Bozelko column: Making a mask invites punishment in prison
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Henry “Tommy” Green thought it was a joke, that his client was pulling his leg.
Green is the co-founder and owner of Success While in Transition LLC, a Durham, North Carolina, company that provides staff and programs for transitional housing and teaches a unique workshop that includes motivational speaking, mentoring and other skills. He’s also a community health worker with the Formerly Incarcerated Transition Program of Orange County, North Carolina, where he connects people who have chronic health conditions with primary health care services.
Green said he was simply discussing the challenges of reintegration with the client when he revealed what was happening inside the facility he just left.
“And then when he reverted back to telling, talking about being inside, he made the joke that he had got in trouble. He said he got in trouble for tearing up his shirt or something to make a mask because he lost the mask he was given or something like that. And when he said it, I honestly just was having a casual conversation. So I really didn’t take it seriously.”
Green is formerly incarcerated himself, so he knows how silly prison rules can be, but even he didn’t realize that prisons would go so far as to punish inmates who protect themselves with DIY PPE during the pandemic. But they do.
Of all the corrective practices, prison discipline is the most screwball. It bans actions that free citizens wouldn’t see as problematic — like wearing a hood — but it often has good reason — the prison staff might not be able to identify someone who’s wearing a hood.
Other rules don’t always have good reason, like the ones about contraband. Mention of the word conjures visions of guns and glassine baggies of powder and pills. That’s contraband for sure, but contraband can be an expired nebulizer, a maxi pad stuck to the wall to prevent the bed from striking its painted concrete during the night and waking someone up or a book that props open a window in a building without air conditioning.
Each jurisdiction has its own rules about prohibited items. In federal prisons, it’s actually a crime to create contraband as an inmate, and contraband is defined as all the things one might expect but also “any other object that threatens the order, discipline or security of a prison, or the life, health or safety of an individual,” which means anything that annoys a guard is fair game for an accusation of possessing contraband.
The states are more philosophical about contraband. Many of them, like California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, enacted rules that dictate that anything used for a purpose other than what was intended is contraband. The Department of Corrections of Kansas is a tad softer in defining contraband; the item has to be “misused” to be off-limits.
An entire branch of philosophy dedicates itself to this inquiry — deciding what something’s or someone’s purpose is. It’s called teleology and it’s the study of ends, destinies and purposes. Everything and every person has a purpose.
I hardly imagine that the drafters of the various codes of penal discipline relied on Aristotle when they wrote the rules. I expect that philosophers would have marveled at how sugar in a bottle was contraband (sugar’s purpose is not to exist in a bottle), that a picture drawn on a handkerchief is verboten because the purpose of the cloth square is personal hygiene.
I’m especially skeptical that these thinkers of the ancient world would theorize that shirts, socks, sheets and sleeves covering one’s face during a deadly global pandemic violates their existential purpose and should be, therefore, against the rules.
Green’s client in North Carolina isn’t the only one who experienced this. I’ve received letters from inmates in Delaware who report the same thing. One wrote to me: “Inmates try to make and wear their own masks but are forced to take them off by staff.”
To rehash the effectiveness of masks seems silly at this point. In October, the New York Times published an interactive article titled “Masks work. Really. We’ll Show You How.” It showed how masks help stop the spread and the contraction of the coronavirus. They also prevent facial touches and lastly — perhaps most importantly — they signal that small efforts that protect everyone are the right thing to do. Masks’ purpose, then, isn’t just to rest on a face. They’re functional and symbolic.
I don’t agree with it, but intellectually I understand why people fend off face coverings. People resist direction of their behavior. If they didn’t, I might have been sitting in prison alone.
But allowing other people to wear them respects that same liberty, especially if it’s in a location where someone is five times more likely to be infected with the virus and three times more likely to die from COVID-19.
If anything, getting — or letting — inmates wear masks is another layer of control and coercion to coat them with. Requiring inmates to don them would provide grounds for more discipline when they didn’t comply. Especially since the virus is doing acrobatics through these facilities, that an inmate would cover his nose and mouth should be the least threatening move he can make.
But to punish them for manufacturing what they need during this pandemic, thus arresting any type of ingenuity and enterprise in protecting one’s community, is one of the most morbid moral failings these monsters can muster.
I’m like Tommy Green. Even I didn’t think they’d go that low.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.