I recently finished a book called The Ways we Choose about a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The author, Dave Carey, spent five and a half years at the Hanoi Hilton. I don’t want to explain what the Hanoi Hilton was like because I don’t know. From Drew Carey’s book, I gathered it was bad.
Before I came to Taft, I watched a lot of war movies, particularly “Band of Brothers” and “To End All Wars”. “To End All Wars” was about a Japanese POW camp in Burma, I believe. The reason I watched these movies was to find hope in adversity. I watched these men endure incredible hardship and deprivation and survive. I hoped that I could go to prison and survive what I viewed as hardship equally well.
Let me first assure you that Taft Correctional Institute is not even close to the deprivation and hardship endured by POWs or soldiers. Our camp is attached to an INS low severity institution. I’ve heard stories where the low security prison provides a better lifestyle for some of the men than what they had on the outside. Of course a lot of guys complain about the food or the cubes in which we live, but it’s better than what most of the world calls home.
The standard of living at Taft is not really the point of this blog. The author of The Ways We Choose was beaten, starved and housed in cramped quarters, with a bucket for a toilet. Yet he and his compatriots endured. I admired the strength of these men. I wanted to know how these men could endure circumstances far worse than my circumstances. I wanted the same strength that these men had, but I’m not sure I have it. After reading the book I thought about what they had that I don’t.
One thing that stands out in the book and the movies is that the POWs and the soldiers were, for the most part, united against a common enemy. When I first arrived here I heard talk about how you were either on the side of the inmates or the guards. I even mentioned this in a blog about how you do your job at Taft. As I’ve observed over the 22 months I’ve been here it’s not as straightforward as that. Just because you step on this compound as an inmate does not make you accepted with the inmates. There is some unity, but it exists in factions. There are numerous factions based on all sorts of cultural and religious factors. You can even be classified by the type of crime and accepted by one group and ostracized by another. As I told my wife, it’s strange how you can live in close proximity with so many people, but feel completely lonely.
I’m not saying there is no unity here. There is if you can find the group to which you belong. This group may be as small as three to five people. I’m still a big proponent that the easiest way to do time is to find a good friend. This is very difficult, but it’s the only sense of unity I’ve felt. A unity that my friend and I had the same objectives, the same hopes and the same fears and we would help each other endure our time at Taft.
Another aspect that stood out in this book was the willingness of the POWs to sacrifice for one another. One story from the book describes how the POWs would communicate between cells. For hours guys would lie on a disgusting, dirty floor or hang onto a bar covering the window while muscles ached so that they could warn the one POW, who would knock on the wall, if the guards were coming. At first it sounds like the guy knocking on the wall had the easy job, until you learn that the guards would check the POW’s knuckles for bruising. That was the guy who got beaten. Nothing like this happens here at Taft.
I have a friend who is Hispanic. When we arrived, the Hispanics shunned him. I don’t know the exact reason, but I believe it was because my friend did not affiliate with any gang. The Hispanic guys wouldn’t give him soap or shower shoes. He was told to go to the chapel. As I’ve mentioned, the Christian inmates have a tithe box where we accumulate the basic necessities for new inmates. It seems that “going to the chapel” is only for those inmates who start their prison experience without any group.
You might think that because we all are enduring the same hardship that, like POWs, there would be a sense of unity and sacrifice. I think it exists, but only if you are accepted by a group. Usually this is through a gang affiliation. Your “homeys” or “your people” might look out for you, but it’s not always the case.
I’m thankful that I met a few good guys with whom I am friends. I guess “my people” in prison are the Christians. It took me a while to fit in even to that group. I’m also lucky in the sense that I’m a very good soccer player. That helped me cross boundaries into other groups. That does not happen all the time here, but it’s something I’m proud of. I still don’t see the unity and sacrifice of the POWs and I suppose I never will, but at least I contributed what I could to help create a sense of unity in the time I’ve spent here.