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What is life like in prison? The unsimple answer. (Part 2)

In what may be the most extensive entry ever submitted to our blog, Jessica – an incarcerated trans woman – attempts to answer the question, “What is life like in prison?” She shares with us an entry that is chock-full of thoughts and stories, drawing from decades of personal experience. This is the second part of her series.


Warning: The following letter describes topics of verbal abuse and the injustices of the prison-industrial complex. Proceed with caution if you may be triggered by these topics.


“Playground Rules Part 2,”
by Jessica Brooks.

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks

This is the second part of a multi-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

When I was a young child, I didn’t have any friends. Long before I ever heard terms like transsexual or gender dysphoria, my only understanding of self was that I felt like a girl. Knowing that I had a boy’s body, I ignorantly assumed that a boy who feels like a girl must be gay… a “queer.” Even though I was still far from the age when sex-drive kicked in, I already knew that I liked girls, not boys, that boys actually disgusted me. Already experienced with the sting of rejection and ostracism, I feared anything and everything real or imagined that would incite further rejection. So, I hid my girl-identity inside, a secret I persistently sustained until my early 20’s, and pretended to be a boy. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to be a boy, so everyone saw through the façade and knew I was different. Even though they didn’t know I was a girl inside, they saw the unconscious female or feminine mannerisms and used them to label me as a queer or, in the very least, a loser. I spent my school years, even through high school, in seclusion; ostracized, rejected, teased, and often bullied.

Being so secluded from my schoolmates forced me to experience school from an unattached, outside perspective; and observe I did! I noticed that everyone else was a part of one or more of the numerous social groups. I noticed that each group appeared different from the other groups, but that the individuals within each group looked similar. The “Jocks” all looked athletic and muscular in contrast to the “Nerds,” who all looked scrawny and delicate; the “Preppie” kids all wore polos and pastels, while the “Burn-outs” all sported long hair and leather.

I remember one time, in the school cafeteria at lunch, I got my food and looked for a place to sit. There were no empty tables but there were empty seats at occupied tables, although many of these seats got taken by jackets, books or bags when those tables’ occupants saw me looking. As I made my rounds from one table to the next, I was repelled at each one with varying reasons ranging from “We’re holding this seat for someone,” to the more blatant “Get lost, queerbait!” I ended up dumping my food and leaving, having lost my appetite anyway.

Years later, in junior high, after being bullied in a corridor, an Asian kid helped me up and helped me pick up my possessions that had been thrown everywhere. My school’s small Asian community took me into their circle and offered me a semblance of protection and a broken-English friendship that lasted for several months. Two of them in particular seemed intent on teaching me some martial arts so I could protect myself from future bullying. It didn’t really work. Although I did learn quite a bit, I never used it in future confrontations, too inured was I in the role of victim.

Halfway through my senior year in high school – a technical school – in the carpentry shop, when my fellow classmates at my worktable kept hitting me with sticks that had small tack-like nails in them, I had had enough. I got up, picked up my possessions, walked out of the school and never went back. Two years later I got a GED.

As a still-naïve young adult in the working world, I again observed the same group-mentality around me. I once worked at a big company with a large workforce. At lunch breaks, I was ordinarily by myself in the corner, but aware of the people around me and noticing them coming together in groups. Again, the groups different in appearance from other groups, but each group’s members resembled each other. The secretarial staff were all impeccably dressed women; the warehouse workers wore jeans and looked grungier than all the other groups; there was a group of African Americans and a small Spanish group; a group of young adults who still had the aura of high school; even a group of young women who looked like they would be more suitably in a fashion show.

That was a time in my life when I was successful in playing the male role, so I no longer endured the teasing or rejection from people’s homophobia, but a lifetime of seclusion left me socially handicapped, so people mostly left me alone. I may have had shared interests with some of the interest-based groups, but I didn’t know how to communicate socially with them, so my isolation prevailed.

Three months after my twentieth birthday, I was in jail, and have been incarcerated ever since.

Prison is no different in group-mentality than it has been in school, the working world, or society in general. Everyone fits into groups that make up their primary social circles. The groups vary by race, ethnicity, gang affiliation, religious belief, interest or function, lifestyle, region or “hood,” taste in music, and more. There is even a “fag” group, which consists of mostly drag queens, gay men, and the occasional Transgender. This is the most hated, most marginalized group, as it was in most of society.

People tend to gravitate toward others most like themselves. There is comfort and a sense of safety in the familiar, especially in an environment filled with violent and antisocial personalities. In prison, a loner is a potential victim and being a part of a group offers the protection of numbers. But being a part of any group, or class, all-too frequently results in classism.

From our earliest childhood, we all grow up searching for heroes, someone to look up to, to inspire us, someone to emulate. It is a natural part of development in our search for identity and purpose. We search those around us to find in them the qualities we want for ourselves. Our hero-worship is not static, though, because our identities and purposes and goals mature, evolve. We almost always begin life idolizing our parents or older siblings. Later, we may worship a fellow student at school, or a teacher; as children, with exposure to a variety of cartoons and movies, we often find bits of our own identities in fictional heroes or characters. As we grow into adulthood, we may find notable public figures who inspire our admiration, triggering the hero-worship, and we incorporate those appealing qualities into our own evolving identities.

Sadly, prisons are populated predominantly by people from racially and economically marginalized communities. As a result of “tough on crime” policies, people incarcerated in New York State are disproportionally from low-income backgrounds, lacking educational and economic opportunities. This trend has been exacerbated by intensified policing and surveillance in those communities. Often enough, the result is people entering the prison system with corrupted moral principles and distorted perception of free society. Many come to prison already angry and bitter at the world, rail out at the injustice of oppression, and are most susceptible to the many attractions of groups that are inherently angry, antisocial or radical in nature. The two fastest growing factions in prison are the gangs and the more fundamentalist religions.

The various groups of gangs, the several religious groups, and to a lesser extent most of the smaller groups, or classes, all have within them rules, principles and standards the members must abide by, as well as criteria that must be met to obtain membership. Some are simple standards meant to maintain the integrity of the group and are used only as guides to live by; other groups are extremely strict in adherence and enforcement of their rules, often violently.

Not all groups are hateful in nature: some are just groups of people with a conscious desire to affect positive change in themselves, the prison environment, or society. For example, Lifers are not only a group of prisoners with life sentences but also an actual Inmate Organization that advocates for Good Time, Criminal Justice Reforms, and improved prison conditions. Other groups are created by shared interests, such as sports fans, music enthusiasts, or those who are in the Prison College Program.

The unavoidable consequence, however, of the class mentality is classism, stemming from the groups’ rules or principles. These rules set the standards by which its members weigh each others’ worth, and the worth of everyone else outside the group. As a member of a group, people are no longer just an individual but a part of something bigger, and this frequently results in a sense of fulfillment, that they have acquired for themselves a solid identity and certainty of their place in the world. The effect of this is a loss of worldliness or openness to other people, other groups, and other cultures. As a member of a group, you begin to share the same qualities, behaviors, mannerisms, opinions, beliefs, tastes, even prejudices. This is why the individuals in each group are so similar in appearance and behavior, while the group as a whole appears different from other groups.

As an example of the standards that groups use to weigh their own and other people’s worth, consider the typical Christian, charged by the Bible with the duty of bringing Jesus into the lives of those who need saving. Unfortunately, many Christians are very aggressive in this, often with little or no understanding that they are judging those they approach as inferior, as sinners. I am Jewish. To most Christians, this is either just an obstacle interfering with their efforts to convert me, or, if I’m a faithful and devoted Jew, an indication that I am a hopeless sinner.

I once had a Christian tell me that I couldn’t sit at a table because he used that table to study scripture; he said that it was inappropriate for a pure and righteous Christian to have the sin of homosexuality desecrate a table that is used for spiritual reflection. He assured me that he as an individual had nothing against me as a person, but that his god considered me an abomination!

The standards that he lives by are derived from his principles as a Christian, which he uses to weigh the worth of others, and judge as inferior all who don’t meet those standards. Classism!

Quite often, hypocrisy plays a role in groups and classism. Groups frequently have members who join for protection or the influence obtained from membership, but who have individual qualities that go against a class rule, obviously kept secret.

I was once in a cell not too far from a Muslim. He was one of the more aggressively faithful zealots who fulfilled every group requirement and lived up to every class principle. He carried his Qur’an everywhere but never in his pocket; his pants were all high-waters; he always wore a Kufi that matched his attire; he knew the precise direction of Mecca and the exact time to the minute for prayer; and he was very passionate in his lectures to other Muslims on the proper interpretations of the revelations made to Muhammad by Allah. He was also very aggressive and vocal about his stance against all homosexual infidels. According to him, all sexual deviants were in fact demons and devils.

He considered me such a creature, as I deduced from the habitual hate-rumors he would spread about me, and avoided me as if I was a carrier of a highly-contagious, fatal disease. Then one day, he stops by my cell. He is a member of the facility’s Muslim Inmate Organization and, on that day, he is selling Muslim oils for their organization’s fundraiser. I’m ashamed to admit that I was far from mature in my response to him, in which I said – among other words I will not repeat here – that if I am too evil for this self-righteous respect, so too is my money! Classism!

Ironically, and the point of this example, is that a few months later, he was transferred to another prison and, a few more months later, I heard through the grapevine that he is now she, an out femme gay “queen.” With a husband!

Read more about Jessica’s early experiences with classism in the next post of this series! (Coming soon)


  1. What is life like in prison? The unsimple answer. (Part 3) | SRLP (Sylvia Rivera Law Project) - May 22, 2014

    […] This is the third part of a multi-part series. Read Part 1, Read Part 2. […]

  2. What is life like in prison? The unsimple answer. (Part 4) | SRLP (Sylvia Rivera Law Project) - June 3, 2014

    […] is the fourth part of a multi-part series. Read Part 1, Read Part 2, Read Part […]

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