Becker (1963) from the 1960s.


References:


Becker, Howard S. (1963) [1997]. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile (1897) [1951]. Suicide : a study in sociology. The Free Press. ISBN 0-684-83632-7.



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