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What is it like to be in prison? Inmates at San Quentin open up online

Posted by Leon Neyfakh  October 25, 2012 12:03 PM

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If you don’t know anyone who is incarcerated, there's almost nothing more difficult to imagine than life in prison. Thanks to movies and TV, we can envision some irritants -- constant surveillance and one-piece uniforms, inedible food and sanctioned natural light -- but there are some details that are harder to conceive of.

Like how it feels to murder someone and live with the crime. This subject was raised last week in a thread on Quora, the message board-style website where anyone can post a question, and anyone else can answer it. The thread prompted a response from one Tommy Winfrey, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, who offered a thorough, 6-paragraph self-analysis.

“When I took another man’s life I was just nineteen years old. Looking back now, I can honestly say I felt immense peer pressure to go through with the murder,” Winfrey confessed. “I felt like I would be seen as a weak punk if I let another man get over on me. I was a drug dealer, and I felt I had a reputation to uphold.”

He went on: “I am ashamed to admit it, but at the time I felt a great weight was lifted off my shoulders when I pulled the trigger. I felt like I had finally stood up for myself. I was completely irrational.”

Winfrey is a participant in a The Last Mile, a program run out of San Quentin that allows prisoners supervised access to social media. As described in this item over at the Atlantic, the inmates blog, tweet, and field queries about their experience from the outside.

Counterintuitively, perhaps, the questions that have appeared on Quora have often been more surprising than the answers. One user asked what it’s like to see a fellow inmate go free (“It’s exhilarating! ... I not only feel such an overwhelming sense of relief for that individual, but it gives me hope”) while another asked what it’s like to be in prison with a celebrity ("hey they’re regular people just like everyone else”). But for the most part, people seem less inclined to get at sensationalist details than they are genuinely curious about the structural realities of an unfree life: whether there’s a difference between a weekend and a weekday in prison, for instance, and what a typical daily schedule looks like.

Both of these questions were met with a sort of surprised gratitude, the answers suggesting that that the prisoners themselves were originally caught off guard by how varied incarcerated days are, both from each other, and hour-to-hour. “This is a great question because prison is often portrayed as a static environment where nothing changes and one day just blends in to the next,” wrote Kenyatta Leal, in response to the weekend/weekday question. “I imagine this to be the case for some but it couldn’t be further from the truth for me.” James JC Cavitt sounded a similar note with regard to his daily schedule: “There is a perception in society that inmates spend all day doing nothing," he wrote, before walking through an agenda that includes working as a metal fabricator for 32 cents/hour and writing plays.

The prisoners participating in The Last Mile program -- some of whom entered the prison system long before the web was the all-consuming fact of life it is today -- seem to be experiencing catharsis and the thrill of remote communication. But for the people asking questions, there’s something else going on, as the desire to feel radical empathy for people who have done unthinkable things and lead unthinkable lives collides with a less noble, perhaps even morbid, sort of curiosity. As an exercise in connecting people who would otherwise never cross paths, the Last Mile experiment promises to expand horizons, even as it demonstrates just how thin the line is between moral imagination and voyeurism.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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