A Trip to a Maximum Security State Prison

April 29, 2010
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I once asked my dad, “Why do we even let murderers live? If they killed someone, shouldn’t they be killed themselves?” It just seemed logical to me. I thought that if murder had harsher penalties, such as the death penalty, it simply wouldn’t be done. My dad responded with, “Sometimes people aren’t really bad people, they only make bad decisions. All they need is another chance.” I disagreed with this. Only bad people made bad decisions, and the best thing would be to rid the world of them . . . right?

The first thing I heard on my field trip was, “It’s not worth it!” In other words, “Welcome to Sing Sing.” Immediately, my internal response to this was, “Oh, I know.” And I did. I thought I knew everything about jail from what I saw in the movies. Men in jail live in cages, have no rights or freedoms, and are worth no more than animals. The movies portray all of these accurately, excepting the latter. After speaking with some prisoners, I learned that all men are men, and no prison can change that.

The inmates who led the tour consisted of murderers, arsonists, armed bank robbers, and any kind of maximum security state prisoner you could possibly dream of. They spoke of their crimes so apathetically, and answered me so calmly when I asked if they were remorseful, that I had trouble believing them. Yet after hearing their stories, I changed my mind completely.

“I can’t tell you exactly why I did it. Because killing another guy wouldn’t bring my brother back to life.” One inmate described his revenge that landed him in Sing Sing. “It’s hard to believe I wasted all my talent for selling drugs. All I wanted was a rep. Look where that got me.” Another nostalgic inmate recalled his younger, intelligent, self. The other stories simply mirrored these, all telling tales of promising young men that made the wrong decisions. The inmates chose to tell us their stories in the hopes of steering us on the right path, and not making the wrong decisions like they did. It was impossible to simply express their remorse to me; instead they displayed it through their experiences they shared with the students. Not only had these prisoners learned the full consequences of their actions; they were now passing the torch of wisdom on to new, impressionable, teens. They evidently saw themselves-their younger selves-in us, and wished they could go back and reverse their actions. If that isn’t remorse, I don’t know what is.

On the bus ride home, a friend reminded me that by the end of the day, these prisoners are still criminals. However, I disagree with that. Yes, at one point, they were criminals. But I truly believe they are no longer criminals; they are changed men. Maybe, just maybe, prison isn’t really a jail; it’s a second chance.

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