Talking to a friend on the phone recently, I was so relieved when he expressed waves of enthusiasm about the services fair he’d attended that day, held where he lived. Walking around to the different booths providing information, he had so much optimism about the future that it was encouraging to listen to him.
Later that day, while posting on Facebook and checking out what other people were writing about themselves, I noticed something. When longtime friends update their profile photos, they rarely look any different – even if they hadn’t altered their photo in a few years.
Have you ever noticed that? We go through so much in our daily lives — related to work, or school, or our families, or church, or social activities — and we basically don’t change much, physically, beyond what we do with our wardrobe or our latest haircut.
That’s why I was so eager to talk to my friend, who is 24 years old and has every reason to think his life is about to turn around, and get so much better. It was a major relief to me to hear his excitement, and I was truly happy for him. Because a few days earlier, I had clicked on the Florida Department of Corrections’ web site, and witnessed something that absolutely shocked me: my friend’s mug shot.
In addition to posting news releases and information about the state’s prisons and probation offices, DOC’s web site has an “inmate population search.” Type in the name, and the web site will bring you to the inmate’s page. It tells you that particular inmates’ DC (Department of Corrections) number, the prison they’re incarcerated at, their “initial receipt date” when they first arrived there, and their current release date. It also shows a photo taken of the inmate at the prison.
I knew my friend was in prison; I had been there when he first got sentenced a year and a half ago. I’ve visited him at this prison, and he calls me a few times a week from the dorm he lives in. Knowing he had a page on DOC’s web site, including a photo, wasn’t news to me, either.
What did shock me was the brand new photo taken of him this week. Unlike all those Facebook shots we’re so eager to post, showing us laughing and smiling and looking radiant and happy, this photo left me feeling depressed and unnerved.
It made me realize that, unlike the rest of us who go about our business and find various coping mechanisms for the ugly stuff life throws at us – traffic jams, large electric bills, annoying telemarketers during the dinner hour, whatever – people who are in prison change physically and emotionally much more quickly. It’s a sad thing to watch.
Back in June 2010, when my friend first got sent to this prison near Gainesville at the age of 23, DOC posted a mug shot of him – and at that time, he still looked baby faced, innocent, wide-eyed, almost sweet in nature. In so many ways, it captured the look of the friend I knew before a probation violation got him sentenced to two years in prison. I could remember working and socializing with a young guy who was easy going, funny, a great talker, a quick-witted practical joker, full of charm.
His new photo on DOC’s web site was a radical departure. It wasn’t even the ugly, likely permanent scar below his left eye that reminded me of the brutality that inmates can get subjected to in a tight, enclosed environment where tempers flare easily.
What stunned me was how much he seemed to have changed. The vaguely angry look on his face was not the expression of someone who had crumbled and turned brittle, but of a man who had hardened and aged plenty in a short period of time, who had developed — and urgently needed — a steel exterior to cope and survive. There was a coldness in his expression that I’d never seen before. It was like looking at a stranger … or a bit like reconnecting with an old friend on Facebook, but someone you hadn’t seen in decades, now visibly much older.
Except that my friend went from age 23 to age 24. Physically, though, he’s not the kid I remember before he went to prison. It’s a scary transformation to see, captured so eerily in one click of the camera.
My friend shrugged when I mentioned this to him over the phone.
“I wasn’t in a very good mood that day,” he said. “I wasn’t angry at the women who took the photo, just something else.”
I didn’t press him for details. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
In their book “Behind Bars: Surviving Prison” — a kind of how-to guide for men and women who are facing time in jail or state or federal prison sentences — criminologists Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards write about the personality changes that inmates undergo as they’re forced to adjust to the rigid, highly controlled daily routine of prison life.
“Strange thoughts occupy your mind late at night in the penitentiary,” the authors note. “Tonight, you wake up in a sweat, confused as to whether your dream was any better than the living nightmare of this federal pen …. After being in prison for a long time, some cons act like robots. Prisoners don’t need to think for themselves. The routine moves you from place to place.”
What’s the best way to survive, emotionally and mentally, in this environment? “If you’re smart,” the book notes, “you’ll avoid thinking about all the other, near-identical days of confinement stretching ahead of you.”
Prisons are supposed to serve a central purpose: to protect the public from individuals that law enforcement and the courts have deemed to have violated our laws. To a lesser extent, prisons are also supposed to be about rehabilitation, which is why DOC and the counties in Florida have Re-Entry programs.
Re-Entry Fairs, like the one held on Wednesday at my friend’s prison, bring together agencies representing a wide variety of programs and services, including assistance getting health care benefits, driver’s licenses, and housing. Re-Entry programs recognize that offenders will be confronting huge challenges once they get released from prison and return to their home community, and that introducing them to social service providers can be beneficial in the long run. In October, DOC even launched a new program called the Re-Entry Resource Directory. By logging on to Re-Entry Resources, inmates can use the website to produce lists of community resources by zip code, city, county or judicial circuit.
My friend was attending the job fair because he’s getting released early next year, and coming home. He said he wished the fair had provided inmates with a list of employers who hire ex-felons, but otherwise he found it beneficial.
And despite that grim new mug shot, he sounded enthusiastic and hopeful about the future. His sentence is nearly complete. Going home is now more than just a painful dream to wake up from at night, only to discover he’s still in the dorm he shares with other inmates. His attitude came as a major relief to me, because after I had looked at that mug of a now intimidating-looking man, I’d experienced terrible despair at the thought of how drastically his look of innocence and boyish charm had vanished.
I thought about driving up there this weekend to visit him, but then I read the notice on DOC’s web site, that visitations at my friend’s prison had been cancelled for this weekend, “due to a gastrointestinal outbreak.”
Anyone who thinks prisons are not hard enough on Florida’s inmates should take a moment to think about what that facility must have been like all week, as a stomach bug spread from inmate to inmate, creating an entire facility overwhelmed by sickness … and wonder how any one of us would handle a similar illness in such an environment. When we get sick, we crawl into the safety and comfort of our own bed and call friends and family to help out. What does an inmate do?
And maybe you’ll wonder whether you, too, would age so very quickly, and dramatically, and painfully, in such an environment.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..