Mourning in prison: How "total institutions" punish the grief of the incarcerated.



Illustrations by Christopher Parker.

Grieving inside a total institution.

by E.J.

June 27, 2023


I was not yet 27 years old, and I had already been in prison for nearly a decade, estranged from my family and friends on the outside. As a teenager, I was thrown into this world and had no choice but to learn to assimilate. Every breath I took was with the intent to survive—even with no money, no family support, and no one I could call a friend. After almost 10 years inside, I had been in prison long enough for people out there to forget my existence. I had been buried under time.

One day, I received a card from my mother and thought it was so strange. I stared at her distinctive handwriting: tiny little letters, slightly bubbly, and fully upright; all of her r's capitalized, regardless of where they appeared in the word. 

Seeing my mother's handwriting made me immediately burst into tears. I had been writing to her every week for so long, searching for a response. 

The card was to let me know that several months prior, my grandmother, who I'm named after, had passed away. When I was a child, I spent holidays with her in North Carolina. She had taken me to see my father's grave. She was my link to him. She was the artifact I had to remember him by. 

I re-read the card, my hands shaking uncontrollably. Hot tears flowed from my face as I handed the card to the officer. In my mind, I was handing the card to the officer so he could call chaplaincy. In reality, he called the on-duty mental health professional.

I managed to stop crying in two days, but they kept me there for four. They wanted to make sure I was really done.

I was called to the front door of the dorm, where the officer handed me back the card my mother had sent. I put the card in my shirt pocket. I had tissues in my other hand. I was crying without ceasing. My hands were shaking so hard I missed my nose when I went to wipe it. The officer asked me to step outside the dorm, so I did. I was then cuffed up, my wad of soggy tissue still clamped in my hands. 

They videotaped me as they escorted me to the mental health side of the medical unit. Snot and tears poured from my face. My glasses were fogged from the heat of my tears and sobs. I clenched the useless wad of tissues. They were all I had to hold on to.

My entourage and I reached the medical/mental health building. I was led to a counselor's office and instructed to sit. I sat as well as I could with my handcuffed hands behind my back. The man behind the desk asked if I was OK. I was trying so hard, so very very hard to pull myself together. To be OK. To suck it up. Finally, I shook my head no.

The interview lasted less than 10 minutes, most of which I cannot recall. My body wracked with sobs.

Next, I was escorted from the counselor's office to the infirmary and placed inside a plexiglass-fronted cell. They uncuffed me, then instructed me to remove every article of clothing. They wavered back and forth about whether or not I would be allowed to keep my glasses. The temperature control setting in the infirmary was 52 degrees, and I was now completely naked, shaking with cold, grief, and shame.

They handed me a paper gown and told me to stop crying. I was told that when I stopped crying, I would be released from Mental Health to go back to my clothing, back to my dorm.

I had to pee, and I asked for tissue. I was handed five squares. 

I managed to stop crying in two days, but they kept me there for four. They wanted to make sure I was really done.

There is no one alive today who has not grieved and tried to heal. No age, gender, religion, or economic bracket is safe from the impacts of grief. Grief is universal. 

So what about those who lose someone while incarcerated? The millions of incarcerated people lose something every day: our agency, our identity, our ability to have children and procreate, our autonomy. We grieve daily losses of things that the free population takes for granted. These losses are felt differently and mourned differently. Do we experience grief? The answer is most assuredly yes. Can we grieve? The answer is most assuredly no.

 A total institution, as described by sociologist Dalton Conley, "is an institution in which one is totally immersed, that controls all the basics of day-to-day life. An institution in which no barriers exist between the usual sphere of daily life… all activity occurs in the same place and under the same single authority." He says that the absence of barriers and having a "single authority" are the two factors that are of the greatest challenge when starting discourse about grief and those living in total institutions. For those living in places such as these, social control is of the utmost importance. Uniformity is the supreme law to enforce structure and control. To deviate from the uniform, the common, and compliantly downtrodden is to invite negative attention to oneself. 

Tears, swollen eyes, shaking hands, unkempt hair, and wrinkled clothing are often considered violations of the Georgia Department of Corrections Inmate Handbook.

Walking single file is enforced so that those out of line are easier to spot and adjust. We wear uniforms in identical ways so the untucked do not remain unchecked. We walk and stand with our hands behind our back to reaffirm helplessness and subjectiveness. Faces forward, hair secured in a tight bun, silent, and conformed. Little remote-controlled robots of productivity, working 40 hours a week. Controllability is key. Imagine what grief does to this culture of social control!

Prison officials meet the threats that grief poses to security in a variety of fashions. Correctional officers are trained in militaristic control tactics. These tactics include but are not limited to pressure points, take-downs, shock shields, cell extractions, rubber bullet guns, both 7 percent and 10 percent pepper spray, physical intimidation using body pressure and a hodge-podge of other "training exercises." Though these tactics are used on people who are not trained, they are justified as a means of control. 

In a total institution, natural grief behaviors are seen as threats to security. Crying uncontrollably is a threat. Wailing is a threat. The inability to "pull yourself together" is a threat.

Tears, swollen eyes, shaking hands, unkempt hair, and wrinkled clothing are often considered violations of the Georgia Department of Corrections Inmate Handbook (GDOC). That's because the handbook categories any "willful failure of an offender to keep his or her body, hair or clothes in as clean, sanitary, neat and odor-free condition as possible under the circumstances of his or her particular custody," as a violation of disciplinary code number G-1. 

Mourning in prison: How "total institutions" punish the grief of the incarcerated.

Mourning is not recognized by the GDOC, and the inability to control our emotional responses to grief is therefore characterized as "willful failures." These "willful failures" are criminalized.

More than that, normal avenues of extending compassion and support to those who are mourning are also interpreted as criminal acts. Hugging or any other prolonged physical contact may be treated as a HIGH-level infraction, for "participating in any sexual behavior or activity with any offender, male or female" or a GREAT-level infraction, for "offender-on-offender assault: any assault (injury or non-injury) that is not defined as serious." Staff blatantly—and enthusiastically—misread physical acts of compassion as sexual or violent in order to maintain "order" at all costs. 

Nonphysical acts of compassion are also criminalized. Taking a mourner cooked food or other necessary supplies during their time of suffering is a common expression of community support. Unfortunately, when incarcerated, this show of support is termed "pasing". It is an illegal MODERATE level infraction: "receiving from or giving to another person, possession on one's person, in one's cell, immediate sleeping area, locker, or immediate place of work or assignment any goods, property or item of value to another offender without prior knowledge and approval of a staff member." 

By penalizing both the givers and recipients of hugs and foodstuffs, the GDOC has criminalized shared community. The GDOC has made being a comforter as illegal as being the one in need of comfort.

An intended consequence of this is separation from community. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, to be incarcerated is to "[be] shut in; confined." As our bodies are shut in and confined, so too must our emotions. 

 A little over a decade after my grandmother passed, I began reforming a relationship with my mother. We talked every Saturday.  

On one particular Saturday, the dorm is having a Valentine's Day dance-off. When she accepts the call, she tells me to sit down because she has horrible news. She has terrible news. 

My sister, my Irish twin, has died by suicide. She put a gun to her 38-year-old head. She did not survive. 

I clutch the phone so hard my knuckles are yellow-white. I stare out the window and command myself to pull it together. I command myself to keep my face, my hands, my heart under control. I command my heart to stop breaking. I command my mind to understand the necessity of looking OK. I direct my pulse to slow because if I do not control me, they will.

I stayed at the phone for a long time. Longer than the 20 minutes allowed. I could not breathe. I could not feel.  My only thought was "control it." If I can't, they will take me away again. Strip me again. Watch me again. Pull it together. Keep it together, under lock and key.

I went upstairs to my two-occupant cell and collapsed on the floor for about three minutes, forcing as much pain and rage into that three minutes as any mortal can. Then, I wiped my face, got up, and left my room to watch the Valentine's Day dance-off. 

For weeks only four people knew of my loss. 

While healing is difficult for all of us, for those of us on the inside, it's against regulations.

For some in mourning, time spent alone and undisturbed is the most vital asset in healing. Mourning is immensely personal and intimate. When my sister died, I knew my grief could not be registered as a public or social spectacle—otherwise, I would be placed in medical again. But, I also knew that quiet solitude is also against the rules and regulations of the GDOC. 

No offender is permitted to lie down, dress down, or take their hair down from 0800 hrs until 1630 hrs. During those times, my person and my areas of living, sleeping, and working must be inspection ready. No exceptions. With no break, space, or moment of reprieve in order to tend to my throbbing heart, my grief had to be compressed into the smallest form possible. I had three minutes of space for my sister and no more. 

To say I suffer from a broken heart is a misnomer. A break is such a clean thing. Shattered pieces that can be replaced, glued, adhered together to resemble the original. Hearts, however, are organs composed of striated muscle tissue. They are visceral. Hearts don't break in prison; they're shredded, torn tissue by tissue. 

Being thrown into the unpredictable stages of grief does not make us combatants, it makes us human. And still, we are punished for it. Now these people are grieving twice: Once over for the initial cause and again under the punishment received for feeling grief in the first place. Trauma compounded by trauma, over and under. In this way, grief becomes a total institution.

To begin healing first requires the release of pure emotion, but pure emotion is volatile, uncontrollable, and therefore, must be subdued at all times and at all costs. So while healing is difficult for all of us, for those of us on the inside, it's literally against regulations.

I have been incarcerated since 2002. I have lost people I knew from home. I have lost the created family I developed during my life on the inside. What sort of person could I possibly be when I am released? 

 At some point, policymakers within the DGOC must begin to fully understand that 95 percent of incarcerated individuals eventually return to society. What kind of society will be shared by all if these Americans are forcibly conditioned to be automatons who are emotionally numb for fear of state violence? Georgia has long abandoned its "rehabilitative" mission in place of a corrections model. I ask, what exactly are they correcting? My natural mourning responses have been conditioned out of me by both actions and threats of the state.

There seems to exist a belief that people who live in carceral settings deserve the treatments they receive because they, at one time, broke the law. Yes, it is wrong to break the law. However, is it not also wrong to victimize someone or ignore their victimization, using their past as justification? Incarceration reinforces victimization over and over again in an endless cycle of harm, suffering, and criminalization. 

The inhumane policies enforced to control and punish incarcerated individuals do not leave room for hugs, comfort food, or even a moment of relative peace without demanding productivity on the job. These are small things that can, in theory, be changed—but these are great things to someone in the throes of mourning. These great small things can be foundational in restoring humane treatment of millions of incarcerated Americans.

Two weeks ago, my friend of several years was murdered here. 

Ruby Evans was the Estelle Getty of Arrendale. With wild, curly, salt-and-pepper hair, Ruby had been down a little over a decade with a long way to go. When I wasn't willing her to sit her ass down, I was admiring her strength to stand up for what is right.

When I was told that Ruby was beaten, had a stroke, and died, I looked up from the book I was reading. I nodded my head. I went back to my book.

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E.J. is currently located in an understaffed facility in North Georgia that cannot be directly named for fear of retaliation. She has an Associates degree in Positive Human Development and Social Change from a University located in Marietta, Georgia, which also cannot be named for the same reason. She is pursuing a B.S. in Psychology. Her aim is abolition and the healing of those traumatized by state violence.