Joel’s Blog: What’s it Like?

From March 14, 2014

Folks have been asking me what it’s like being in jail and I’ve been wondering how to go about describing it.  It’s a much different experience than I imagined it would be.  In my last piece I said that this place is awful, however that was more in reference to the physical environment.  I think Alex Hundert described this jail most accurately when he called it a human warehouse because the buildings we are housed in are literally constructed in the style of warehouses.  Picture high ceilings, rafters, an overhead speaker, and constant echoing.  When I arrived it felt like I was walking into a Home Depot.

Socially I’m finding jail quite stimulating and, in a weird way, satisfying.  The other day one of my fellow prisoners had me laughing so hard, tears ran down my face.  I was preparing for a lonely, depressing experience filled with sorrow and sadness.  It’s quite the contrary.  The jailhouse camaraderie creates a thriving, rich social environment that you won’t find in many other places.

In her blog, Mandy Hiscocks, wrote that jail made her feel diminished as a human being.  There are the rare moments where I experience that.  For example, when I’m strip-searched and have to get naked, lift my sack, bend over, spread my cheeks, and cough.  The last time it happened to me, the corrections officer performing the search made an offhanded comment to a colleague that “it’s pretty gross” to have to stare at another man’s private parts.  When you are paid well enough, I guess such a thing becomes less objectionable.

The majority of time, however, I feel pretty good.  My experience is unique because I’ve had charges hanging over my head like a dark cloud for four years.  I feel a sense of relief being in here.  Each day is one day closer to putting this episode behind me.  Instead of looking at my sentence as a punishment, I see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform an anthropological/sociological experiment into the nature of authoritarian systems that exist outside of mainstream consciousness.  I’m studying this place all the time, much like an outside observer, while simultaneously allowing myself to be an active participant in the experience.  In here, I feel like I can be myself and other inmates understand and respect me for what I’ve done and who I am.  It’s a much different feeling than the loneliness and alienation I feel living in a capitalist society where insane ideas have become legitimized and normalized.

Please don’t take this post as encouragement to come to jail or prison.  I would not choose to be here under any circumstance and would much rather be home with my family.  I feel myself longing for freedom all the time, but while I’m here I need to make the best of it.  Part of me might even be trying to convince myself that things are good as some sort of defense mechanism but, hey, it’s been a month and it’s worked for me thus far.

Written by Joel Bitar, an American activist serving a 20-month sentence in Canada for charges stemming from the 2010 Toronto G20 protests.