February 10, 2015 by The Jailhouse Doc
The rich white guys who are corrupt, or tax evaders, or whatever, typically get out on bail because they can pay. Unless they go after kids. The sad assumption is that if a white guy is in jail, it has something to do with pedophilia or child pornography. White women? Drug users. I don’t know what the actual numbers are on these stereotypes, but I have to say that in practice, they tend to be somewhat true.
There are two men in particular that really stick in my memory. The first was a young man, the day he was sentenced. He’s young, about my age, we actually share a similar professional background in education, prior to my becoming a PA. He’s likely from an upper middle class family, well educated, the whole world at his fingertips. But this particular young man will spend the next thirty years behind bars for creating pornographic media, having taken advantage of children he encountered.
There is so much to say in response to this, it was a really emotional day that I’ve reflected upon a lot, and retold to others as an example of one of those situations where you don’t know how you will react until you are in the moment. I had accidentally checked the headlines prior to making rounds, and there he was, as plain as day, on the front cover, name in gigantic type. And I said to myself “Oh (expletive!) I think that’s the guy I’m about to go see!” I usually don’t know why people are incarcerated, and usually this is preferable, because knowledge changes how we perceive each other. The knowledge can be incredibly weighty, and on that day it was. How would I react to this person? These are the “creeps” that people flippantly say things like, “if I found him, I’d just shoot him myself!” “He deserves to suffer,” “Someone who would do that should get the electric chair!” And so forth. But really, I was actually going to meet this person face to face, not just yell at an image on the TV, and shake my head, disgusted, only to forget a moment later as the weather came on. Nope, face to face. Have a conversation. Touch him, even. Just another day at the office- hanging out with a pedophile.
I remember the overwhelming sense of pity I felt for him as the cell door opened. Not that I wished he had gotten off easy, or hadn’t got caught, not that at all. Intense pity for his wretched state. His deplorable choices. The brokenness I saw in front of me. He was in a paper jumpsuit, I handed him a paper towel to drape in front of himself because the gown was see-through. He had scratches on his arms, evidence of the madness perhaps building inside of him as he realized that his life as he knew it, all his hopes, dreams, ambitions, were essentially over. He had been sent to us on suicide watch because of his self-injurious behavior. He was thin, it may have been the light but I remember him appearing somewhat gaunt, pale, the tissue around his eyes dark with anxiety, lack of sleep and deep distress. He was quiet, cooperative.
And… it turns out that I was very nice to him. I knew I’d at least be civil and professional- but really, no one plans to be nicey-nicey to a pedophile, right? So I just let myself feel what I felt, and it was sadness, compassion, and again, enormous pity. This was a broken man. Not broken by an unfair system, no he cannot claim that like many of my other inmates. For him, justice was served. He will pay for the suffering he caused. He’s broken because of the twisted sin in his heart that would lead him to do what he did. That’s how I see it. His mind, heart and soul so perverted that he would abuse the vulnerable to obtain pleasure. I don’t think anyone plans to be that way, and I don’t know his back story, often times the abused become abusers, but let’s say he walked down this road on his own. I just step back and am baffled at how someone with every resource at his fingertips, a great job and career path, likely many educated, intelligent women (or men,) who would have dated him, and yet all that wasn’t enough. And rather than get help, he acted on those urges, taking advantage of the trust given to a man of his stature and lot in life. I just don’t know how that happens. I see that perversion as brokenness, as a Christian I see him as made in God’s own image but sold his soul to the evil one.
And as crazy as it sounds, yes all this flashed through my mind in those moments. I didn’t feel hate, or contempt, or disgust… which surprised me a little. It’s not because I don’t take his crimes seriously or don’t like kids enough but truly- the sadness and pity I felt were overwhelming. I realized that maybe besides his mom, I might be the only person who is kind to him for a very, long time. And this is my moment to communicate to him dignity, that his life matters, that every story is redeemable. That what he did was monstrous but he is not a monster. (Well that sounds good, but I’m not sure I totally believe it,… but we’ll go with it.) So that’s what I did.
The other just other-worldly aspect of this interaction was something that I struggle to totally explain without sounding awful,.. so let me preface with this- I grew up in a multicultural setting, actually as a white minority. I feel the most at home with diversity around me, and I’m very aware and reflective of my own biases. I love that again I’m surrounded by people who are mostly different from me- inmates and colleagues. But, I have found something very interesting in my own behavior when I talk with people from other back grounds. See, this man is from my “tribe.” We have shared experiences, levels of education, racial experiences growing up, and even professional similarities. It feels enormously weird to talk with someone from my own “tribe” while they’re in a jumpsuit. I’m not saying it feels more normal to talk to my black patients as if their incarceration is more “normal,” (statistically it is, and I lose sleep over the injustice in that, actually), but I’m saying it feels like I’m talking with my cousin, or classmate, someone who “shouldn’t be in jail.” Someone who should have their life together. Someone who shouldn’t be committing crimes. His crimes don’t make sense to me, because he wasn’t born into a life of poverty with drug violence all around him, like so many of my other patients. He’s, “not supposed to be there.”
The idea of “otherness” pervades racial, economic, social, religious, etc, divisions in our country. I guess it’s easier to categorize identities with my patients whose lives look nothing like my own, like those involved in drugs and gang violence. I struggle to relate to them. I want to be encouraging, communicate that I care, that I believe they can change their lives, be good dads, get good jobs, stay out of jail,. and I really mean it. I never know if they hear or believe me because of the sense of “otherness,” the fact that I have no idea what it’s like to try to overcome the obstacles in their lives. I know ABOUT it, because I hear their stories and see the dysfunction, but I don’t know how it feels. And I have to sit in that uneasy tension, sometimes sure that they find me condescending and trite, even when I’m trying my best. I believe that all lives matter with my whole heart, but I fully recognize the divides between us.
So this man is not an “other,” he’s from my demographic, but went haywire. And it’s just weird to sit there thinking to myself, “I could have met you at a happy hour event last week, and would never have known the truth.” Again, it’s hard to explain, but it’s always more weird when it’s a white inmate. I think they also feel an immense sense of embarrassment and shame, too. Nobody is exempt from the awkwardness in those moments so I try to just be nice, make them feel like there is nothing weird about the fact that he won’t go to a happy hour again until he’s in his sixties and the world has forgotten him.
He’s in a federal prison somewhere. People at work tsk tsk and shake their heads because the stereotype is that pretty boys like that will pay the price not only in time but also in being victimized by other inmates. Is that getting what he deserves? Some would say so. I just feel sadness for the ruin of his life by his own doing. The wreckage in innocent children’s lives. The legacy he leaves in the lives of people who no matter how much therapy they get will never forget what happened.
The second man was different because I didn’t know what he was accused of until after our encounter. He was friendly, well spoken, educated. He told me about his travels, his plans for when he hopefully gets out. I thought he just have done something like fraud, or too many DUIs, something that arrogant, entitled people do thinking they’ll never get caught. You know, white collar crime. He’s no gangsta. Surely he knows better and just made a big mistake. I helped him with is problem, wished him good luck at his court hearing, like I always do. And then I googled him. and Son of a gun I felt guilty and mad at myself for being so nice. The guy had been caught trying to solicit sex with a child through, I don’t know,… what I can only describe as a sex trafficker because who else would pimp a little girl. And now I want him to do hard time, I want him to wipe the arrogant smirk off his face as he pays for what he tried but didn’t succeed in doing, Thank God. And it’s funny, because I probably would have had more compassion for him if I had known ahead of time, as I think about it now. I would have been able to measure my friendliness better. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but I felt hoodwinked by his “normalcy.” Again, that weirdness of- “you’re from my tribe! You seem normal! Surely you’re not THAT bad,….” People are just flat out surprising. Neighbors always say on TV, “I never knew George could ___________, he always seemed so normal. What a tragedy!” We are paranoid about people from other tribes or groups, and assume the best about our own.
I love when my assumptions are dashed, because it humanizes humanity. It reminds me of our collective brokenness as humans, that anyone is capable of any horrible thing if put in the right situation. I love a good story in which the assumed hero fails miserably, and the one from an “other” group, an outsider, saves the day.
This plays out for me on a daily basis. The young black man with dreadlocks, tattoos and scars from bullets, tearful because he can’t be home tonight to play with his kids. Wanting so much to get a good job so he can provide for his family and stay out of jail. Juxtaposed with the above patients, the white guys who had it all and found solace only in the darkest of places.
These experiences challenge the very heart of me. They make me reflect on things that I don’t think most people even remotely reflect on, ever. They stick with me when I go home. They come up in conversation when I try to explain the crazy place that I work. How bizarre it is to be in my position, watching people give up all their freedoms, locked away. How bizarre and sad it is to see how far people fall. And how seriously I should take the freedom that I have.