After spending 29 years behind bars, my friend Maurice Carter just couldn’t take enough baths and showers upon his release! He insisted that he was trying to get rid of a certain odor. “Prison funk,” he called it. After numerous baths and showers, he was convinced that the smell lingered.
In recent weeks, in preparation for another report, I’ve been reviewing sad stories about some of our friends after their return to society. These stories lead me to believe that “prison funk” is a lot more than just an odor. I use it as a description of all the hellish things that hang on because of incarceration.
I’m reviewing reports of homelessness, depression, suicide and attempted suicide, as well as addiction. These men and women couldn’t wait to get out, and were anxious to start a new life. Sadly, showers and baths were not enough to completely shake the “prison funk.”
Here are some of the things that I see imprisonment negatively affecting:
Relationships (so many bad choices upon release!)
Psychological disorders (so much depression!)
Employment (so many stigma problems!)
Substance abuse (so many cases of relapse!).
And that says nothing about how incarceration has affected
American writer Damien Echols personally experienced incarceration.
“Prison is designed to separate, isolate, and alienate you from everyone and everything. You're not allowed to do so much as touch your spouse, your parents, your children. The system does everything within its power to sever any physical or emotional links you have to anyone in the outside world. They want your children to grow up without ever knowing you. They want your spouse to forget your face and start a new life. They want you to sit alone, grieving, in a concrete box, unable even to say your last farewell at a parent's funeral.”
It is that kind of treatment, that kind of experience, that creates the “prison funk” I am describing. No, “prison funk” is not just an odor, and it haunts the bejesus out of every person who leaves a cell behind and steps into freedom.
I wholeheartedly agree with American historian Howard Zinn:
It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”