“I learned within a few hours that no one was judging me by my qualities as an individual and everyone was judging me by my pigment.” -John Howard Griffin “Black Like Me”
“God alone, who gave the law, is the judge. He also has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?” –James 4:12 NLT
To a sex offender like me, simply existing in prison on a daily basis can be unnerving. But for many, nothing compares to the sheer terror of walking through the front door that first day and enduring the unabashed stares from those who have now become their neighbors.
Large buses carrying new “residents” arrive with some regularity – usually weekly. Some of the passengers on those buses are moving closer to home; some are working their way down from a medium security facility; still others come from county or federal detention lock-ups where they have endured many months under lock and key as they moved through the long process from their arrest to conviction or plea, on to sentencing and then finally being designated by the bureau of prisons to their ultimate destination.
When news of a bus hits the compound, the collective antennae of all the various groups in each of the different housing units goes on high alert. They eagerly await the processing of the new arrivals who are soon escorted to their new “homes.” This usually occurs right after the four o’clock stand-up count or immediately after dinner, which means that most inmates are at “home” and can be counted upon to form an eager gauntlet of curious onlookers, anxious to size-up the new neighbors.
No peeking through the curtains here. No sizing up the new arrivals by the types of possessions carried into the house or the cars parked in the yard. Here it is about the color of his skin, the language he speaks, the tattoos he displays and the charge that brought him here in the first place. It is all about adding numbers to your particular group and, ultimately, weeding out the outcasts – any new sex offenders, like me.
If you are black, it’s … well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? After it is determined what state you are from, you are welcomed and situated by others from there. A lot of handshaking and hugging as introductions are made; perhaps some laughter and shouting as old acquaintances are rekindled or common threads in a particular city are unraveled; all of it very friendly, all very warm and welcoming.
The same can be said for those of obvious Latino origin. They are lavished with warmth, friendliness and camaraderie by the Mexicans, Columbians, Puerto Ricans or any other group that may be a subset of the larger Latino community. As far as white faces are concerned, the dynamics are a little different. The desire to categorize is foremost in the minds of those who have proclaimed themselves to be superior. It is of paramount importance to them to cull the “undesirables” from the herd as quickly as possible in order that they can make a big showing of putting down and then ignoring those who are deemed unworthy. Then they can move on to the more pleasant business of giving a welcome and a tour to those who are socially acceptable. This tour includes unabashedly pointing out all of the resident “chomos,” enabling the newcomer to properly hate someone he has never even met. But the process serves its intended purpose: it lets the new people who are accepted into the upper echelons of the prison hierarchy know who not to be seen talking to.
Most of the time, once the new arrivals have been properly “slotted” and the new sex offenders have been put together with those of their “own kind” and they have been given the “rules,” life evolves into more of a situation wherein they are ignored. For the most part, this means that we are pretty much left alone, provided that we don’t forget our “place.” In and of itself, this is not entirely a bad thing. But sometimes, the silence can be deafening. Sometimes what is not said speaks louder than voices shouted from a mountaintop. Sometimes an averted gaze or a cold shoulder can gnaw at a man’s dignity and self-respect, creating a wound that is every bit as real, every bit as raw and every bit as painful as if it were caused by a physical assault.
But all of that comes after the crucial beginning; those critical first moments when you have arrived at the place where you will be staying for a while and your stomach is churning, your heart is racing and your mind is literally screaming at you for what you have done that has landed you in the midst of this surreal landscape.
New arrivals who are white, heavily tattooed and in their mid-thirties to mid-forties are likely to be initially accepted as “okay” by the “Dirty White Boys.” Questions are asked that can further validate a claim that someone is a drug dealer, a methamphetamine “cooker” or maybe even a bank robber. Paperwork will probably be required to back up any of these claims but the initial acceptance will be there and at least that individual will be alright to talk to for the time being.
On the other hand, older white males without tattoos are pretty much assumed to be “one of them,” and if you are a similarly unadorned younger white male who appears educated or perhaps slightly nerdy, the same net of suspicion is quickly cast over you as well.
Most of the time, new sex offenders are identified and pulled aside quickly, quietly and without much fuss. They are then reassured by their “own kind” and made to feel safe and allowed to settle into their new “home” with barely a ripple on the waters of prison life.
Other times, however, this crucial first step can be difficult. For some, it can be embarrassing or even frightening. I’ll tell you about one such experience when I continue relating the plight of “The New Kid in Town.”