Enceno Macy: From Behind the Wire

Editor’s Note: Enceno Macy has been incarcerated in an American prison for 13 years, encompassing late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. He offers observations and commentary on current affairs and controversies from behind the wire of our draconian prison system. To protect himself as well as the innocent and the guilty from brutal recriminations, he uses a pseudonym.

With Prejudice: Jim Crow Reality

Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America….In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative (from: Michelle Alexander, The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare) :

— There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

— As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race….

— If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

At latest count, more than 2.2 million people were incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons. Of these, some 900,000 were Black. According to The Sentencing Project and Bureau of Justice statistics, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the rate of whites, and Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double (1.8) the rate of whites.

Although arguments continue about the reasons for such disproportionate racial incarceration rates, there is no question that conditions within our prisons reflect the racism endemic in society as a whole. Even in the so-called least racist states, prisoners are segregated by race and ethnicity. From a prisoner’s point of view, this is simply a fact of life, much as the conditions imposed on African American slaves were a fact of slavery life. And given the racism that prevails both inside and outside the wire, most prisoners feel safer segregated.

Indeed, the first and most influential factor of prison is race. Unlike outside society where race can sometimes be superceded by success, money, fame, or breeding, the prison system is in fact a reflection of how society really thinks, even under the current facade of “color blindness” attributed to election of a black president.

Inside the wire, personal attitudes toward race matter very little. There is a preset standard that everyone is expected to live by. The degree of strictness varies in each state, with mine being probably the most relaxed. I am grateful not to be in a California prison.

In California, a Mexican prisoner was due to be released in less than a week when he saw another Mexican, new to the system, sit down to play cards with two blacks. Even though he was only days from the gate, the first Mexican stabbed the second, causing severe injuries and adding 18 months to his own sentence, all because the pre-determined racial line had been crossed. The standard had to be upheld.

In my own state, things are much less severe. As someone who is of multiple races, I have co-mingled with urban white inmates, even becoming friends with one. And in here “friends” is a very strong word. But because my features are black, I have no doubt where my alliance will be if racial tensions occur, or worse, a race war/riot ensues. For me this is an uncomfortable and unfortunate position to be in, but it is inevitable in this place.

Some prisoners attempt to choose not to choose, and become outcasts. This is not always negative, and is a more positive alternative to becoming the target of violence as in other states. Basic survival, though, requires you to ally yourself with others at some point, to participate in essential prison associations, illicit business dealings and portion control issues – how much food you are served, what quality of clothing you receive, the variety of different items you get to choose from. It’s a kind of enforced scarcity economics, a mentality that comes naturally to those who have grown up within their own race in racially distinct neighborhoods, and is soon adopted by a majority of the rest of the inmate population. Here is where the subconscious race/class bias surfaces.

It’s possible that race and the prejudices and stereotypes that come with it are adapted traits in the evolution of the social mind. The fact that the race issue is not dead – or even dying – is obvious in the data and examples given by Michelle Alexander in her article, “The New Jim Crow.” In the U.S., racism persists unchecked in the raw, blunt, unforgiving collective mentality of society at all levels. It is easy for most people to discredit and ignore racist prison policies and disproportionate incarceration rates because prisoners have broken laws, and the general attitude seems to be they deserve whatever is done to them. What outsiders don’t consider is that most inmates’ families and many of their friends have never been to jail or arrested. These innocents are caught in a racist cage as rigid and ugly as the most godawful cell block.

Obama doesn’t represent these people, any more than he represents me or the other 900,000 black prisoners in America. It is truly disturbing that everyone seems to associate him with the struggling black in America – the one who can’t get a loan, is rejected from the simplest forms of employment, and endures constant suspicion while shopping or driving or even walking. Thus does our society continue to sterotype people of all colors – yet they now seem to think only blacks were treated that way and that because Obama’s in the White House, all these bad things will stop.

In fact, Obama in no way represents the end of what has been and still is racial discrimination. He does not look to make decisions that will drastically change things for black people. Quite the opposite, in fact. He looks to appease the politicians around him, just as any dem of any other color would. Maybe he feels even more pressure to do what others want because he desires white America to see him as no different from a white. Maybe he hopes to relax or reduce the whites’ reflexive apprehension of blacks. I don’t know. At the same time, it seems to me blacks have only interested themselves in Obama’s color, not his actions. So who are really the ones seeing colors? All of us! When I tell you to keep an eye out or look for someone, depending on the circumstance I will most likely begin with the skin color of the person.

Racism is going nowhere, although it is everywhere. It infects all levels of society and and is readily understood by everyone. But racism is not always due to hatred. Some stereotypes are not entirely false, and a person of one race protects itself from potential harm by – say – crossing to the opposite sidewalk when approached by a group of young men in the late evening. If it was a bunch of young white kids with baseball bats and gloves, the person would likely associate them with a baseball team and not be frightened. But to a person influenced by lurid television shows, a group of black kids with bats and gloves raises the specter of violent use of the bats as weapons. Hell, even I would cross the street in that situation! Even if I were mistaken, it’s better to be safe.

I don’t have answers, just observations. There is no denying that race and racism are part of our everyday experience in here. Segregation keeps us safer from each other. In this chaotic, volatile atmosphere of neverending potential violence, segregation typifies the inflexible hierarchy of prison codes that make life predictable. That doesn’t make racism or segregation right or fair. In prison being right or fair is not even a pipe dream. I’m beginning to suspect things are not much different outside.

9 thoughts on “Enceno Macy: From Behind the Wire”

  1. Let me rephrase that: our society keeps Black people from living decent, normal lives at all and then incarcerates them when they turn to crime; one of the very few venues we have left them.

  2. Enceno,

    Outstanding article. As Richard Pryor always said when speaking about the American prison system and Blacks, “There’s no justice, there’s just us.” He wasn’t being funny. Our society keeps Black people from upward mobility and then incarcerates them when they turn to crime. We have a lot to pay for as a society because we have chosen, with full awareness, to marginalize entire groups of people because of something as superficial as their skin colors and then we shut them away and take away their dignity and their rights.

    Thank you Eric for publishing this piece. I hope we hear from Enceno a lot more and I wish this piece would be published in major newspapers and taught in every high school.

  3. Thank you Enceno for an amazing article. Your description of a social world surrounded by walls and enforced by armed guards is brilliant and frightening. I, too, think this should be published in a newspaper. I look forward to your next post. Peace to you Enceno.

  4. Enceno, I am humbled by your piece and your great writing. I would love to see this piece in a major newspaper or magazine. You have a gift for expressing your situation and your world with honesty and wisdom. I’m so glad you have a home here at Planet Waves, and this may just be the beginning. I send you peace and safety and heartfelt thanks.

  5. Where can we get a link to read this post regularly?
    This was one of the best things I ever read here, as others have said.
    Enceno you are a great writer. Keep up the good work!
    Might I suggest you meditate if you haven’t already begun to do so? Yoga too!
    Don’t forget they can’t cage your mind, spirit, or heart.

  6. Welcome to PW, Enceno. I am so happy Eric is publishing your work. When I read that you have been encarceled ‘from late childhood’ it caught my breath.

    Whether things are ‘different’ outside depends on who is looking, and how. I don’t see the constant recoil that my black friend’s tell me is in play. I don’t, but I believe them.

    But how things are different “out” here is that you have more of a chance to catch your projections, tuck them in, before someone else insists on their reality. As tough as your scene is, nevertheless *you can* work on that. Learn the architecture of your inner prison, and how to keep the keys in every door.

    Leary did it; Mandela did it. Hell, I have a friend here in Austin who did it (I babysat his kids while he was in Federal lockup). Before any perception hardens into thought, it is first a pure music — in the sweet, damp soil of your senses. When you find it in yourself, you’ll start to hear it in other people. And they will respond to *that* – not to ‘you’ but to the fact that you are harking to their true freedom. The one that no prison can contain.

    Here, for example.


  7. Enceno,
    Been reading Planet Waves for years now. Your blog stands out as one of the most important. Your writing combines eloquence and focus in enviable style. But that’s just the package. It’s the clear presentation of a substantive issue that makes this piece a heavyweight champion. Most of us on the outside have no idea what is brewing as the growing prison-industrial complex becomes as pernicious a part of our time and culture as slavery was to it’s time and place. Thank you for taking the risk of scratching the surface of something we ignore at considerable peril. Looking forward to your further contributions.
    -Len Wallick

  8. thanks so much for this post, I worry that not enough white people think about or are even aware of this and related issues.

  9. Having worked within the prison system, I can say first hand that race means everything in there. If you don’t pick one, “they” will pick you. It certainly is not a
    free society in the “blocks”. Prior to working in the prison system I certainly had alot
    of preconceived ideas on who a felon or convict was, however after working closely with them on a medical standpoint, I soon came to realize that most are dealing with
    mistakes they wish they never made. Some are dealing with other peoples mistakes, while others are living the only life they ever knew. I was treated with the utmost respect and in turn gave them my utmost respect. I was thankful to have the opportunity to have worked with so many talented individuals. Unfortunately, after being released as a felon, the prejudice remains. Not many can obtain jobs due to this prejudice. A good portion of felons go back on the streets because they have no choice. I really think more should be done as far as getting these guys back into the workforce. Thank you Enceno, peace to you my brother.

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