The Struggle to Learn Nonviolence in a Violent Place
Rachel Louise Snyder on the Paradoxes of Prison Rehabilitation
I’m driving through coal country, on the border between Pennsylvania and New York. Summer of 2018. Rainy. Several months earlier, a text message came to my phone from a number I didn’t recognize. (Hey Ray, I’m not getting in trouble! I’m chilling like the wind.) It was Donte Lewis, resurfacing in Pennsylvania at the Canaan federal penitentiary.
After several months of back and forth, I’d been cleared to visit him. I could do a media visit, but I tried that at Atwater in California and it never went through. Then he was transferred, and so we just decided to do a visit the way everyone else does it, which turned out to be both informative and stupid on my part and could have turned out very badly for both of us.
What I want to know, but suspect there is no real way to, is whether Donte can possibly remain nonviolent in a place like Canaan and manage to stay alive. Can violence be something he can turn on when he needs to survive, say, in a federal penitentiary, and something he can turn off when he’s back on the outside? I would see firsthand how the tiny injustices here are crushing. The vending machines, for example. There’s a sign that says use them at your own risk. And, indeed, I lose at least five bucks, see a soda like a drunk soldier, half out of its plastic ring and leaning against the glass without falling. It’s such a small, small thing, to have a vending machine that works, that doesn’t peel off precious dollar bills from people who hardly have many to spare.
But everything here is authoritarian, whether it makes sense or not, whether it seems logical or is merely establishing who has the power and who does not. This is true for visitors and inmates alike. There are lines on the floor you can’t step over, retractable belts such as those you might see at airport security to keep people corralled in one place or another. The visitors’ waiting area before we go through security is quiet as a church during a prayer. But tense, too. As if a single too-loud sneeze could upset the careful balance. This is a no-emotion zone. No laughing. No small talk. No direct eye contact. The guard in front is serious, youthful, maybe new to the job. He doesn’t have the hard edge of other guards I’ve met, the wearied experience and tense demeanor of someone who’s been in charge of other people, and particularly other men, for a very long time. I call it the “I know better” stance. I know better than you how this system works. I know better than you how bad these men are. I know better than you the full range of human depravity.
I get to the prison at two minutes after nine a.m. Like all prisons I’ve ever been to, this one is in the middle of nowhere, atop a rolling, green set of hills, with a working-class family neighborhood circling it. One of the houses has a beat-up wooden porch and is overflowing with faded plastic toys and chipped flower pots, and a sign on the porch says Shangri La.
“You missed the processing by two minutes,” the guard at the desk tells me. On the website, the visiting hours are eight a.m. to three p.m. “They’re doing a count at ten. Come back then.”
I go and sit in my car. Listen to NPR. Read the Times. Play a stupid game on my phone called Township. Walk back in at ten.
“They just started the count. It takes about an hour.”
I go back to my car. NPR. The Times. Township. Walk back in at eleven. There’s a line of about a dozen people now who seem to have just materialized. I am one of three whites, so far as I can tell. The lopsided racial injustice of incarceration spelled out right there in the anecdotal demographics of the waiting room. It’s also nearly all women.
The guard gives me a locker key, tells me to lock up my car key in the locker. “So I take this key”—I hold up the tiny locker key—“to lock up this other key.” I hold up my car’s fob. He nods.
I don’t know why I say these kinds of things out loud. My best friend has told me for twenty-five years that I have trouble with authority. I lock my fob by itself in the locker.
I am allowed a single clear baggie, in which I have my locker key, some money, some lip gloss, a Post-it notepad, and a pen. Three of the five of these, it turns out, are contraband.
Finally, at a little after noon, we are taken to the main meeting room, a windowless cement-block square with blue tape on the floor to signify the lines inmates and visitors cannot cross. A small group of guards with what appear to be steroid-soaked muscles sit at a station in the center of one wall. Everything about this moment is a cliché. Especially the no-bullshit guards, who yell at us for having too many people in the vending machine area and point to a tiny sign that says no more than two at a time are allowed. I try to decode the logic of this. We have been emptied of all possible paraphernalia, so what does it matter if four or five of us are at vending machines at once? (There are six vending machines … all of them, by the time my visit is over, will be broken.) I consider myself a decent reader, and still this sign was not in any obvious place. We are insulted, shamed. “You can read, can’t you?” says the guard. My ego wants to scream at him that I am a fucking tenured professor. I can probably read him right back under the rock he crawled out from. Instead, I look at him, as I hold a wad of dollar bills, and say, “I was told there’d be a buffet.” He looks taken aback for a moment. I know it’s a double, or maybe a triple, privilege. I am a visitor, not an inmate. I am white. I am educated. I am not proud that I sometimes act this way, inserting humor where it clearly doesn’t belong. I wish I didn’t ignore my inner editor as often as I do. (Actually, I wish I had an inner editor.) Instead, he looks at me for a minute, then walks away. Later, I will learn that a guard was killed at this prison by an inmate in 2013. These guards may have their lives threatened every day. They are probably underpaid, overworked, exhausted. It’s a luxury of my life that I don’t know.
I wonder if I’ll recognize Donte; it’s been nearly three years. At around twelve thirty, I see him emerge from the locked hallway in mustard yellow scrubs, beige rubber sandals. He’s so, so much older. His face is dull and matte. He’s put on a lot of weight. He looks like himself, but also like someone totally different. Like an older-brother version of himself. His hair still has the blond tips, but now the dread-locks are bunched up behind his head like a long tail. A tiny tattoo peeks from the corner of his forehead, like a curl. He has a black eye.
Basketball. That’s how he got the eye. It’s nothing, he says, giving me a hug.
I wish he didn’t feel the need to lie to me.
Canaan is divided into geographies, he says. Your loyalty is to your geography. Gangs on the outside who’d be arch rivals join together in here, like the Crips and the Bloods, who have an alliance. “There’s like a hundred dudes from New York,” he tells me, “and only four of us from Cali.” They have to stick together. While I was waiting, some of the women told me this prison is a tough one. Call before you come or you’ll get here and they’ll have gone on lockdown. There’s a Somali pirate incarcerated here, an Al-Qaeda sympathizer, and members of a notorious Tijuana drug cartel. An associate of the Gambino crime family murdered his cellmate here in 2010, just five years after the prison opened. Next door to Canaan is a minimum security satellite prison that a guard tells me houses mostly nonviolent or white-collar criminals. They have a lot more freedom. They can see the sun.
Donte is in a drug program here, though drugs were not a problem for him as they were for Jimmy. If he goes through this program, he says he’ll be eligible to get out a little early. By the time this book is published, he’ll have just under a year left.
Donte tells me he still uses the ManAlive curriculum, but sometimes what he’s learning here seems to contradict it and it confuses him. “I internalized the lessons, you know? But no one here has.” When they call their morning meeting, one or another of the guys has to lead the group and when it’s his turn, they tell him he talks like a white guy. “I can’t help what I know, you feel me?” he says. “The things I learned from Jimmy and Leo. I say shit like ‘I feel this’ and ‘I feel that’ and these dudes don’t want to intimate with me. They ain’t interested.”
So he’s alone. In a psychic way, he’s alone. Also, his grandmother died a little over a year ago and it broke his heart. He doesn’t talk to his mom much. He’s still a little mad at his sister, who keeps her ex in her life, the guy driving the car the night of Donte’s arrest. He says he turns the lessons he got in California on and off as he needs them, says he’s a lot more mature now. Sometimes he wants to help a friend in here, and he’ll talk about emotional intelligence or expectations of masculinity. Other times he’s making deals with other guys for protection, working the system however he can, knowing full well he’s in fatal peril but he’s got to be for his own survival. He says he tries to stay “chill.”
So I ask him: how’d you really get the black eye?
He throws his head back and laughs. He’s missing one tooth in front. He holds one bicep with the palm of his hand. “Yeahhhhhhh…” he says, drawing it out. “I had a altercation, you might say.”
I nod, say, “No kidding.”
“It really wasn’t nothing,” he says. His cellmate got pissed at him, wanted to fight. Donte told him, “Man, I don’t want to fight you. We both from Cali. We got to stick together.” Plus, Donte thinks he could probably pummel the guy. He’s not very big. Donte is like six foot two, somewhere just shy of two hundred pounds. Knows how to fight. But also, isn’t this what all men think? I say to him. That they’re the ones who could, if they only wanted to, win this fight, but suddenly they’re all altruists, saving the other guy from the fury they could unleash, but won’t. Such largesse.
Donte laughs, nodding, tells me I’m not wrong. “Seriously, though, man. He ain’t a big dude, you feel me?”
But the cellmate hauled off and punched him anyway. Donte said it was nothing, but he was pissed because he was meeting me and it would look really bad. And, yeah, it kinda does.
Behind me on the wall is a picture of a park scene with a bench that appears to have been painted by a middle schooler or a high schooler. Every once in a while, an inmate goes up with a woman and a kid and takes a picture with the fake park in the background. One little girl, maybe six years old, has a purple glitter shirt that says Best Day Ever.
Donte is hoping Community Works will have a job for him when he gets out. He wants to complete his internship again. He doesn’t know. Jimmy, Leo, no one’s been in touch with him, but still he hopes. And then maybe, he says, maybe he can come east. Patterson, New Jersey. Or Jersey City. He has some relatives. It’d be away from the familiarity of Oakland. He thinks they need ManAlive there. Maybe he could start something.
His cellmate got a letter back when Donte was still in Atwater, from a girl who knew Kayla Walker, the old love of his life. The letter allegedly claimed Kayla clocked some other girl with a bottle of Rémy Martin. And Donte’s first thought was that maybe he was responsible for ruining her life. “I wonder if I taught her that,” he says, remorse blanketing his face.
Later, when I leave the jail, one of the guards takes my Post-it notebook from me, where I’ve spent three hours taking notes. I knew it wasn’t allowed, but I figured they’d take it away when I went through security if I couldn’t have it. Same with my lip gloss. And my underwire bra. Like TSA. Hold it up to the light, and toss it in the garbage. The supervisor tells me he could call the FBI based on the first page of my notes, in which I describe the room where we meet the inmates, the blue tape on the floor. I laugh out loud (which, it’s worth underscoring, is exactly the wrong response). We both know the FBI wouldn’t want to be bothered with this on a Sunday afternoon, but we also both know that I should not laugh out loud at a guard who is in the middle of disciplining me. Then I tell him it doesn’t matter because the picture of the room is in my brain now.
He says the notebook is contraband. I hold up my lip gloss and offer it to him. It’s also contraband, no? I put my hands behind my back and start to take off my bra. “You want this, too?” I ask him. I am smiling. Six guards stand behind him. I can see my notebook sticking out of his cargo pant pocket.
“It doesn’t say anything on the website about a Post-it pad,” I tell him.
He has the rules right there in his other pocket. He pulls them out and starts to read them to me. It actually doesn’t say anything about a notebook. “See?” I say. “See?”
“If it doesn’t say, it’s not allowed.”
I use the parallel of a tampon. Also not mentioned. Also then not allowed? Women’ll just bleed all over the damn floor?
The thing is, I know by this point that I’m not getting my notebook back. That while I’m in my pissing match, he’s also in his—and he has an audience behind him for which he will not back down. To use program words: I’m in fatal peril, and so is he, and he has colluders standing behind him and only one of us has any actual power here. Plus, I recognize my own sense of entitlement in this moment. I am a journalist. I am white. I am educated. But what is the point of my challenging him? What am I doing? Have I learned nothing from Jimmy Espinoza and Donte Lewis and Hamish Sinclair and David Adams and Neil Websdale and all the other men I’ve been interviewing these last few years? What am I doing?
And I know, then, because I’m suddenly filled with shame. I turn and walk out of the prison to my waiting car, where I grab my computer and type all that I can recall from my three hours with Donte. His black eye, the prison alliances, the little girl with the purple shirt, the vending machines, his remorse over Kayla. It’s there, sitting in my car in the parking lot, that I will come to understand that it’s not that I broke the rules that really bothers me. It’s not even that I fail to recognize the privilege afforded me by even trying to break them. (Imagine one of the regular visitors, the Black woman who comes every Sunday, trying to get away with what I’d tried to get away with.) What matters is that I know better. I wish I’d done exactly the opposite in the moment. I wish, when that supervisor came out with my notebook in his pocket and told me it was contraband, I wish I’d said this to him: “You’re right. I’m really sorry.”
Just before I left Donte, after a promise to return and see him, and also to send him some books, I asked him how he thought of his time at Community Works, back for those few months when he was working with Jimmy out of the sheriff ’s office, working with violent men but not one of them. That brief respite. His life, for a decade, has been prison, has been surrounded by violence, apart from those few months. It was the first time he remembered being surrounded by people who believed in him, he said. And it made him believe in himself. He summed it up in one word. “Discovery.” That’s how he saw it. A time of unmitigated “discovery.”
Maybe he can get back there again someday.
Excerpted from Rachel Louise Snyder’s No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. Excerpted with permission of the publisher, BLOOMSBURY PUBLISHING. Copyright © 2019 by Rachel Louise Snyder.