This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
Have you ever sat on the toilet while carrying on a conversation with a guy who’s looming over you drinking Kool-Aid and eating chocolate-chip cookies?
Have you ever felt the need to tape National Geographic magazines around your torso as makeshift body armor?
How about having someone peer up your anus with a flashlight after you visit with your family?
Or what about being addressed by a number instead of your name?
I have and do experience most of these things on a regular basis. You see, prison is all about “normalizing” abnormal behavior, to use a word popularized in the Trump era. Nothing about life inside prison is normal.
Prison is the very absence of normal.
When I first entered prison, almost everything seemed alien and disgusting. On day one, I was stripped of my clothes alongside a bunch of other men, marched around naked, and issued an ID number.
Let’s examine that for a minute. I’d been methodically shamed and humiliated, assigned a new form of identification, and then informed that not only was I no longer free, I was effectively the property of the state of Michigan—all in the course of a few minutes.
I was stunned. But today, 20 years later, that all seems quite normal to me.
“251141, report to your housing unit... Hey, 251141, where the hell d’you think you’re going? Get over here... 251141, you’ve got mail...."
As for strip searches, well, I’ve endured hundreds of them.
“Bend over and spread your ass cheeks... Lift your dick... Now your nuts... Hold your mouth open with your fingers... No, I don’t have anything for you to wash your hands with... Let me see the bottoms of your feet…”
On my second day in prison, I was among 20 or so inmates who were marched naked down a long, Alcatraz-like gallery past several open-faced cells to a grubby, dimly lit communal shower. The bath area was a huge, open chamber sporting several shower heads protruding from mold- and mildew-covered walls. There, a number of men huddled under the sputtering, scalding-hot spray were going to town on themselves as if having an audience of fellow inmates watch you masturbate were the most normal thing in the world.
Another norm in prison is the idea that friendships are fleeting. You might wake up one morning and discover that your best friend of several years is gone, transferred to another facility with the snap of someone’s fingers. He may even have been your cellmate, for you have no control over who you live with (another norm).
Chaos is a norm, though it sounds oxymoronic to say so. I haven’t experienced a truly good night’s sleep—a sound, comfortable sleep—in two decades. Too much chaos. Too much uncertainty.
That brings me to violence, which in prison is the ultimate norm. Over the years, I've been stabbed, cut, clunked, almost raped, and had the crap kicked out of me on numerous occasions. And in self-defense—especially back when I was young and considered “pretty” by the sexual predators—I’ve been forced to do a number of those things myself.
Don’t get me wrong: Despite my crimes, I’m no monster. In fact, I think I’m actually a pacifist at heart, and I still sympathize with those who are abused, injured, or victimized. I once saved a man who was choking to death in the chow hall by performing the Heimlich maneuver on him. And while it’s true that half of the inmates eating dinner did applaud me—mostly for defying the guards who kept ordering me to stop—the other half booed me for not letting the guy die.
Another of our norms is growing accustomed to having everything we do planned out and tracked by authority figures. I’m told when to eat, when to sleep, when to go outside, when to talk with and see my family, when to shower, when to cut my hair or iron my clothes. My money is managed for me; I pay zero taxes; and my healthcare (what little there is of it) is free and monitored by others.
I can’t remember the last time I had to make a major decision like that for myself. I grow nervous just imagining the prospect. By the grace of God, and with a little help from my wonderful family and friends, I believe I’ll be OK when the day I’m free finally arrives. But what about those of us who have no loved ones left alive because they’ve spent a bazillion years behind bars? Who will help them adjust to having to make decisions for themselves? Who will help them forget 20 or 30 or 40 years worth of “normal”?
Maybe this is why so many of us fail when we get out.
Someone smarter than me will need to figure all that out. But I will say this: Every single man who's lived in prison long enough that he’s learned how to digest the food agrees with me. As I've worked on this essay, I’ve let every inmate I know read it, and they have all nodded their heads.
The question you must ask yourselves, readers, is this: What are you going to do about it? Some may say that we’re “getting what we deserve” in here, but that makes no real sense from a societal standpoint. Better people exiting prisons means a better society. Worse people exiting prisons means a worse society.
I think that’s simple logic—unless illogic has been normalized for me, too.
Jerry Metcalf, 43, is incarcerated at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony, both of which he was convicted of in 1996.