Jeffrey Ian Ross could only watch a few minutes of the new A&E series “Breakout Kings,” about ex-cons recruited by police to help catch escaped criminals. The show’s depiction of prison life was so ludicrous, so false, Ross said, that he couldn’t resist turning it off. Then again, Ross is used to seeing prison portrayed in a very unrealistic manner on television and in the movies, where the very harsh realities of life behind bars gets glossed over.
“Media representations have tried to romanticize prison, make it look like not such a bad place,” Ross said. “If you’re a young man who has limited opportunities, it may look like a place that is interesting, that it would be okay to spend some time at — a few months, six months, maybe a year.”
The reality, he said, is painfully different. Jails and prisons, he said, are rough, often degrading places.
“It’s a very tough system,” he said. “It’s not a very forgiving system.”
It’s also a place where inmates are expected to conform, behave at all times, and not make any waves – or there are consequences.
“I think there’s a need, objective, want, and desire to run the institution such that it accomplishes its goals and that whatever they are, whatever their mission statement is or objectives are, if you are standing in the way and making it more difficult for corrections officers, there are ways to sanction you informally or formally to make you go along and comply with what they want you to do,” he said. “There’s lots of informal ways of doing that. At a correctional facility, if you’re perceived as a troublemaker, they will sanction you.”
Ross knows this environment well – but not from past experience being incarcerated. A criminologist at the University of Baltimore who worked for more than three years at a correctional facility, Ross is the author of “Behind Bars: Surviving Prison,” a book that attempts to explain to anyone who is facing a prison sentence – or their family or loved ones – what they should expect. The non-fiction novel, published by Alpha Books, does little to soften the image of just how bad prison life is going to get. As the book’s introduction notes, “Once incarcerated in a maximum, medium or even minimum security prison, you lose most of your rights, all of your freedom, and a good dose of your self-esteem.”
The book was written as a “non-nonsense explanation of prison life – for people who are simply curious about it, as well as for those who have found themselves or loved ones in the unenviable position of serving a stiff stint in the joint. Don’t expect us to paint a pretty picture,” the introduction notes.
Ross co-wrote the book with Stephen C. Richards, who spent 11 years in federal custody, only to later become an associate professor of sociology and criminology.
“The majority of prison life is warehousing,” Ross said. “The prison system has four objectives — protecting the community, serving out punishment for the person who has been convicted of a crime, serving as a deterrent to that person and to the general public … and perhaps rehabilitating them. Prisons are lucky if they can get past punishing the person. The resources are not there.
“I find it’s a tragedy that we’re wasting so much human life behind bars, and these individuals could be doing things that are a lot more useful for their families, their lives, their society,” he added.
Ross’ interest in this field dates back to the 1980s, when he worked both part-time and full-time at a correctional facility while he was finishing up his undergraduate education.
“I did that for almost four years,” he said. “It was an interesting experience, but it was not something that I wanted to pursue as a profession. I learned that. I was a correctional worker, and I wanted to get a Masters (degree) and Ph.D in political science. But I soon learned that my interests were more in the fields of criminology and criminal justice.”
When Ross became an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore 13 years ago, he was required to teach a class on corrections as part of the criminal justice curriculum.
“I started teaching it, and I also met the aquaintence of a guy by the name of Stephen Richards,” Ross said. “He also had a Ph.D and was an ex-felon. He and I talked about our difficulties with the mainstream literature in criminology and criminal justice, and that which focussed on corrections. I also met and knew other scholars who had been incarcerated, and they were either criminologists or in similar fields. Many of their complaints were with the textbook depictions of correctional facilities. They seemed to lack the reality and authenticity of people who had done time. Very few people who had been arrested or convicted of a crime, and done time, were writing about criminology and criminal justice.”
Ross later got an offer from Alpha to write a book about life behind bars, and he teamed up with Richards for the drafting of “Behind Bars: Surviving Prison.”
“What I wanted to do was have a literature that was built upon the experience of people who had both been incarcerated and who also had a Ph.D,” he said. “Those were important for this field of convict criminology. It wasn’t a club, but there was an understanding that there are a lot of people who have been incarcerated and have written memoirs, and there’s a strong prison literature out there. These people can write well, but they don’t have the sociology point of view. When I was approached by a publisher to do a book that was more a hands on book for people who are being incarcerated, I wanted it to be accessible to the average person.”
Accessible, perhaps, but not a book that aims to make prison life seem easy. Prisoners have few rights and privileges, the book notes, and are subjected to constant staff searches of their cells and belongings — even stripping for a full body cavity search. The book covers the unpleasant reality of prison meals (“Convicts refer to institutional meals as dog food,” the book notes), a medical system that is bare bones, violence and fights, suicide watches, solitary confinement, the dangers of prison rape, and illnesses that spread easily from one cell to the next. It’s a grim picture.
“Although organizations talk about looking for solutions, I don’t see a lot of followup, or the solutions are not that practical,” Ross said, adding that politicians, with tough-on-crime rhetoric, feed into a system where rehabilitation drops far down the list of priorities.
“That’s why we get the increase in people being sent to prison,” he said. “It’s not because there has been an increase in crime. In the last few years, there’s actually been a decrease in crime. But a politician, even with their heart in the right place or who can understand the scientific literature on this, has to walk a tightrope on this issue.”
The saddest part, Ross said, is that inmates dream about the day they get released – only to find a very harsh reality on the outside, particularly when they apply for a job and discover so many doors closed to them now as convicted felons, and having some of their civil rights taken away.
“If we go to the individual behind bars who is just about to be released, a lot of inmates dream, fantasize, obsess about the day and weeks following when they get out of prsion, and they do this without much thought behind the reality of what will happen,” Ross said. “There’s a hope and belief that everything will be wonderful. In fact, when they get back home, things can be worse in many respects. Their family may have sugarcoated what’s happening back home because they knew what they were coping with every day behind bars. Then the reality kicks in.”
Ross said what’s most gratifying about the work he does is the feedback he often gets from convicted felons who appreciate his work, and the assistance he’s given them in guiding their lives back on track.
“We get emails and phone calls from people who have been behind bars, who have been released, and the feedback is supportive in general – and helpful,” he said. “When you get those kinds of calls, when you get those kinds of letters, they make you feel good and it motivates you to keep doing what you do.”
To learn more about Ross and his books, which are available on Amazon.com, log on to http://www.jeffreyianross.com/.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..