Creative Commons License
Super Friends by Whitney Holwadel Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at Super Friends: Butcher Shop Blues

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Butcher Shop Blues

A few hours ago I finished a letter to Tiny (see post titled "The Superfriends" and photo) letting him know about some of the changes here in Terre Haute since his transfer. I told him about how C. has managed to make enemies of nearly half the population; about how Jamie and Wes now run a Terre Haute gambling empire; about how Brad sends word that Tiny should quit sucking down candy bars like they're half-price Jello shots (I used to cell with Tiny and he does do this). In Tiny's last letter to me he inquired as to the status of the butcher shop in the prison kitchen where we both worked together until I was fired. While, as the name implies, the two inmates employed there do handle and prepare all of the meat used in meals, contrary to the images "butcher shop" evokes in most people, there were no 100-pound slabs of beef hanging in a back cooler. Nor did we do things like case sausages or carve pork bellies. Our job consisted mostly of duties like slicing loaves of bologna or thawing and panning frozen chicken quarters to be baked. Not a whole lot of turkey carving going on, or steak tenderizing. Still, a position in the butcher shop is highly coveted among inmates not only because of some extra privileges which come with the job but also because massive meat-smuggling operations can be orchestrated either for personal consumption or black-market financial gain. My letter to Tiny contained only one sentence regarding the butcher shop: "The blacks have the butcher shop now." Meaning two black prisoners now held the positions. When proofreading the letter I thought to myself, man, that sounds kinda racist. I could have just as easily written "The 'Gangster Disciples' have the shop" or "Skee-Lo and Cockeye took our spot over." The fact that my default statement was to generalize using "the blacks" with all the connotations really disturbed me and had me contemplating my values. Am I becoming racist?

If I am becoming so, my upbringing certainly has nothing to do with the fact. Those who know me already know about how I grew up: the son of an ex-professor father and a now-retired financial consultant mother in a neighborhood about ten minutes from downtown Cincinnati. Although the fact that we lived in a suburb implies all-white at least in practice if not in definition, to say that my parents encouraged beliefs of racial equality is like saying the Pope encourages people to be Catholics. So sheltered was I from the venom of racist beliefs that, even outside my home, the first time I heard an even jokingly derogatory statement was when I was first incarcerated at 17. It was then that I realized intolerance and bigotry in America is in fact alive and well, not something that was cleared up after the civil rights era like a bad herpes outbreak.

Nothing could have prepared me for the encompassing racism inherent in the high-security federal prison system though. Literally everything here is designated by race before then being separated by gang, group and individual; black televisions; Hispanic televisions; white televisions; white cells; black cells; Hispanic cells; native American cells; and so on and so forth. Competition among the races for job positions in places like the kitchen or recreation center is fierce, because it will be the winning race's people who are able to reap the benefits of having a brotha of color in that job. Cultural celebrations are vastly different among the races, like the Cinco de Mayo for the Hispanics, gang-leader Larry Hoover's birthday for the blacks and (oh joy!) Adolf Hitler's b-day on April 20th for the whites. This latter celebration is sponsored by whichever white-power gang is dominant at the time, and attendees can usually win prizes by playing games like horseshoes; winning an essay contest; placing in the goose-stepping competition; or, in the spirit of "pin the tail on the donkey," being the quickest to "pin the moustache on Adolf." I'm joking about those last two.

For those who could care less about Larry Hoover and are repulsed by Hitler, there's no escape. Being open-minded in prison is not unlike being gay in the military: Don't ask, don't tell. Attendance to the 4/20 festivities isn't compulsory or anything, but deciding to sit at one of the Native tables during lunch one day would earn me a little more than a dirty look from the chief. An example of open-mindedness gone wrong was when the boys of the Aryan Resistance Militia (ARM) decided they would allow a half-Mexican gentleman to prospect for their little group. That's a pretty big step forward, right? It was until their General found out what had happened and made sure that each offending member understood they'd made a mistake. Mexican Mike was the identity-confused individual who caused all of the trouble. Poor Mexican Mike, he got it worst of all when the General's orders arrived.

As ridiculous as this prison mentality is, any light of hope for change is dim. My own aversion to racism is not by any means singular among my peers, although our views, if they were ever voiced, would be met with ten times the amount of derision and rejection than our tiny minority could muster. Although I at one point contemplated ways of promoting tolerance, that fire inside me has cooled. Sometimes ideas still come to me. At the moment I'm reading a fantastic book by Robert B. Cialdini titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. As a substratum to a larger point he was making, Cialdini briefly touches on the disaster of well-intentioned school desegregation when coupled with our country's current educational systems and strategies. He writes:

"First of all, the school setting is no melting pot where children interact as readily with members of the other ethnic groups as they do with their own. Years after formal school integration there is little social integration. The students clot together ethnically, separating themselves for the most part from other groups. Second, even if there were much more interethnic interaction, research shows that becoming familiar with something through repeated contact does not necessarily cause a greater liking. In fact, continued exposure to a person or object under unpleasant conditions such as frustration, conflict or competition leads to less liking. And the typical American classroom fosters precisely these unpleasant conditions."

Frustration.. conflict.. competition.. These three undeniable conditions of a prison environment, coupled with my theory that most people's social development ceases right around the time they join their first high school clique, makes the case for high-security federal prison being remarkably similar to a post-integration classroom. Just with a lot more heroin and knives.

Is there an answer to the dilemma according to Cialdini? Is re-segregation the solution? No, there is hope for true racial unity, he claims. He posits that this can be achieved through "cooperative learning" techniques. By reexamining some three-decades old research by social scientist Muzafer Sherif, who studied intergroup conflict among boys in different summer camp cabins, the secret is apparently to create situations where competition among divided groups hurts both parties and cooperation earns rewards. This method has, according to Cialdini, been shown to be effective in mixed-race classrooms, and I'm hopeful that it would be so in prisons. But how the hell can someone create a situation in which cooperation among all groups earns rewards? I just read the Cialdini text a few days ago, so my noodle is still contemplating the possibilities. My only plan so far has been to send Brad out to general population (i.e. outside the hole) where he will scream that Hitler and Larry Hoover are bitches while using a Hispanic phone and mocking a native war dance. My theory is that as every major race rushes in to beat the hell out of him, they'll all need to cooperate so that everyone gets the reward of a few good kicks. Ingenious, right? Brad doesn't seem too enthusiastic, but that will change when I tell him that he's being selfish and needs to think of the greater good, not just himself.

The whole cooperation/competition issue aside, a few hours of introspection have led me to realize that I am not racist after all; not even close. The practice of segregation and racial division is just so much a part of the world around me, with segregated showers and telephones, delivering news to Big Fat Delicious about the status of what was once our butcher shop led me to objectively report what would have the most meaning and clarity to my friend: The blacks have the shop. Race, gender, religion, sexual orientation - none of these qualities matter. The only thing Whitney Smith discriminates against is stupidity. Which means that I hate just about everyone around me equally.


Nina the Internet sleuth said...

"My only plan so far has been to send Brad out to general population"
--> why do you want to send Brad instead of going yourself??? I can see only one explanation : you're a natural born leader :)

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