This is a true story about a friend of mine that was killed in a private prison.  Around the year 1996, Washington, DC started sending some of its inmates to a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio (CCA Ohio).  The agreement was that DC was to send low and medium security inmates to this prison. Rather than stick to this agreement they sent majority of maximum security inmates there. Mixed in with those inmates were inmates that had lower and medium security status.

Some of these lower and medium security inmates had never been around max custody inmates, therefore, they were easy victims. Most of them were assaulted, robbed, and harmed in other ways. For the max inmates it was the first time, for many of them, they were not caged in cells 23 hours a day. I had some friends that were in max (The Wall) years before being sent to this open population prison.

So, it goes without saying that most of them did not know how to respond to this new found sense of freedom. They were allowed to roam and mix and mingle with other people. They were able to hold and touch their loved ones on visits. Sadly, some of these privileges were abused and delinquency was pretty much rampant.

I was still in Lorton at the time that they were opening up this prison. I knew many people that were sent there. I was supposed to transfer there but I got into some trouble and was sent to the hole. Prior to going to the hole a friend of mine, I will not mention his name, was assaulted and sent to the hole. He stayed in the hole for about 30 days before being sent to Ohio. Due to the nature of what happened to him they had to separate him from quite a few people.

About 6 months after he was sent there I ended up in the hole. The second day I was in the hole a guy yelled down the tier to me. He says that a guy just got killed in Ohio. That it was in the papers and he was sending the paper down the tier for me to read. While he was yelling this out to me I had this feeling that it was my friend. I don’t know what it is but I seem to have a keen sense of things when they are not right. 90% of the time I am right.

Later that night the paper reached me and sure enough it was my friend. I knew his real name and there is was in black and white. Dead from multiple stab wounds.

One thing I found out when they began sending DC prisoners to CCA Ohio is that CCA was a company where one can openly trade and buy stocks. That used to be the talk of the prison. How in the hell can they send us to a joint where there is no telling who has invested stocks in the place??? So, for the sake of having something to do and talk about, I would get the papers and follow the company CCA.  How they traded, the price of stocks etc.

After this killing the company pulled from the market.  They were no longer listed in the papers.  I wondered about this for some time. I knew that it had something to do with the killing but did not know the facts.

About a year after this event I was sent to CCA Arizona. It was here that I met the guys that were shipped from CCA Ohio. They ended up closing the prison to DC prisoners, but they could not just opt out of the contract they had with DC.  So they just split the guys up.  Some ended up in Arizona, New Mexico, and Tennessee.  I just happen to be shipped to Arizona with some of the guys that were present when this killing happened.  The guys that did it got life on top of the life sentences they already had.  One happened to be there with me.  Actually he and I were cell-mates for about 6 months.

I will not go into the details of all that happened.  I will say that one of the guys that killed him was also in the hole for killing a guy in open population.  So, he caught two murders in the same prison.  The first one over a cassette tape, and the one in the hole in defense of his friend.  The guy I was in the cell with.

What happened was a tragedy because actually my friend had stabbed one of the guys first.  He almost killed him. That was because he was being assaulted and robbed.  He just happened to have a weapon on him and stabbed one of the guys during the course of the incident.  For that he was sent to the hole and the other guy went to the hospital.

When the guy got back from the hospital he plotted on my friend and when the time was right he killed him.  He ended up pleading guilty to killing him.  But, it did not make a difference because he was already serving a life sentence for killing a guy in another prison.  So here you have a guy, my friend, that had a 5 year sentence (this is why I call it a tragedy) and 2 years left on it before going home, killed by a guy that was already guilty of killing another guy in another prison.  Who was also serving life for the killing. The tragedy is that this guy started out with a 5 year sentence and was put in a situation where he was involved with the death of another inmate.  So, the killer and the killed both started out with 5 year sentences.

What was the response of the prison?  To lock it down and tear the prison up.  The had the roof of the buildings designed so they could open the top vents and drop gas in from the ceiling.  After the gas fills up the unit they repelled down into the units in ninja outfits and beat the inmates.  Inmates who were not involved in what took place in the hole.  They beat them savagely.  So bad that the inmates actually filed and won a class action lawsuit against CCA.  That was the cause of them taking the company off of the market.

The investors were not willing to take the risk of investing in a prison where the prisoners were uncontrollable.  Where assaults and murder were rampant.  This was not supposed to happen with lower and medium security inmates.  This is when it became apparent that these were max custody inmates being housed in a medium security prison.

This is a sad story for all involved.  For the killer and the killed.  For the families of both of them.  For the prisoners that were beat and assaulted at the hands of inmates that they should have never shared the yard with.  For the inmates that were beat at the hands of the police.  For the inmates that lost property and pictures during the aftermath and response to what took place.  It is really unfortunate to think that at the end of the day there was money to be gained.   That peoples lives were/are put at risk for a dollar.  What makes that different from any other crime that is committed in society?

It is not the private sector that is to govern crime and punishment.  It is the job of the government.  But, today you have more private prisons opening up all across America.  No prison is considered a place of peace and sanctuary, but there has to be some accountability on those that oversee them.  Due to this lack of proper oversight a friend of mine lost his life.  What a tragedy.

I spent a few years in one of the biggest private prisons in America, Correction Corporation of America (CCA). It was an experience unlike any other. It is a unique experience to say the least. To be incarcerated in a prison system where stocks are openly traded, daily. To know that there are many people who are involved in the Criminal Justice System hold stocks and shares in CCA. I once, during a conversation, heard a college professor admit that even he had shares in private prisons.

Ultimately, incarceration is the burden of the government. Not the public. In the case of private prisons it has become a thing where private companies bid on contracts. The bid is not who can provide the most work related skills program or substance program. Rather, who can feed them, cloth them and provide medical attention to the for the lowest price.

Whatever company wins the bid now must set up the services needed. They often use other private companies to provide those services. So they bid out the the lowest bidder.

Aramark is a private food company that service CCA facilities. They have the worst food ever. The rations are low and the quality of the food is poor. Often carbohydrate induced and processed meats are served with every meal. Vegetables and fruits are hardly served, if ever. When they are served they are often of the lowest quality and grade.

The clothes that are provided are no more than a pair of scrubs. Two piece outfit. A short sleeve shirt, regardless of the weather, with one pocket. And, a pair of pull up pants with no pockets. This outfit saves money on tailoring expenses and other accessories needed to wear pants, such as a belt. Which cost more money.

This is just a small glimpse of what it was like to be in a private prison. The list of what is often wrong with these prisons can go on and on.

Privatization of the US Prison System
The US Private Prison System
Privatization of the US Prison System. An Infographic from ArrestRecords.com

For some time now I have been thinking about what it means to be civil. I have discussed this with many of the guys that I know and no matter who I discuss this with I always find some inconsistencies in the responses.

Can you imagine living some place where there is a subculture that has very little resemblance of the greater-society? In terms of right and wrong, do’s and don’ts, and good and bad. The subculture of prison will not allow one to be civil. The be civil, in terms of what it means in the greater-society, is to me an outcast, or rejected amongst the vast majority of the population.

What is even sadder is that without understand what it means to be civil, or better yet to know how to act and think civil, is like bearing the mark of the beast. Because, the prisoner, inmate, convict mentality is so deeply embedded within this person that they lose sense of what it means to be civil, in the greater-society.

As of late I have been feeling my stripes, the ones that I have earned from doing so much time. There are not a lot of guys that can say that they have 20 plus years under their belt. That in itself grants me a lot of leeway to be me and do me amongst the other guys. So, I have been taking certain liberties, that I would not have dared taken as a younger guy in prison. Such liberties as greeting people in the morning with “good morning” or being courteous enough to let some one go before me through a door. Saying “thank you” when someone does something for me.

As I do this I often track the times that others offer the same courtesies to others. It is as if one is going to be labeled soft and weak if he says “thank you” to someone else. To smile is like being told you have an incurable disease. It is sad to see that many want life on the outside but do not know how to conduct themselves in a civil manner.

When a fight breaks out guys run and search out the fight to watch, what can be at times the death of someone, and ogle. When someone is about to be taken advantage of it is not common for those around to turn and look the other way. Or to laugh and ridicule at someone else’s misfortune. You will find these attitudes among throughout any prison in the world.

What I have come to know is that this attitude and behavior is often a cover up for the lack of substance in someone’s life. The danger is that after years of acting like this it becomes part of ones psyche. To act out and be heartless becomes normal. It becomes part of ones way of life.

Civility is what is needed to stay out of prison. To be able to adapt to the rules, regulations and right of the greater-society. Civility is not something that is read in a book. Rather it is something that is applied in ones daily life. It is what opens the door of opportunities and understanding. It is something that has to be practiced. Often in here it is not practiced.

Here the bad are deem as good. The good are deemed as rejects. The man with the most time is often lauded as the most respected guy in the joint. More time usually mean more crimes, of heinous sorts, were committed. This is often overlooked. That, in most cases, for a guy to get 100 years may mean that who knows what was committed to get that type of time.

I remember when I would tell guys that I had 20 years to do it was automatically assumed that I had killed someone to get it. The response is never about the victim or the family of the victim but more along the lines of, “man you must have been a tough guy out there.” Or the one that I hate the most, “better him than you.” Most people out in the free world would automatically question the choice of taking someone’s life. Most will make you feel bad about doing so, and would want to hold you accountable for these acts. Yet in here guys like this are often the most respected. The bad people have been exalted and made to be good. Do not get me wrong there are some good guys in here. I like to think of myself as one of those guys.

I often wonder how long can a person survive in the greater-society with a prison mentality. Not long. I tell guys all the time that the way they think about life, others and the world is not going to fly out there. The codes by which they live by will never be accepted out in the free world. That no one wants to be around people that are rude and disrespectful. Someone who is always ridiculing and criticizing others. And, definitely they do not want to be around people who only topic of conversation surrounds the drugs they have used or sold.

So, what does this mean? It means that as they find themselves rejected by the public-at-large they have to find some place to fit in and be accepted. That means seeking out the sub society of criminality. It is here that those sub cultural ideas are given any attention. It is here that they find acceptance and form alliances. It is here where the plot to commit more crime is either formulated or play out. More crime means more victims. The cycle continues.

Civility is something that is not stressed enough in here. It is hard to stress it when those powers to be, the ones that hold the authority, are not civil towards others. In order to train a monkey you have to think like one. In order to catch a criminal you have to think like one. In order to guard an inmate you must think like one. At times you must at as one. So everyone walks around here trying to prove they are the toughest. That is the attitude from the top to the bottom. The staff act as gang member because they have to oversee so many gang members. So they use intimidation to exert authority. They have to yell to get a point across. The same way that they act is the same way that inmates act with one another.

If people would be just a little more civil in their dealings the society may become a little safer. Just something to think about.

Today a guy asked me if we could talk about something that was bothering him. He is about to go home and has to be released to a shelter. What he wanted was advice on how to approach that situation and deal with the transition. There are questions that when I am asked I have to actually take time out before answering them. I mean after 20 plus years incarcerated it is hard to give unbiased advice about going home. The last of my worries would be going home to a shelter.

Anyway it got me to thinking about this question, “Where do you start?” Everything that he spoke to me about was how things “used to be”. I know that it is easy to get caught up in the thoughts of the past and the “good” times. Yet, those are the times that caused most of us this punishment.

I asked him a few simple yet direct questions. How do you view this current situation? Do you think that prison is a step down from a shelter, where you are free, or a step up. I mean in order to see being free in a shelter as a dooming thought he has to see prison, some how, as a better place to be than free. So, that is where the conversation began.

This guy was not seeing the bigger picture. All he could see is the images that were circulating in his head about shelters. He was so caught up in this thought that he forgot to look around him and evaluate his current living situation and condition.

So, where do I begin. Here they have cells, like the one that I live in currently, where there are 3 guys living in a cell the size of a bathroom. This is how they have dealt with the overcrowding of prisons for years. They put another bunk in a 8 by 10 cell. It is hard enough for 2 men to live in there, let alone 3.

There is a toilet that we all have to share. That means if someone has to defecate late in the night the other two guys have to endure the stench that comes from his bowel movement. There are no windows to air the smell out and the ventilation is not the best.

There is no room in the cells and alone time is impossible to get. Tempers flare and arguments ensue all the time due to the stress of living in this type of setting. I get frustrated when I need to get in the shower and can not get in at the time that I want to get in because the cell is being occupied by one of my cellmates.

The food here is not that great. It is carb induced and veggies are hard to come by. The meats that they serve are processed and most red. Literally, one will eat red hamburger meat for all three meals. For breakfast it will be cream and beef, lunch will be hamburgers and fries, and for dinner chili mac. Only to come back the next day and have red meat served again.

The showers are out in the common area and guys cooking at the microwaves can look right in and see you showering. There are 12 showers and all of them are located where one can look right inside of them when they are being used.

The mail and other stuff is always monitored, that goes without saying.

And in a nutshell you can not leave and move around the way that you want to. You are not free. So with this being said I think a shelter is an upgrade to this. But he has to be able to see this for what it is. He has to be able to see the here and now and compare it to what he wants.

Unfortunately, this is the mindset of many guys here. We often only look at where we come from and to where we want to be. This is often done to escape the reality of where we are at. But here and now is where it begins. This is what the focus need to be on.

What is going on in your life now that will not allow you to see what you want in the future. As I asked a friend the other day, “what are you holding on to that will not allow you to let go?” This is the question that I posed to him. There has to be something else going on that will not allow you to see what is really happening in his life.

I hate to say this but as long as he sees nothing wrong/bad about this situation he is bound to come back. That was the part I forget. This is his 4th time back in the system. Every time before he minimized, chalked it up as something small. He see himself as the victim. This is the attitude that will cause him to leave and create more “real” victims. That is the tragedy of this system. When certain attitudes, beliefs and thought patterns are left unchecked the greater public suffers the most.

For many guys the worst, “prison” has already happened. For many of you it is hard to even phantom the idea of coming to prison once. Let alone 2, 3 or 4 times. For many guys once the shock of it all wears off the become immune to the side effects of prison. The younger guys are the worst. I have heard many guys in their early 20′s say they have another run in them. They think that they can out live the time due to their young ages. This is the way they see their current situation, as a time to play and meet friends and to get tatted up, as they say.

So, back to my friend. After talking to him and putting things like this to him he had a chance to think about the way he was thinking. I don’t know if he still feel the same way but at least he has another way to think about the situation.

When it comes to change one has to start with NOW. What is going on NOW. Not what I want, where I came from but what am I going through NOW. If one truthfully begin now it will allow him to be objective about the past and what he wants the future to be. It is this objectivity that is needed to begin the process of change. It is easy to be blinded by the glitter and glam but what is the truth?

When I think about where I am at now and what I am going through I know that this can never happen again. I can never put myself in this situation EVER again. There is not a fast buck that could entice me to fall into this trap ever again. The guys that I know that think the way I do go out and never return. They understand what it takes to get out and stay out. That is having a strong dislike for the way things are now.

I have spent quite some time, lately, reflecting on life. My life and the life of those around me, near and dear. A guy told me something quite profound today. He said that the price that we pay for some things makes us more appreciative when we reach what we are seeking. Looking at my situation this way it makes sense. I guess that is the price that I am paying, bittersweet, but it if this is the price to appreciate life I am willing to pay it.

I look at others that come in and out of prison and often wonder why. It may be that they don’t see that they are paying off their life in installments. That life does not have that much value to appreciate having certain liberties. Freedom is priceless yet so many people willingly give it up for next to nothing.

I don’t wish prison on anyone but if you could just see the conditions of the men/women here you would weep. The American public is not getting the real when it comes to the penal setting. There is no structure in place. From the top down. There is no real concern for the public. The order of the day is not helping inmates change but to just enforce more rules and regulations. Rules and regulations that have nothing to do with survival on the outside. The only concern is that I have my bed made before I leave the unit in the AM. That I have my shirt tucked in while outside the unit. That I talk with respect to those in authority while it is of no concern what I do to those around me (inmates). It is a game and the losers are those that have to accept many of us back to the community.

I am once again teaching in the school, ESL and GED in Spanish, and this is by far the saddest learning setting that I have been in. Upon my introduction to the department I was greeted with this. ” These guys don’t want to learn. Are you sure you want this job? You have to have the hard convict exterior to deal with these guys.” All of this was said to me by those that have been entrusted with providing educational structure and information to these men. My response was, almost sarcastically but honestly, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That is a statement that refers to human beings. Humans are humans no matter where they are. Here in prison we are often referred to as other than humans. Many of us are simply known for the crimes that we have committed. Circumstance of those events do not matter. Only that we are guilty of committing them.

The assumption is that we don’t have the capacity to be other than these crimes. It is sad that in order to be taken seriously for a job that requires patience, care and dedication, I had to explain my prison resume. What is that? That is me telling them, in so many words, that I have been in 20 plus years. That I have been in almost all the serious and dangerous penitentiaries that the BOP has.

This is a medium prison so the age group is younger. The crimes are not as dangerous and the guys are generally serving shorter sentences. Those here that have been in a lengthy amount of time come down from the USP (United States Penitentiary) which is where most of the lifers are at. The climate in the USP is very hostile and violent. It is in the USP that most of your prison deaths occur. I have been to 6 in the time that I have been in the BOP. It was not until I explained all of this to them that I was taken seriously. I still look young for my age so it is easy to look at me and misjudge my age, time spent in prison and experience. I rather prefer it to be and stay that way.

I thought by coming to this place things would be better, in terms of education. Sad to say that is far from the case. But every sad story has a happy point.

After the first week of working there has been a drastic change in “my” students. They want to work, they want to learn, and they want (even if they will not admit it) someone to care. Someone who is going to dedicate time and put forth the effort to help them. “No one cares what you know until they know how much you care.”

Often people ask me why do I do what I do. How do I do it? I tell tell them that what I do and how I do it has more to do with me than them. That I care that much, if not more about myself, that I can care about others. See part of paying the price with this incarceration is learning to appreciate life. Mine and those around me.

I think a lot of times people who have been convicted of murder are often written off as psychopathic, cruel, heartless and careless. Yes, there are convicted killers that are like that. Just as there are people out in the world that are as equally cruel, heartless and careless. People who have no regard for human life. How often do the “responsible” people find themselves behind the wheel of a vehicle after a night of drinking? How often do people text and drive? Eat while driving etc. How many people have died at the hands of these people? These acts may make them careless but not necessarily evil and bad.

So, when I show care and concern for others it surprise many. It is hard to see the human side of someone if all you know about this person is what a piece of paper says about them.

Imagine spending 20 plus years without having your human side catered to. Where you are dehumanized and looked down on. It is a hard task to endure. What helps me is caring for others. When I care and show concern for others it allows me to gauge how much I really care about myself. It opens the door to getting that validation from those around me. Those who acknowledge my intelligence and strengths. It helps keep the fire inside of me burning; It keeps me hungry for more. That is one of the benefits of helping others. When you see others succeeding due to your help it just does something internally for you.

If this is part of the price that I have to pay I know that when I am, one day, free from prison, that I will look back at this as a priceless experience. I will enjoy the moments that I have left. I will have the capacity to connect with my human side and the human side of others. There is so much in life to be grateful for. I am grateful that I have not lost my way. Rather, I have found my way. My faith in the Creator is strong, I have the love and support of my family and friends. I am in a rather good place. The least I can do is help someone else get to that place in their life.

A Voice from the Inside/Reconstruct Program is working in connection with Dr. Patrick Williams and Coaching the Global Village on a project called ‘From the Inside Out: A Prison Documentary’.  A documentary about my life and life coaching in prison. You can find out more information by visiting the kickstarter.com page. Where you will hear a clip of this project. If you like the idea and please donate, and encourage others to donate. We appreciate all help given!

Talib M. Shakir

Hello all.

I have been transferred from one prison to another. This is the reason why I have been out of touch. The transition has been somewhat of an eye opening experience. I had been in the last place for over 4 years and did not have any intentions on leaving. When I was up for parole I transitioned out mentally. One of the things that I was looking forward to, had I made parole, was never putting on another pair of shackles or handcuffs. This was in my head and I would tell myself this everyday. To me those handcuffs and shackles symbolize everything that I want to be free of.

Being in transit is one of the worst experiences that one can suffer while incarcerated. You are stripped of all of your property. You are given paper pants, a t shirt and those karate shoes to wear. In the winter, as in my case, it is the worse. We were given 10 packs of crackers, the kind that has two crackers in them, to eat. That was to last us for a 6 hour ride. We were not given breakfast.

Luckily, I was transferred from general population and knew the routine so I ate a piece of fruit before I went to R&D. I knew not to eat heavy or drink a lot of fluids, because it is almost impossible to use the toilet in chains and shackles, the also belly chain us.

One of the most humiliating aspects of this is to use the toilet and splash urine all over yourself, due to the motion of the bus. There is no water to wash/rinse your hands, so you have to ride with urine on your hands. Bear in mind that you have to also eat those crackers with those same hands. The best thing to do is not eat. That leaves you feeling sick and tired but it beats the other alternative.

If you are lucky you will get a good guy to ride with. Usually, I am not in my best mood and want to be left alone. I don’t want to talk or chat. I just sit, endure the pain of tight handcuffs and watch the scenery.

One of the things that I noticed was all off of the paths that were cut into the mountains. I like to ski so when I see something that resembles a slope I try to see if people are skiing it. As we were riding I kept seeing these paths that looked like ski slopes. I kept asking myself,” why are people skiing one trail mountains.” What I came to realize was that they were not slopes but paths that were cut in order to put up telephone towers. It was the towers and the wires that made it look like a ski lift and a slope. It made me think how much people, even in mountain rural areas, depend on cell phones.

I also noticed that all of the cars looked the same. I had a hard time distinguishing between some of the newer model cars. They all looked boxed and bulky. Not like the cars of the early 90′s, the cars that I remember. Another interesting thing is that as we rode and passed other vehicles nobody even noticed the prison bus. It was as if we did not exist in the minds and worlds of other people. When you see a prison bus you know that it is a prison bus, but people seemed to not even care.

Depending on where you are going you may have to pass through a transit center. I had to pass through USP Canaan. An officer was recently killed there so they run that place real tight. They treated us as if we had something to do with it. The operation hours were so that we were out from 6 to 3.  After 3 we were locked in the cells for the rest of the night. On the weekends were were locked in all day. I was fortunate that I got in on a Thursday and left that Monday. I spent the weekend locked down. I read four 400 page novels in that time. I was alone so I read. One of the things that I noticed was that I did not utter one word while I was in that cell alone. Not one word. I read and slept. I had no concept of time or anything else.

Funny how humans can adapt and adjust to almost anything. I had spent time in the hole before and being there resembled that time spent in the hole. The thing is that I have not been in the hole in years so to be able to just accept the situation and adapt to it without thought was somewhat scary. It is scary to be able to accept that time of segregation as something that is normal.

When we left there we had to go to the airport. There are some prisoners that have to fly to other destinations, while others get on a bus at the airfield. I took a bus but had to get on it at the airport.

They had two planes there. One was a federal plane and the other was a deportation plane. The deportation plane was the saddest thing that I have ever saw. I counted about 400 men and women that were being deported back to their respected countries. Most here of Hispanic origin. They had them with all of their worlds possessions in one bag. They were shackled and handcuffed as they were lead onto the plane.

I felt the sorriest for the women. I know that many of them were leaving behind young kids and families that they may never see again. The journey to this country is not an easy one. It is easier for the men but quite dangerous for the women. They stand to be raped and held against their will. So to see them leaving behind this place that has been home to them broke my heart. Another broken family. I can think of many alternatives to what is being used now. Alternatives to deal with this issue. This issue is one of the issues that drives my love for the Spanish language. It is my intent to work with that community when I am released.

Well after sitting on the bus for 6 hours waiting. We left and 3 hours later we arrived at the new place that I am in. It is not that bad here. To me it is another prison. After so many years they all look the same. The biggest thing here is that I am 2 hours from DC, home, and it is easier for my family to come see me. I in fact got a visit this weekend from them.

Being able to see my family was worth the trouble that it took to get here. Hopefully something gives with my case and I get out sooner than later. If not this is where I will be until my next parole hearing, 2018.

I hope that some good things happen here. We will see and I will keep you all posted!