Letter from MarQui: September 2019

Letter from MarQui: September 2019

This is the seventh installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

The function of the criminal justice system is ostensibly to protect society by removing criminal offenders from it. There are additional purposes, but this is the most basic, most universally accepted of them. But what constitutes a society? More importantly, what happens to members of a society when you remove them from it? Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a society as "a group of human beings bound together by shared knowledge and culture." By this definition, it can be posited that prison institutions are their own individual, microcosmic societies. Though we've been removed from the macrocosm (free world society), the social instincts and inclinations which are part of our human nature do not change. We simply fell into the social roles of a different society where the commander in chief bears the title of Warden, instead of President; institutional rules are the laws of the land; and order is enforced by correctional officers, instead of police officers. This microcosm functions much the same as the macrocosm. For example, violating institutional rules will result in judicial action - being summonsed to a disciplinary hearing - where the charged offender will either be found innocent or guilty. A guilty verdict may result in the offender being arrested and locked in the Segregation Housing Unit, which we refer to as "jail."

The similarities don't end there. Like the free world society, which is divided into nations and groups that share common ancestry, religions, and cultures, our prison "society" is also divided into nations (Aryan Nation, Folks Nation, United Blood Nation, Nation of Islam, Nation of Gods and Earths, etc.) that each have their own social structures, beliefs, teachings, ideologies, and in some cases, proprietary language that non-members can't understand. These nations also have their own internal laws and, to a degree, systems of self-government to ensure accountability for their members. When conflicts arise, the heads of these Nations often convene to attempt diplomatic resolutions.


Each one of us also has our own unique address (housing #, cell #, bunk #) where we live, and where the mailman comes every weekday to deliver our mail. We have real barbershops, medical and dental offices, dining facilities, churches/mosques, schools, and a library. We even have gyms where we go to participate in (or observe) various events, and where our organized sports teams compete against each other.

Weekday mornings are a frenzy, with inmates rushing up and down the "boulevard" - some heading to school, others to work. Tardiness in either could result in write-ups, suspension, or termination. Like the macrocosm, most jobs here are 40 hours per week, and we're paid hourly wages with chances to advance and earn raises. Our paychecks are deposited directly into our savings accounts at the end of each pay period. Of course, since there's a job market in prison, there's also an actual, micro-economy here. We buy, sell, and trade food, clothing, electronics, and other items. Canteen products are what we use as currency, and to accumulate it, we create our own businesses and services. We have "investors" - inmates who lend canteen (currency) to others in exchange for a return, plus interest. Our "cleaners" are inmates who offer clothes washing, ironing, and sewing services. Our "bakers" are inmates who make and sell cakes, pies, cookies, and pizzas that aren't sold through commissary. Some prisoners are "electronics repairmen" who fix, alter, even upgrade our TV's, music players, headphones, and other devices. There are "jailhouse lawyers" who offer professional level legal services. We even have artists who create and sell custom portraits, sculptures, and greeting cards. No one would expect there to be such a robust goods/services exchange in prison, but tens - if not hundreds - of millions of dollars' worth of goods are circulated through our economy every day.

All societies are comprised of good people who follow the rules and bad people who break them. Our microcosmic society is no different. Though prison is comprised almost exclusively of free world society's rule breakers, here the majority of prisoners have fallen into the roles of productive "citizens" who choose to live good lives and do right. Those are the above-mentioned prisoners who attend school, work, and run their own services for a living. But prison also, inevitably (and ironically), has its very own criminal underworld of rule breakers who create all kinds of illegal/unauthorized services to gain their currency. Most notably is the drug market. There are drug dealers who make a living smuggling/trafficking/selling illegal narcotics in here. There are also bootleggers who sell "home-brewed" alcohol, which is prohibited in here. There are even "weapons dealers" who make a profit selling shanks. Whether positive or negative, most aspects that define a society are in some way mirrored here.

Prison is a complex, unnatural, and understandably misunderstood environment, which is one reason it has been connoted such an unpleasant reputation. But when you think of the day-to-day activities of people behind bars, remind yourself that incarceration does not take away the thoughts, actions, and inclinations that make prisoners human. It is also not human nature to create societies of chaos and lawlessness. Whatever negativity may exist here, the overwhelming majority of us understand that it is incumbent upon us to be responsible, productive, "law-abiding citizens" in this microcosm we now inhabit. That's what should be more widely acknowledged, for if we can live civilly in the microcosm, we can most certainly do so in the macrocosm to which we will one day return.