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What is life like in prison? The unsimple answer. (Part 4)

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 fourth part of her series.


Warning: The following letter describes topics of sexual, physical and gang violence. Proceed with caution if you may be triggered by these topics.


“Playground Rules Part 4,”
by Jessica Brooks.

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks

This is the fourth part of a multi-part series. Read Part 1, Read Part 2, Read Part 3

Prison is a small place when it’s filled to capacity, which they usually are due to “Tough on Crime” policies and harsher sentencing laws. Ordinarily, the classes in prison are not equally balanced in number. When a group is large, such as the Bloods gang or the Muslims, they occupy more territory in the enclosed multi-class environment than the other groups. Those dominant groups frequently “claim” state property and possess public areas and benefits for themselves. Other smaller groups can only enjoy those areas and benefits if the controlling group permits it. The classes considered most inferior are often excluded or deprived altogether, such as the “fag” class who are rejected, ostracized, and limited in most all prison areas, benefits, privileges, and other amenities. “This is our bench; you can’t sit here!” Often enough, violence erupts from conflicts over facility social “courts” or “owned” telephones. On rare occasions, when strife over “courts” is between members of disparate dominant groups, others in the opposing groups get involved to support their members and a simple property dispute can quickly escalate into a riot-sized war between dominant factions.

In prison, everything is controlled by groups, even some jobs and programs; Inmate Organizations, Administrative remedies with elected Inmate Representatives such as the Grievance and Inmate Liaison Committees, televisions, phones, gum, inmate-run school call-outs, libraries, etc. And the “fags” class, which includes Transgender women like myself, are the lowest, most hated, and marginalized group in all prisons.
In retrospect, prisons’ populations segregate themselves into classes, and classism is the unavoidable consequence resulting from the various classes’ standards, rules and principles, and reveals what life in prison is like. Isn’t it wrong to live this way? Who’s to say! I could personally rail out against the injustice and unfairness of it because I am in the most hated class, at the very bottom of the social class hierarchy. It doesn’t mean I’m in any way inferior, only that I’m perceived and treated that way. Similarly, those at the top of the class hierarchy are convinced of their superiority, but conviction and belief doesn’t make it so.

Prison officials are very well aware of the institutional class system and its resultant dissension and segregation amongst prisoners but do nothing to discourage it. In fact, they often provoke or instigate it in subtle ways while putting on a show of enforcing balance and equality amongst the inmate population. For example, in one prison’s recreation yard with a capacity for 500 inmates, there are only a dozen telephones, all of them “owned” by the dominant groups. If a fight erupts over a conflict over the use of the phones, the prison administrators will resolve the situation by temporarily restricting phone use to eight of the twelve phones, which exacerbates the problem.

Are there solutions to classism, in or out of prison? Possibly, but very unlikely. There are individual groups and classes even in our nation’s capital, right in the White House! If the so-called leaders of the free world, conceivably our country’s best and brightest, have within them their own class system and unavoidable class hierarchies mirroring those of our nation’s worst, i.e., prison populations, how can we expect to avoid or remedy it in mainstream society?!

It’s possible to create a solution if it was initiated early in children’s lives, by completely redesigning the educational system to specifically condition children away from class mentalities before they take root, and toward a truly open-minded, empathetic and worldly perspective. But in a society that claims to embrace difference and individuality, and then oppresses them, I say it would never work. In furtherance of that stance, I duly point out that any solution, viable or not, would be devised, created and implemented by people who have themselves been in one class or another, and would therefore even unconsciously influence, if not infect the solution with the standards and principles that influenced their own lives through classism. If 100 individual adults devised 100 independent solutions, we would end up with 100 different ideas destined to fail!

For example, if a solution was made by a man who was a “Jock” and has lived a very athletic and healthy life, his idea would likely include a physical component to encourage participation in healthy living and fitness, because these are the principles and standards he lives by. But his solution fails in its embedded bias toward children who are not athletic and have no athletic aspirations. To disregard their individuality and force them to adhere to that physically demanding solution borders on the same ideals accredited to Adolf Hitler and his “Master Race” ideology!

The U.S. Army used to have an ad campaign to appeal to young potential recruits. The slogan they used was “Be All You Can Be,” suggesting that the army will help you achieve your fullest potential. Prison is often compared to the Army because if you can tell a believable story, and there are people who hear the tale with gullibility, you can “Be All You Can Be.” Prison is cut off from society. Nobody knows anything about you: who you are, where you’re from, where you’ve been, what you’ve owned, or accomplished. If you can tell a believable story, you can get them to believe almost anything about you. Prison is heavily populated with actors, playing the roles of fictitious characters they have created for themselves, often based on one or more heroes they worship, or from the groups they are a part of. Mimicry is, after all, a form of acting.

The Rap Music Industry, especially gangsta’ rap, glorifies a certain lifestyle that many prisoners relate with; it often semi-accurately depicts life in the projects, the marginalized inner-city communities that countless prisoners come from. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met a fellow prisoner who personally knew Tupac Shakur, Lil Kim or Jay Z. Rap has inspired such a following that the fans of the music, and the numerous would-be rappers, form their own class or group.

I once knew a 32-year old black man from Syracuse who had a hero-worship of rapper Tupac Shakur. He owned every album and could “spit” every rhyme verbatim. He dressed and acted in the same style and manner as his hero, and even modified his speech pattern to sound more like him. He was also a would-be rapper. He had a keyboard and would spend all of his time in cell “making beats,” creating a “hook” and writing rap lyrics. His sound was simplistic and unmelodic. He had a hint of potential except everything he did sounded like Tupac, and a good portion of his lyrics were Tupac’s. When accused of plagiarism, he contended that it wasn’t stealing, it was “sampling,” and he was oblivious to a key fact promising failure: The world already had a Tupac and didn’t need or want another!

I love the 80’s “hair band” style of hard rock and some metal music. I am, however, a fan of most all music, and I’m a musician, with skill on guitar and piano. I offered to give him some direction and guidance. He took to it easily and, in no time at all, began improving noticeably. It lasted only a few weeks, until his “friends” he knew from Syracuse began harassing him about associating with a fag. He fell back, and the last I heard, he still sounds like a horrible caricature of Tupac. Classism!

The actors, role players and mimics are almost always followers who lack their own identities and create one based upon other people’s identities, especially famous people. Often, though, it is based on some experience or a skill. I once overheard a prisoner bragging to another how skilled he was in karate. He was very specific in his experiences in karate school, competitions, training, getting his black belt… and most noteworthy was his prowess with nunchaku (what he referred to as “numbchucks”) and a variety of other weapons. I wondered then and now how he would rationalize if he ever learned that kara-te in Japanese means “Empty Hand!”

I encountered a man self-named “Radar” who claimed to have been a veteran helicopter pilot in the Army, but didn’t know what a collective was, or what it was for; I met a professional race car driver who didn’t understand traction or the relationships between rubber, tarmac and heat; there was a man who claimed he was an RN with years in an out-of-state hospital’s ER, but didn’t know the difference between a decongestant and an antihistamine; and there are always drug dealers who were empire-controlling kingpins who owned mansions, Maseratis and yachts, but couldn’t afford the prison commissary’s roll-your-own cigarette tobacco and were renowned mooches.

Part of peer pressure is based on people’s need to fit in, be not just accepted but admired. Most prisoners lived ordinary, uneventful lives without ever leaving their ‘hood. So they create colorful stories of fame and fortune, glam and grandeur, skill and accomplishment, travel and experience all meant to impress those around them.

And for every storyteller there are a hundred gullible believers who are themselves followers searching for their own identities and the admiration and respect of their peers. The result is a perpetuation of the class system, with followers doubling as leaders, and followers following followers. And they judge everyone else as inferior! Classism!

In prison, there are Old Timers; people whose age or time spent in prison earns them the respected status of O.T.. Once upon a time, when someone first entered the prison system, especially but not exclusively youth, an O.T. would “take him under the wing,” introduce him to his social group, and teach him about prison and its people; how to function and survive. Nowadays, the O.T.’s are reluctant to immerse themselves in the likely headaches and turmoil that the newer generations bring with them. A good portion of people in prison are sexual predators. It has always been a standard of life in prison that rapists, pedophiles and other sex crimes people are worthy only of death. It was once rare to see a sexual predator in prison outside of a Protective Custody Unit, or a hospital bed. In modern times, many people are reluctant to hurt or chase a sexual predator because they are one themselves, or out of futility because there are too many. Statistics show that almost half of each prisons’ population are sexual predators! Adding to this, the modern new prisoner tends to be arrogant, stubborn, a person who acts like he already knows everything an O.T. can teach him, and more. He most often looks down on O.T.’s as inferior, believing that the O.T.’s era is passed and it’s now his era and therefore his prison. For these reasons among many more, O.T.’s no longer take any new prisoners under the wing. They just sit back in their own areas shaking their heads at the degeneration of prison.

All prisoners respect “Toughness.” Back in the day, “tough” was not winning a fight, but losing a fight; getting knocked down but getting right back up and into the fray. Tough was walking head first into a fight you already knew you would lose, but going anyway. In this day and age, fist fights are rare. Everyone uses weapons, and they use them by sneaking their opponent from behind. To these people, “Tough” is lifting weights and developing big muscles, or putting a lot of bass in their voice while rapping a 50 Cent song. O.T.’s know that weights and music don’t teach how to fight, nor can they create the courage to square off face-to-face, without a weapon, with an enemy who is much bigger and more powerful. An O.T. is someone who would never fear a man who needs a weapon to fight with.

I’m an O.T. on both levels. Still young at 45-years old, I’m old by the predominantly youthful prison standards. moreover, with 25 years in prison, my status as an O.T. is automatic; but my fellow prisoners see me first and foremost as a “fag.” When I came to prison, even the O.T.’s wouldn’t take me under the wing; In an environment and an era where the loner was a victim waiting to happen, I stood alone, and earned my respect through being tough. I used the foundation given to me by a couple of Asian kids in Junior High School to train and advance myself in the skill of self defense. I called on my anger at a corrupt system for imprisoning me for a crime I didn’t commit, and my intolerance of bullies to teach me courage and honesty in my identity. I’ve experienced attempts on my life and on my sexuality but stood my ground and prevailed. With 2 ½ decades of a secluded life in some of the most violent prisons, my ass is still virginal, and I’ve nary a scar tarnishing my pretty face… though I have many scars on my hands and knuckles! Although the majority still and will forever categorize me as a “fag,” I get respect, most notably by the O.T.’s who know I’ve earned it. It is also a valid point that I live openly as a woman in an environment that is violently hostile to it, which is genuinely “tough,” especially when you consider the vast majority’s failure or refusal to just drop the role-playing and be themselves.

You might construe from my words that this article isn’t so much about classism as it is about the hate and prejudice everyone has for gays and transgender people. The topic is indeed classism, and how it illuminates life in prison, but the theme is my own peculiar perspective. I am fully immersed in the reality of prison life, yet I have that unique point of view as an outsider from within. Where so many are so caught up in their own lives, dramas and concerns, all of which I see clearly, I also see the bigger picture, which they rarely do, or can.

Most prisoners spend their years of incarceration literally and figuratively in a barred cell looking out at all they have lost. I spend my time looking IN, at what I have, and use it to the fullest, to educate myself, advance, grow, and live! For the majority, the environment is prison because they allow it to imprison their minds and hearts; I use it for growth and development and, as a result, for me, it itsn’t prison so much as it is a university!

I am rare even amongst my own class. I am pigeonholed by everyone into the “fag” class even though I don’t really fit into it, because I am not a gay man. I consider all of the people under the social “fag” umbrella as my family, my sisters; I am a devoted activist and advocate for our shared causes, needs, health, safety, and well-being, but I’m often only an occasional visitor into that social circle because I can’t relate with them nor them with me on the things that matter most.

I am in a men’s prison which makes it a common-sense fact that I am a male. in the fatuous minds of the majority, if a man dresses and lives like a woman, he’s a “fag!” For one who has breasts and has legally changed “his” name to an undeniably female name, “he” is obviously really really gay! The irony is twofold: first, it is ironic that I am, in fact, the polar opposite of their ignorant deductions: I am a woman who likes only women. I have never been with a man romantically, intimately, or sexually, and will never change course. Men disgust me: the only way I’d ever concede to sex with a man is if I were already dead, or maybe lobotomized… but even then, it’s highly unlikely!

The greater irony, however, is that every single class, group, or social circle has within them one or more genuine gay men in hiding! So many of my fellow prisoners hate me for being openly and honestly true to myself and the world regardless of the cost, while some of their closest friends and associates are cowardly concealing genuine same-sex desires over them! As long as class mentality prevails, with its inherent classism, I live in amusement over the contradictory and hypocritical realities of this environment.

Case in point, playground rules: All of these classes are like boys’ clubs. “No Girls Allowed!”

I am surprisingly grateful to be so thoroughly despised. Not every member of every group is completely faithful to those laws and standards of classism. When those principles are taken as inviolable law, the adherents who live by them and judge everyone’s worth based upon them, effectively limit themselves to a very small world, with a small world view. The adherents who unfortunately make up the majority of each group will never advance in life beyond the role of follower.

But every group has within them a minority of people who are not ruled by those principles, but use them only as guides to live their lives by. These are the more intelligent, worldly, empathetic, good people who are comfortable with their own sense of self, but open to growth, education, maturity and development. They are open to difference, and different cultures or lifestyles, and respect people as individuals rather than as a status, possession or experience. These are independent thinkers who are never ashamed to interact with people frowned upon as inferior by their group or class standards.

These are the rare individuals who associate with me and, quite often, become my friends. My own class is one of equality and acceptance, with hate only against the hateful. The people I welcome into my social circle are of any race, ethnicity, color, religion, language, skill, size or shape, profession, interest, opinion or belief, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. As a result, my life is enriched with a truly worldly diversity of good people, giving me a better understanding of the world we live in and my place within it. I am grateful for these people for their friendship, humanity, compassion, and individualities.

I am also grateful to the haters. People who have hate breed hate. They are people I consider to be agents of evil, chaos and judgment. They don’t want to be in my life because they hate me. I don’t want them in my life because they hate me. So, I am grateful for them and their hate, because it keeps them from contaminating me, my life, and my social circle with hate.

Prison is so much more than the classism and its group mentality that I have described, and though it is likely that no solution will ever change this reality, there is always hope; and there are those among us who are good people striving to make the world a better place for everyone. One thing is for certain though: No matter what path a prisoner travels, no matter what kind of life he, or she lives, no matter how long the imprisonment… Life Goes On!

Thank you!
Jessica Brooks


For comments, questions, criticism, support letters, or even hate mail, please write to the author at:

Jessica Brooks – 90A6426
Green Haven Corr. Fac.
P.O. Box 4000
Stormville, NY 12582


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