Prison to a lot of people is a place for well-deserved criminals—a huge facility of ruthless, hard or deranged individuals who are subjected to the “don’t drop the soap” rule, stale bread and a cellmate who wants to be more than friends. We see this on our TV and movie screens, Netflix subscriptions and bestselling novels. Through all the entertainment however, we ignore the realities that surround prison. We ignore the patterns of who goes in, who comes out and the hardships they face going in, within and out of prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statics 1 in 3 black men will see a prison cell in their lifetime. And 2 out of 3 ex-offenders will return within the first 3 years of their release. While many committed a crime that resulted in their confinement, we must ask why does this demographic of people occupy more jail cells than any other group and what systems and resources are used to keep them from returning upon release?
I got to speak with Jordan Cyrus, a natural hairstylist in Atlanta, GA– who served a 16 year sentence in one of the worse prisons in Georgia. Upon his release he started cutting hair, a skill he developed early in life and eventually he decided to take it a step further and go to hair school. He found and is still finding his way through– something most inmates serving hard sentences have a hard time doing. Jordan’s situation like a lot of men locked up was a result of his influence. Other factors however include environment, economic status and in some cases– lack of education. I spoke with Jordan about his childhood, his experience behind bars and how prison helped or hurt him as a man.
“The neighborhood park wasn’t a good thing, there was a lot things going on in that park, so I was exposed to a lot very young… started running packs of heroine when I was probably about 8.”
Jordan grew up in a decent household in Atlantic City, NJ with a caring mother and Great- Grandmother, who he called Nana. His father was not active in his life and although the love from the women in his life sustained him, like most kids, the absence of a father created a void. He found himself angry often and began running the streets at the tender age of 7- years old. He spoke to me about a neighborhood park that he frequented as a child. “The neighborhood park wasn’t a good thing, there was a lot things going on in that park, so I was exposed to a lot very young… started running packs of heroine when I was probably about 8,” he told me during our interview. He explained that it was not uncommon in his neighborhood for local drug dealers to use kids in drug transactions as a distraction to the city police. Jordan went on to tell me his vivid neighborhood memory of a junkie that lied dead at a park next to his elementary school. He was on his way into class that morning and can recall the man lying on a bench with foam pouring from his mouth and a needle hanging out of his arm. “They just left him there.” Jordan recollected. He died from heroine and cocaine– a mix that busted the man’s heart and killed him. That memory continues to stick with Jordan well into his adult life, and it is that type subjection and environment that anyone, let alone a child should not encounter. So while Atlantic City was his hometown, where he shared both positive and traumatic memories, it was the people and the situations that he was exposed to that impacted him the most, “My experiences were good—my influences were bad.” He admitted.
Jordan moved to Georgia in his preteen years and it was there that he found himself associated with similar environments from his hometown and was arrested at the age of 16 years old, a charge as a result of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison for two counts of aggravated assault and served 16 years behind bars—he spent a huge chunk of his adult life in prison, and it was his first run in with the law.
“It’s a whole other world inside the system.”
He was young and unaware of the severity of his case during the time. Growing up in the streets he never understood or encountered fear, but he did however develop a feeling of apprehension after turning 17, and being booked into what is known as one of the most treacherous prisons of the south. During our conversation he talked a little about his experiences in the prison, “It’s a whole other world in the system,”he told me. He described the attitudes of the other prisoners as, “Always trying to get over.” The environment of prison of course is not created to make one feel like they’re staying at the Ritz Carlton, but the survival mentality the men must adapt in the system is a result of a failure on the intial purpose of confinement operations. I asked Jordan about the rehabilitation methods in place during his incarceration, and before I could get the sentence out, he interjected with, “There is none.” I followed with, “So do you believe there is an ulterior motive behind–” and again before I could complete my sentence he responded with, “Money.” According to research the private prison Industry is worth $5 billion, so its no surprise men are being confined beyond their deserved sentence time. Jordan also shared that it is Caucasian men, men who come from middle class or non-street backgrounds who are typically subjected to sexual abuse, violence, intimidation and extortion within the jail. These are circumstances that can and should be monitored as well as more efforts for rehabilitation should be in place.
While, the four main purposes of prison are said to be incapacitation, deference, rehabilitation and retribution. We must remember that the inmates, are just as human as you and me. Do some deserve to be in prison? Yes. In no way do I feel prison should be a pleasant experience, but not as it relates to safety and emasculation. Like Jordan, there is a great deal of men that are there as a result of their childhood neighborhood, influences and economy. So while they may deserve to be there based on poor decisions, in what ways can the years spent behind bars be used to rehabilitate, so once released they will never return? Doing so will keep our communities safer and our prisons free of the misguided, the uneducated and the unheard.
While Jordan was fortunate enough to find a passion that challenges and keeps him growing, his life experiences from the time he was a young boy until now echo the stories of a lot of young men today. He shared that majority of the men he met in prison were black and came from poverty stricken backgrounds and single parent homes. This is evidence that there needs to be more money spent in the lower income neighborhoods as it relates to: education and extra curricular activity for the youth, health, clean living environments, safety and sustainable housing situations. We as a whole need to understand the importance of mentorship and influence and begin to act as role models to our young who too often are growing up with absent fathers. More programs such as the YMCA and Running Rebels are desperately needed in these neighborhoods to give youth an outlet. The focus above all should be on prevention.
Jordan’s journey is one of hope and triumph because he’s made a cognitive decision to change his life around despite his story. Let it serve as an example however that there is certainly a root that needs plucking to prevent any more of our artists, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, athletes, etc. from ending up behind bars and more of them in society doing what they’re called to do.