Charlottesville: Views from the cellblock


The Marshall Project invited some of its incarcerated contributors to reflect on the fallout from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. These essays were gathered and edited by Eli Hager.

Jerry Metcalf (Michigan):

There are no “many sides to this fight,” Mr. President, only good vs. evil. Which side are you on?

In prison, I’m surrounded by racists all day long, and I don’t wish to see that kind of thing happening out in the world I long to return to. Everything in here is about race — and I mean everything. Whites have their side of the chow hall, blacks have their side of the chow hall. Whites use the white barber, blacks use the black barber. It’s the 1950s in here — I mean, we share drinking fountains, but not much else.

In other words, prison is a real-life example of the world that white supremacists want to return to. The only difference between prison in 2017 and a segregated 1950s is the fact that whites are often the minorities behind bars.

And when things like Charlottesville happen, the tension in here increases tenfold. In just the last few days, I’ve heard the words nigger and honkey tossed around more times than I have all year. Evil has a tendency to bleed over from the streets.

Jerry Metcalf, 42, is incarcerated at Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Mich., where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony.

Rahsaan Thomas (California):

I saw it on my personal 15-inch TV while the prison was on lockdown because of a security threat. I saw white hate groups dressed for battle, with helmets and shields, defending the statue of a man who fought to maintain a way of life that included slavery. They clashed with counter-protesters, and then there was a car weaponized.

On the news, Donald “Tweeter” Trump defended the statue, too.

The whole scene scares me. Here I am, incarcerated for 2nd-degree murder, but doing everything in my power to regain a place in society. I’ve trained in Restorative Justice. I’m now taking Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP). I’ve learned how to address grievances within the system, through the courts or by exercising my free speech.

But now that I’ve become a productive, though incarcerated, member of society, dedicated to nonviolence, I see large numbers of people out there who are dedicated to murdering the Dream.

Am I wasting my time — trying to be part of a society that won’t ever accept me as an equal? Can I love someone who wishes chains and slavery for all like me?

Hate groups aren’t new, but to see all of this almost erases the hope for the Dream that Obama’s election inspired. Some point out that by 2042, America will have a nonwhite majority; all I know is that things can’t go back to how they were. I can’t go back to how I was.

No matter what they do, I’m keeping the Dream alive.

Rahsaan Thomas, 46, is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., where he is serving 55 years to life for 2nd-degree murder, with a 35-year enhancement for using a firearm.

Arthur Longworth (Washington):

In prison, it’s not necessary for you to be a racist in order for you to act like one — to live within the confines of a strict racial code, and to discriminate. These are things that you have to do, here, to a great extent, because race barriers are institutionalized in the very way the facility is managed.

Racism among prisoners is distinct from what you may be familiar with in the free world, following events like those in Charlottesville last week. Those of you on the outside don’t have to live like we do in here, confined and pressed in together. Take cell assignments: on the physical roster in each sergeant’s office, housing units are tagged “Black,” “White,” “Asian,” “Hispanic,” etc. Or showers: the shower room in each cell house is divided into territories, each race making claim to a small number of jealously guarded shower heads.

But I don’t think a free-world racist, like those in Charlottesville, would make it in here. Not if he were to go out to the Big Yard and spew his hate — I don’t think he’d like his odds.

Because there are times when, even here, race is transcended. I’ve seen it. White convicts surrounding guards who were beating a Mexican prisoner, ignoring orders to disperse — ignoring, but entirely conscious of, the rifle aimed down at them. Black prisoners rioting in their cells because of something the guards did to whites. And all of us sitting down in the Big Yard together, refusing to come in, feeling beat-down, without hope, deciding collectively that we have had enough.

That is when you sense that humanity is on common ground. When you’re beaten.

At times when you feel like there is nothing left for you to do but die, as prisoners often do, it’s hard to hate or even to see any difference in the man next to you — who you know, despite his color, is wearing the same goddamned shoes that you are.

Arthur Longworth, 52, is incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, where he is serving life without the possibility of parole for aggravated murder.

Sharon Collins (Indiana):

The reaction to Charlottesville, from prison, exposed what we all still face in America. Many of the women in here defended Trump and the violence. Other white prisoners said they feel like the country has been stolen from them by immigrants and that taking down the Confederate monuments would be like robbing them of their own history.

For me, having a biracial sister born to my black mother and a white man who loved her dearly, racial equality has always been a way of life in my home. In that spirit, I don’t believe the monuments should come down; instead, maybe a plaque could be added nearby, explaining what the Confederacy meant to slaves. When you take them down, you remove the possibility of a teachable moment.

We as black Americans should put our arms around those who hate us and show them that even when you hate, we still love.

That is how I at least have been handling the racist comments that I hear in prison, now more than usual. I have been listening. For that, some blacks are calling me a sellout, while some whites still hate me because I’m black. But for the one or two who have listened back, it has been worth it.

Sharon Collins, 36, is incarcerated at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, Ind., where she is serving 14 years for arson.

The other day I heard the President of the United States explain in a press conference how not every white person out in the streets of Charlottesville, standing on the side of the Confederacy, was a white supremacist. I found that interesting. So I asked around, here in my prison environment, to see if I could find any evidence that supporting racial separation is not about racism, but rather about a person’s sense of identity and obligation, or perhaps their social conditioning.

Everyone I talked to said that at each and every prison they’d ever been held captive in, the dining hall/chow hall was separated into two racial sides, one for whites and the other for blacks. (And for the record, all Latinos and bi-racial men sit on the black side.) I am not of a mind to say that all of the white dudes who gravitate to their “white side” are racist. I am willing to entertain the notion that there may be a degree of comfort, for a man first entering prison, who doesn’t know anyone, to gravitate toward those who look like him.

He merely goes where he will most likely be accepted, and stays there.

But what really is the reasoning for this? There is no policy that’s ever been issued from the administration, no chow-hall guidelines ever set forth explaining to me or any other man coming through the prison doors pertaining to a racial seating arrangement.

Does this make us all racist? Or do we just understand how things work and go along with it? Does it only work like this in prison, or are there natural separations that happen in all social networks, even on the outside?

Jason Thompson, 44, is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, where he is serving 105 years to life for aggravated murder, robbery, and kidnapping.

Even in a place like prison, which is seriously divided down racial lines, the majority of the men I have sat with in TV rooms recently — black, brown and white — are in agreement with the rest of the nation about the danger of what Trump said.

Let’s make one thing clear from the jump: Yes, white supremacists, of which I used to be one, are barbaric assholes ready to act with ruthless aggression and hatred. I may be in the minority about Trump’s statements, but not about how evil racism is.

But c’mon people, there actually was violence “from many sides.” I’m sorry — for once Trump actually said something that I agree with. I’m not so inured to him that I automatically disagree and dismiss what he says without trying to understand it, even when it’s inarticulate.

I have watched the videos and images from Charlottesville over and over again on our TV here on the unit, just like everyone else has. I saw one clip of an elderly man waving a Confederate flag getting slammed face-first into the street by two young men, who then danced.

Here’s what I wonder: What would have happened had we all just stayed home, spent the day with our families, and binge-watched Orange is the New Black, completely ignoring those Robert E. Lee statue-loving, diversity-hating SOBs that gathered in Charlottesville? It would have been really pitiful! They would have passed out their torches, shields, and Confederacy-themed Kazoos, chanted a few banal slogans, waved their limp flags, and snapped a few sad selfies with the statue. And then, once they saw that no millennials had shown up for them to perform their witty hatred for, they would have driven home.

We should ignore these sad, angry people instead of paying them so much attention, lowering ourselves to their level, and ultimately becoming very similar to them. Remember the words of our last First Lady, Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high!”

Daniel Royston, 41, is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, where he is serving 31 years for rape, burglary, and other charges.

The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.

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