You Never Get Used to Going to Prison

I've never been incarcerated but I've been to prison plenty of times.

In college, I went as volunteer and tutored guys getting their GED and high school diplomas.

Now, after college, I go as part of my fellowship work.

Guess what?

Though I have been to prison over 50 times and have visited over 10 facilities across four different states, I've never gotten used to it.

I've never gotten used to being stripped of all my belongings (think: cell phones, metal objects, state identification) and funneled through a security clearance manned by a guard who won't be satisfied until you've "cleared the machine."

I've never gotten used to the long and intimidating stares of men "in the yard" who call at me while I walk past, some begging for my attention by virtue of a wave. Others make obscene remarks about my body and "how good I look!" Some don't say anything. Sometimes those long, solemn, stares are the worst. What are they thinking?"

You never get used to watching correctional officers do their job. How do they feel? How do they get used to the fact that most of the population they serve despise and highly distrust them?

A place to keep the "animals," as society has called many of these men and women. These are individuals who have broken the laws of society and deserve everything that comes their way once they are stripped down and processed through intake.

You never get used to being shown a prison cell. Or, to feeling like you are invading the personal space of another. Imaging if people could randomly walk through your bedroom whenever they wanted to.

"If you stretch out both of your hands you can touch both walls."

A cold, gray cemented room. The toilet is near the door. A sink to the left. A mirror (if you can call it that) is attached to wall above.

"They receive their food through these slots."

You never get used to barely being able to see your face. Do you forget how it looks after a while? Do you start to forget who you are? Imagine looking into the mirror and seeing the same thing. Day after day.

You never get used to watching a man pace around in an outside cage. He's exercising intensely, you'll notice. Every now and then, he stops to do a set of pushups. The cage is so small. It only takes him about five seconds to complete a lap. New record.

"All inmates receive one hour of recreation per day. They shower at least three times a week."

You never get used to touring segregation units, where the men who have broken the rules of general population live. These units are eerie and dark. Iron doors with tiny window slots pan out as far as the eye can see. It's noisy here. Muffled yells bounce off the walls competing for a chance to be heard.

"You hear me?"

"I heard!"

To go anywhere outside the unit, their hands and feet are chained and shackled.

You never get used to imagining what it would be like if you were locked up, too. Would your thoughts run out as you wait the days, months, years, decades, centuries for freedom? For the time when the Man has deemed you have learned your listen and are fit to be an able law abiding contributing member of society.

Is this what rehabilitation looks, feels, and smells like?

"This is the chair we use to force feed inmates their medication. Would you like me to get an inmate to sit here so we can demonstrate?"

You never get used to realizing why so many enter sane and leave the opposite.

You never get used to realizing where the anger people harbor against law enforcement once they leave comes from.

The last time I went to prison, I got to speak to three men who were serving life sentences. They each had been locked up for 25, 29, and 39 years, respectively.

"Write about us!" Let people know what's happening in here. You guys have the power. We don't."

"This place is like a lost city. So many treasures waiting to be found."

"Do you think you'll get out on parole?"

"I've tried 4 times already. I don't know."

These men, all approaching their 60s, will probably die in prison.

You never get used to imagining the disembodiment of the family unit. What happens to the people those who are incarcerated leave behind? Who comforts them during times of grief and pain?

"What keeps you going? How do you make it through the day?"

"I walk like a man. I carry myself like man."

Most of all, you never get used to leaving. To walking past everything and out the prison doors, into your car and driving away. No yellow "VISITOR" identification clipped to your shirt. No chains on your feet. No guard to your side. No barb wires telling you, "I dare you to try me."

There's a lot of people who are working to change the system because they, too, don't want to get used to it. But for many, prison is something that lives on the periphery of their reality. Something to joke about. To laugh about. To make memes about.

For many, it has become a place to call "home." Maybe this is the thing that I'll never get used to. I've never been an actual "prisoner" but I believe, no matter what, prison shouldn't be a place you get used to. You may "adapt" or "learn how to survive," though.

The "fundamentally broken" prison system is a serious deal here in America and it's time more people start talking about its effects. It's time people start talking and we start really listening.

The way the American prison system has successfully "served justice" to millions for over four decades affects each and every American citizen. In many ways, it's the direct contradiction to all that we stand for. It's become a way to deal with society's injustices such as the failures within our education, healthcare, social, political, and economic sectors. It's a blaring example of racism and how it pervades our laws and policies to favor those who are more fortunate.

We live in a society where even your inability to breathe can go unheard in a time when the law is intent on carrying out its mission.

Yet, it's so easy to hide. Lock people up and throw away the key.

We'll make it easy for you to get used to because we'll pretend like prison, and all of the problems that result from it, don't exist.

Just don't talk about it. No, don't do that.

Rana Campbell is a freelance journalist. One of her passions is talking about prison and its affects on urban America. Follow Rana on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, or send her an email at

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