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      Mosi Ngozi's Avatar
      Mosi Ngozi is offline Pan-Afrikanist

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      The Psychological Effects of Imprisonment.

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      The Purpose of Prison

      Historically, imprisonment was based on punishing those who wronged society, by inflicting suffering of the body – similar to the pound of flesh depicted within Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. In contrast to this concept, today’s imprisonment is no longer simply intended as an acute form of corporal punishments, but a method by which to work on a person's mind as well as his body, through 3 distinct areas – which include:

      1. Punishment

      2. Deterrence

      3. And Rehabilitation

      These 3 unique areas, when interlinked into a single process are intended to allow society to remove criminals from a position where they may continue their criminal behaviour, place them into an institution that satisfies the masses who desire some form of retribution, persuade other would be criminals that such activities are not beneficial, and in time sculpt them into productive and law abiding citizens through positive psychological conditioning who may later be re-integration into society.

      In theory, such a concept fairs well – but unfortunately in reality, a large range of negative psychological experiences encountered within prison do not lead to this otherwise well thought out plan.

      Let us begin by looking at the textbook objectives and responsibilities of prisons – which once again are three.

      1. The safekeeping of all inmates;

      2. The maintaining and improving of welfare of all confined within it;

      3. And the performance of these objectives with the maximum of efficiency and economy.

      Safe keeping generally comprises of keeping inmates locked away, counted, and controlled whilst allowing for isolated moments of welfare activities to satisfy needs through recreation, education and counseling. Unfortunately, the welfare and psychological freedom of the individual inmate does not depend on how much education, recreation, and counseling he receives but rather, on how he manages to live and relate with the others inmates who constitute his crucial and only meaningful world.

      It is what the prisoner experiences in this world; how they attain satisfaction, and how they avoid its detrimental effects through the adjustment process known as prisonization, that ultimately decides how, if ever, they will emerge.

      It has also been recognised, through simulations of prison environments, that lockups and isolation have the habit of dehumanize prisoners by making them feel anonymous, and breeding ill feelings because of their rejection and condemnation by society as a whole.

      Likewise, it must be remembered that offenders have been drawn from a society in which possessions are closely linked with concepts of personal worth by numerous cultural definitions. However in prison, inmates find themselves reduced to a level of living near bare subsistence.

      Whatever physical discomforts this deprivation may entail, it has deeper psychological significance as to the prisoner’s conception of his personal adequacy - particularly when surrounded by other inmates, whom 20% are estimated as mentally deficient, and 5% as psychotic.

      Structure Prison

      The entire prison structure is based on solitude and separatism. Firstly, the convict is isolated from the external world and everything that motivated his/her offences. Secondly, they are to a large degree isolated from one another. During the 18th century this concept was taken to extremes, whereby prisoners were even forced to wear facemasks that did not allow vision or communication during exercise periods. This concept is based on the promotion for total submission, and in older prisons dually acted as a form of buffering with which to control the outbreak of diseases.

      Early attempts at submission and rehabilitation where far from perfect. The use of solitary confinement was originally designed to allow prisoners to rediscover their own conscience and better voice through spiritual conversion. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that no form of torture could have been worse than solitary confinement because it ended up causing within many prisoners adverse psychological effects such as:

      * delusions,

      * dissatisfaction with life,

      * claustrophobia,

      * depression,

      * feelings of panic,

      * And on many instances madness.

      All of which are symptoms of chronophobia – a state often referred to as prison neurosis. It wasn’t until 1850 that these disturbing effects of confinement to small quarters was finally abandoned, and only utilised as an instrument of potential terror to keep inmates in line.

      Furthermore, it brought attention to the need to redesign rooms that housed each prisoner. But even to this day, confinement within prison, though vastly improved by comparison, continues to have similar adverse psychological effects.

      Timetables also play a large factor in rehabilitation by establishing rhythms, and cycles of repetition. This combined with convict’s personal needs for reward and acquisition through penal labour, turns the criminal into a somewhat docile worker. It imposes on the convict the moral form of wages as the condition of his existence. A principle of order and regularity.

      Prisons issued uniforms also play a large part in destroying personal identity, and crashing individual spirits. These somewhat bland, yet repetitive outfits are a way whereby unification maybe achieved within inmates, through the portrayal that they are no longer individuals, but are part of a whole. That whole is symbolic of - society.

      Overall, the entire prison experience with its symbolic mechanisms of justice that encompass every lock, piece of barbed wire, the thick walls, the never ending supervision and segregation, the harsh solitude, and minimalistic lifestyles, are deliberately designed to not only incapacitate, but psychologically curb any prisoner’s personality traits that have been deemed by society as undesirable or dangerous.

      Effects of Prison

      Prisons are often the scenes of brutality, violence and stress. Prisoners are faced with incidence of violence and are always concerned for their safety. A long-term prisoner named Jack Abbott had stated "everyone is afraid. It is not an emotional or psychological fear. It is a practical matter. If you don’t threaten someone at the very least, someone will threaten you...Many times you have to "prey" on someone, or you will be "preyed" on yourself" (Tosh, 1982:86).

      Prisons aim to cure criminals of crime however their record has not been encouraging. Instead prisons do more harm than good. The pains of jail confinement affect all prisoners in different ways. To begin with the prisoners need to withstand the entry shock by adapting quickly to prison life. Prisoners are exposed to a new culture, which is very different from their own culture. Then they need to maintain outside links. For example, keeping in contact with family and friends becomes frustrating. While being in prison the prisoner must determine his/her way of passing the time since the hours appear endless (Tosh, 1982).

      For some prisoners the major source of stress would include the loss of contact with family and friends outside the prison. There is also the fear of deterioration. There is lack of personal choice within the prison environment which many effect prisoners. After many years of being told what to do they may well lose the ability to think for themselves and make their own decisions and choices freely (Tosh, 1982).


      The age of an inmate also appears to determine the psychological effects of imprisonment. In 1992, Richard McCorkle discovered what Toch and Adams had reported in 1989. That is, that younger inmates aged twenty five or below, are initially more resistant to the prison structure which makes them more likely to be the targets of victimisation in comparison to older inmates who assume passive avoidance roles in prison hence, increasing psychological effects of imprisonment. However, it has been suggested that after the initial shock of imprisonment, younger inmates tend to demonstrate increasing levels of conformity over time. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994).

      Total institution and Goffman

      A total institution is defined as "a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enforced, formally administered round of life" (Harlambos & Holborn, 1995:305). Erving Goffman believes that a total institution such as prison, cuts people off from the outside world and from forming and maintaining relationships with family and friends. Prisoners are required to ask for permission to perform even some of the basic functions, such as asking to go to the toilet. Punishments that are given include solitary confinement, a diet of bread and water, as well as withdrawal of privileges such as cigarettes and recreation (Harlambos & Holborn, 1995).

      Goffman identified 5 modes for adapting to an institution. The steps involved include a situational withdrawal were prisoners minimise their interaction with others. This is then followed by an intransigent line where prisoners refuse to cooperate with the staff and show hostility towards the institution. When this occurs prisoners are usually placed in solitary confinement. Colonisation involves prisoners becoming institutionalised and they begin to feel that life in prison is more desirable than life outside the prison. Then conversion leads prisoners to adopt what the guards regard them to be like. Finally playing it cool is done by staying out of trouble so that when they are released they will have "a maximum chance, in the particular circumstances of eventually getting out physically and psychologically undamaged" (Haralambos & Holborn, 1995:306).

      Pain of Confinement

      The pain of confinement are limited to certain psychological deprivations. This includes the loss of liberty were prisoners experience a limitation of movement. There is also the pain of moral rejection implied in confinement. Confinement applies that the prisoner is not trusted or respected therefore s/he should not be able to move freely amongst other citizens (Johnson, 1996).

      Prisoners must obey rules and there are restrictions placed on what goods they may have with them and when. Sexual deprivation places pressure on prisoners towards homosexual satisfaction of one’s sexual needs. It also involves a cry for the compassion of a woman. Also loss of autonomy suggests that prisoners are under the control of officials. Prisoners must obey rules and are treated like children. Combined these psychological deprivations lead to a destruction of the human personality (Johnson, 1996).


      Isolation is the term used when inmates are separated from the general prison population. There are three situations which may call for an inmate to be put in isolation. These include disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, and protective custody. As one may predict, whether an inmate becomes severely psychologically effected by solitary confinement is dependent on how much time is spent in isolation. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994). For instance, an inmate who is placed in isolation for a few days will not be as psychologically effected by the experience in comparison to an inmate who is isolated for a longer period of time.

      Case Studies

      As was demonstrated with the experiment conducted by Phillip Zimbardo in 1973 at the Stanford university, a number of case studies on the effects of prison life have also indicated that imprisonment can be brutal, demeaning, and generally psychologically a devastating experience for many individuals. Psychological symptoms described in these studies which are believed to be directly caused by imprisonment include psychosis, severe depression, inhibiting anxiety, and complete social withdrawal. Another major stressor which the prisoner is faced with in prison is the fear of contagious and incurable diseases, such as, aids. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994). Overall, the results from studies indicate that individuals react different psychologically to confinement. While some find their experience of prison extremely stressful, at the other extreme, those who are dependent, passive, and generally incompetent may find that the prison structure offers them a positive experience. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994). Zamble and Porporino concluded from their research that "prisons do not produce permanent harm to the psychological well-being of inmates." (Bartol & Bartol, 1994, p.366). However, Adams, in 1992, found that there are certain prison conditions where this may not be the case, such as, where inmates are subjected to crowding and isolation.

      U-Shaped Curve

      A factor that may determine the extent of the psychological effects of imprisonment, is by looking at what point the prisoner is in serving his or her sentence. Zamble and Proporino (1988) studied the coping strategies of inmates in several Canadian penitentiaries. They discovered that emotional disruption and adjustment were clearly problems for most inmates during the early stages of their sentences, resulting from the dramatic disruptions to their life caused by the many restrictions, deprivations and constraints inherent in prisons. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994). Studies have found that during the time span of an inmate’s sentence, psychological reactions to imprisonment will often follow a U-shaped pattern, with the strongest emotional stress reactions occurring at the beginning of the sentence, and at the end of their sentence, as the time to be released approaches. During the middle of the sentence, anxiety is usually quite low and some acceptance of prison life is generally gained. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994). Some inmates may totally adjust to prison life. This notion is referred to as ‘institutionalization.’ This is where the "inmate loses interest in the outside world, views the prison as home, loses the ability to make independent decisions, and in general, defines him or herself totally within the institutional context." (Bartol & Bartol, 1994, p.366). Stress levels may increase at the end of an inmate’s sentence due to anticipation and feelings of uncertainty about one’s ability to adjust and cope in the outside world again, after having adjusted to prison life. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994).

      The Needs of Prisoners

      In order to survive in prison certain needs of the prisoners must be met. There needs to be activities that are aimed for personal fulfillment. It will enable the time to pass and allows for distraction. Privacy is also important to help eliminate the environmental irritants such as noise and crowding. Prisoners will feels that the environment is simpler and more easily managed. The safety levels need to be improved to minimise the chances of being attacked. Prisoners should receive emotional feedback by providing prisoners with staff who care and adapting programs to help improve their future. Also support can be given by adopting services which facilitate self-advancement and self-improvement. The issue of freedom can be explored by minimising restrictions and controlling prisoners at the same time (Johnson, 1996).

      The Stanford Prison experiment was aimed to examine the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behaviour. Two dozen university students, judged to be the most normal, average and healthy were selected to participate. Some became prisoners and others were guards. The basement of a psychology department was created into a prison by the psychologists. Guards were dressed in uniform while prisoners wore dresses and no underpants to take away their masculinity. They had a chain on one foot to remind them of the repression of being in prison.

      The experiment was going to last for two weeks however it ended after 6 days. After 5 days, 5 experienced an emotional breakdown. They cried hysterically, had disorganised thinking, they smashed their heads on the walls and refused to eat. The guards showed no concerns or sympathy towards the prisoner, and accused them of malingering.

      The experiment showed that normal average, healthy males became too powerful when they had the role of being the guards. Others experienced a break down, if they where the prisoners. People can become corrupted by the power situation, if someone exercises more power over others. Prisoner were powerless and guards were powerful. Power is determined by the role you occupy.

      Prison Subcultures

      In an attempt to survive within forced conditions, whilst maintaining some form of self dignity, prisoners have resorted to instinctual community development methods and created their own subculture within prison walls which focuses on important inside issues such as relations amongst prisoners, and their interaction with staff members.

      This unofficial system tends to be in direct defiance of most administrative rules, does not demand uniformity of behaviour, and recognises alternative roles that inmates may play. Within male populated prisons, this subculture becomes one of the more prominent reasons for prisoner conflict and the struggle for supremacy between inmates and guards. On the other hand, within women’s prisons the subculture has one more function, and that is to provide for much needed emotional support through the existence of extended play families.

      Much of this subculture is developed and imported by each offender from their external lives, and is then combined with the already existent attitudes and behaviours sculptured by the uniquely limited environment of prison.

      The major function of this new way of life and its normative system is to prevent social rejection from being internalised and converted into self-rejection. Furthermore, it permits the inmate to reject his rejecter rather than himself. Sykes and Sheldon during 1960 proposed that inmates seek to neutralise the consequences of imprisonment by a state of solidarity. By moving towards this, the pains of imprisonment become less severe.

      By taking on identity, folkways, dogma, customs, and the general culture of the penitentiary, prisoners mold themselves into a state early referred to as prisonization, which for the most part is a method of adaptation.

      Clinical studies have shown that this prisonization can have devastating effects, and may lead to a ‘psycho-syndrome’ which includes a loss of memory, clouding of comprehension, apathy, infantile regressions, hopelessness and the appearance of various psychotic characteristics such as obsession and major depression. This is most common amongst those prisoners who endure long sentences, have unstable personalities, the inability to pertain normal relations with members of non prison society, a readiness or desire to integrate into the subculture, and a close proximity to other individuals that are already integrated.

      Within this subculture, even smaller competitive sects emerge largely based on race and ethnicity. Some of these sects include the Muslims (a black nationalist group pledged to ethnic solidarity, self-discipline, avoidance of drugs, tobacco and pork in accordance with religious precepts), The Panthers and Young Lords.

      All events within prison revolve around the continuous struggle for power and supremacy. The struggle itself takes place in varied forms. Since the inmates have been victims of power by the judicial system and its total authoritarian regime of imprisonment, they tend to regard the possession of power as the highest personal value, which within itself acclaims them prestige among other prisoners whilst allowing for their regeneration of self worth.

      This inmate social structure yields much more authority over individual inmates than do the members of staff, simply because inmate groups are capable of inflicting far more physical and psychological damage on their fellow inmates than any type of punishment that staff can administer – particularly in duration. In fact, punishment by staff may have a self defeating purpose in that it may be regarded as a further source of statues by the inmates.

      Offence Hierarchy

      The nature of the offence committed by a prisoner can either add to an inmates psychological state or decrease it. The reason being that typically in prisons, there exists a social hierarchy which is determined by the types of crimes that a prisoner has committed. For instance, offenders who have been convicted for either robbery’s or burglaries are considered to be at the top of the hierarchy, particularly if the crimes committed required a lot of skill. Whereas, at the other extreme, paedophiles are placed at the bottom of the hierarchy and are looked down upon and harassed by their fellow inmates due to the nature of the crime that they committed. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994). Therefore, the psychological effects of imprisonment would be more apparent amongst paedophiles in comparison to thieves, due to the nature of their offence.

      Physical and Psychological Victimisation

      Physical victimisation includes assault, homicide and homosexual rape. Physical victimisation takes place due to many factors. They include inadequate supervision by staff members as well as the easy availability of deadly weapons. Furthermore the problem is exasperated by the housing of violent-prone prisoners in close proximity to relatively defenceless victims and the high levels of tension generated between the individuals (Tosh, 1982).

      Another form of victimisation, which is more common, involves psychological victimisation. It consists of verbal manipulation and other manipulations by changing their social structure or physical environment. For example a psychotic male prisoner was moved from a protected environment to one where he was easily victimised. He found a nut (as in nuts and bolts) sitting outside his cell and believed his fellow prisoners were insulting him by suggesting he is "going nuts". (Tosh, 1982:66)

      There are many effects of being victimised. They include feeling helplessness and depression, physical injury, disruption of social relationships, damaged self-image, self-mutilation and suicide, psychosomatic disease, also increased difficulties in adjusting to life after release. In order to reduce the incidence of prison victimisation the most promising modification involves having an increase in staff and security, adopting unit management and decrease incarceration rates (Tosh,1982).


      A prime example of power dynamics can be observed by the use of sex, and sexual assaults within the prison environment. Though it should be noted that this is only true in male prisons because such encounters within female populated facilities are for the most part, voluntary homosexual liaisons.

      The penis becomes a weapon of control that provides prisoners with a means to assert themselves and show others that they are unassailable. This type of assault - though noted as being a maladaptive expression by psychologists - is the inmate’s legitimate way of expressing their manhood and brutal desire for power.

      They do not see their actions as those of homosexuals because they are rarely done with the intent of sexual satisfaction. In fact, they rarely climax whilst performing these acts. The focus is simply on - who is in charge – who is doing the penetration – and ironically, who is normal.

      There have been no direct studies pertaining to the long term psychological effects of prison rape – but undoubtedly some parallel can be drawn between prison rape and that which takes place within free society.

      Some of the predictable psychological effects include:

      * Stress

      * Denial

      * Nightmares and the inability to sleep

      * Phobias

      * Substance abuse

      * Criminal activity

      * And some forms of self destructive behaviour

      Consider the case of Donny Donaldson, who during 1996 refused to pay the sum $10 for bail, ended up in prison for a short duration. During this time, he was pack raped by 45 inmates consecutively, and then urinated on.

      This is similar to the experiences of around about 25% of all prison inmates.

      Four short term effects that have been noted by prison psychologists include feelings of :

      * Guilt – particularly in men who get an erection and feel as though they were active participants.

      * Shame – at not being able to defend ones self and their masculine inadequacies

      * Suicidal tendencies – due to fear of continued victimisation or the possibility of having contracted diseases.

      * and the fear of becoming, or having become homosexual

      It is important to note that prison rape is rarely ever an isolated incident, and the psychological effects are magnified with each repetition of victimisation.

      One of the few attempts to document such effects was known as the ‘Lockwood’ study. Its results indicated that 55% of raped prisoners experienced extreme fear, 42% felt uncontrollable angry, whilst 33% experienced extreme anxiety. Many of these same individuals were also recorded as having undertaken self mutilation in an attempt to look less attractive, suicide attempts, and became mental ill as a direct consequence.


      Crowding has arisen due to correctional institutions being forced to house far more inmates than they were designed to hold, due to the fact that prison populations are on the increase. A relationship has been found between crowding and the psychological effects of imprisonment. In 1988, Paulas completed a fifteen year study on the effects of prison crowding and discovered that increasing the number of inmates in correctional facilities significantly increased negative psychological effects, such as, stress, anxiety, tension, depression, hostility, feelings of helplessness, and emotional discomfort. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994). Crowding can also effect the psychological state of an inmate due to the fact that crowded institutions have reduced work and activity programs available for fewer inmates or for shorter time periods. Therefore, this increases the amount of time that an inmate is left with nothing to do which generates a great deal of stress and boredom. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994).


      Prison riots are a collective attempt by inmates to seize control over part or all of a prison as a form of protest, and again try to over power their oppressors by forcing their ways upon them.

      Throughout the years, the causes of riots are almost as numerous as the riots themselves, but remarkably the majority of them had the same reasoning behind them. These reasons range from inadequate and unwholesome food; overcrowding in filthy cells; racism; outside agitation; poor health care; lack of fresh air, exercise and recreation programs; cruel disciplinary actions, right through to inadequate channels for complaints to be heard.

      The first of two theories for this causation is known as the conflict theory. It suggests that in prisons, as in other social settings, riots are a result of unsolved conflicts. This conflict is generated when one person wants another to exercise power in a specified manner, but the other person, for whatever reason, does not.

      The second theory is that of Collective behaviour identifying casual processes in social conflict. It maintains that several necessary conditions must be present for collective action to occur. The combinations of these conditions, in sequence, increase the probability of a riot.

      These six conditions are

      * structural conduciveness,

      * strain or tension,

      * growth and the spread of a generalised belief,

      * precipitation factors,

      * mobilisation and organisation for action,

      * And finally, operation of mechanisms for social control.

      In having these social conflicts develop into riots, inmates accomplish at least three essential psychological objectives.

      * The first is a sort of outlet for expressing hostility originally generated by failure in human relations, in particular their resentment of confinement.

      * Secondly, the reinforcement of a self-picture in the role of a martyred victim of superior force, with particular reference to their heroic counteractions.

      * And thirdly, absolution of any personal sense of guilt or responsibility for offenses against society by emphasising and concentrating on society’s real or fancied offenses against them.

      Prison Suicide

      The occurrence of prison suicide is evidence that prison life is stressful to many inmates. In 1981, Bartollas suggested three major reasons for prison suicide. These include inmates who: are embarrassed by the disgrace they have brought upon their families and find their guilt and debased self-esteem intolerable; find that the sense of helplessness and lack of control over their lives is intolerable; and, those who use suicidal behaviour in order to manipulate others, without the intention of actually ending their lives. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994).

      The Role of Prison Psychologists

      Psychological may play a significant role in institutional corrections, in easing the psychological effects experienced by inmates. Psychologists can recommend programs which will best match offenders to their needs. These might include substance-abuse treatment programs, development of reading and writing skills, decision-making, anger control, meaningful job training, contact with families, or sex offender treatment. Their minimum goal may be to help inmates cope with the realities of prison life. (Bartol & Bartol, 1994). However, such programs will only be beneficial if inmates enter them voluntarily and take them seriously.


      Bartol, C.R., & Bartol, A.M. (1994). Psychology and Law: Research and Application (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

      Bridges, G.S. (1996). Criminal Justice: Prison Violence. California: Pine Forge Press.

      Cragg, W. (1992). The practice of punishment. London: Routledge Press

      Foucalt, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. England: Penguin

      Haralambos, M. & Holborn, M. (1995). Sociology: theme and perspectives. London: Collins Educational.

      Heilpern, D. (1998). Fear or favour: Sexual assault of young prisoners. New South Wales: Southern Cross Publishing.

      Johnson, A. (1995). Prison Culture, violence and sexuality. Melbourne: Latrobe University Press.

      Johnson, R. (1996). Hard time:understanding and reforming the prison. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

      Jones, K., & Fowles, A.J. (1984). Ideas in institutions: The infiltrators. London: Routledge & Kegan Press.

      Mays, G.L., & Winfree, L.T. (1998). Contemporary corrections. Wadsworth Publishing.

      Sheldon, M., & Gresham, S. (1970). The inmate social code. New York: John Wiley & Sons

      Sycamnias, E. (1997). The sociology of punishment, and punishment today. Internet Address

      Sycamnias, E. (1997). Custodial officers appear to have infinite power, but in reality they do not. Internet Address

      Sycamnias, E. (1996). Imprisonment raises the basic issue of morality and state power in its most blatant form. Internet Address

      Tosh, J. (1982). The pains of imprisonment. California: Sage Publications.
      You are here because you know something,what you
      know you can't explain,but you feel it.You've felt it
      your entire life; that theres something wrong with the
      world.You don't know what it is but it's there; a
      splinter in your mind... the matrix

    2. #2
      Imara Kianga's Avatar
      Imara Kianga is offline lightseeker

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      0 Not allowed! Not allowed!
      thank you for sharing this information. the other day, i was thinking about the prisons in this country and how our people are especially and disproportionately affected by this oppressive system. my heart goes out to the young brothers and sisters who have had prison encounters and my hope is for their resilience...that they would not be destroyed but they they would rise above the traps.

      i did a little work in undergrad on helping the young brothers with reentry skills so that when they come out they wouldnt be lost and disoriented (housing, education, employment etc). this info reminds me of how much more work needs to be done to counter the effects of the system.

      i wonder how we ever handled things before prisons...(sarcasm)
      happy birthday, brother malcolm. rest in paradise...we haven't forgotten. (5.19.25-2.21.65)

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