Doing Time

How prison changes inmates’ relationships to the past, present, and future.

By Jesse Mandell-McClinton

The warm-colored brick of the correctional facility in Stillwater, Minn., is in stark contrast with the gray, dank image that usually comes to mind with the word “prison.”

Amidst a mid-March week that broke century-old records, temperatures peaked at nearly 80 degrees on a cloudless Friday afternoon around the Twin Cities. Of all the possibilities such a day could offer, Minneapolis native Jerome Nunn, 36, would have preferred to simply enjoy the balmy day outdoors with his loved ones.

“If this was my first day out, and it was a day like this?” Nunn says, his face bespectacled with wire-framed glasses and stuck in a grin that raises his large, round cheeks, “I would definitely have a real family gathering, really enjoy and celebrate each others’ lives.”

However, Nunn is no longer in control of where and how he spends his sunny days. He’s been stuck in the same place for more than a decade; serving his prison sentence inside the walls of a Minnesota correctional facility for first-degree and attempted murder. The world outside Nunn’s cell ticks away, while his life remains mostly unchanged behind the bars that hold him.

Nunn is just one of 1,605,127 Americans imprisoned for at least a year according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2010. Overall, roughly 730 out of every 100,000 individuals in the country are incarcerated, far and away the highest rate in the world. Though the BJS also reported that 2010 was the first year more prisoners were released than admitted into correctional facilities since they began tracking the data, the numbers are high for a nation so quick to emphasize its dedication to freedom. One of the easiest ways for a society to remain comfortable is to remove the things that cause fear. In the United States, the solution is locking them up.

Nunn’s current home, the Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF) at Stillwater, is not actually in Stillwater, but a few miles south in the city of Bayport. The grounds are tucked atop a winding road near the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Aside from an ominous smokestack that towers more than 750 feet above the small river town, the prison’s aura doesn’t come off as the stereotypical concrete box, perpetually stuck in shades of grey and fluorescent lighting. The light brown brick makes for a pleasant exterior, and the parking lot and surrounding terraces’ crisp design combine for a peaceful yet silent atmosphere leading into the grounds. Thin, waist-high fencing runs around the boundaries of the facility, which shares borders with a cemetery, a recreational sports field, and a playground.

The prison’s thick walls and hilly lawns help shroud the purpose of the institution, but indicators of what lies within are everywhere. Aside from the entrance to the main lobby, the front of the prison is surrounded by a hefty black metal fence topped with spikes that bend outwards like large umbrella handles. A woman walks towards the front door, her face drained of emotion, the letters L-O-V-E arranged boldly in a square on her low-cut V-neck shirt. Justice has taken the form of tarring and feathering, dismemberment, torture, and even death. This institution was made to punish criminals by taking away their ability to choose where and how they live their lives, and consequently took those choices away from the people who link their lives with those inside.

For the last 17 years, Nunn has woken up in prison. Many decisions he will make each day are heavily influenced by a set of rules and guidelines, a point made very clear to him early in his time at MCF-Stillwater. Not long after he began serving his sentence, Nunn was sitting in his cell and discovered that the man being held next to him did not have anything to keep himself busy. He decided to lend his neighbor a CD player. The prison’s reaction to this favor? Swift discipline and a revocation of privileges.

“To tell me what I did was wrong…it changed who I really could be in this environment,” Nunn says. “It changed who I had to be.” Acts of kindness and generosity had to fit into a rubric of acceptable behaviors. Choices were no longer a personal matter, but part of an external process that took into account the desires and expectations of the prison.

In the battle to deal with the parameters that dictate almost every moment of his life, Nunn stays focused on what does remain in his control. He can further his education, reflect on the string of events that led to his imprisonment, and develop meaningful relationships to cope. One example being his evolving friendship with fellow inmate Tou Yang.

“You have to use your time wisely to better yourself,” Yang, 37, says. ”If you have a lot of time in here, you have to have that focus to just say that this is your life.” It’s a sentiment he and Nunn share with equal fervor. Sitting next to each other, the two rarely talk over one another. They share a tendency for outbursts of impassioned speech, and their nearly identical thin-rimmed glasses hint at the subtle connections they’ve made while incarcerated.

Though they live in a world of confinement, the culture within MCF-Stillwater comes with its own rhythm and roadblocks the two men adapted to. Without cell phones, Nunn and Yang both dial numbers into an imaginary keypad on the table to recall the correct digits for family members. The two of them were upset when they realized they can get closer to a reporter than their own families when they visit, yet seem carefree when a guard directs them to undergo a shakedown to re-enter their cells. Some things the two can get used to, others are continual thorns in their sides.

In or out of prison, one way to quell nagging anxieties is discovering fresh ways to break up the monotony of routine. Life in a correctional facility is not all rank and file, mess halls and working out, though alternative ways to spend time are few and far between. Prisoners reflect on their personal growth and worries in group discussions run through a program called Amicus. They can complete their GEDs and even earn college degrees.

Nunn studied microcomputer support technology and received his associate’s degree in applied sciences from nearby North Central University. He’s the second member of his family to graduate from college, and amazingly the first—his sister Serena—was once incarcerated for over a decade herself. Before Nunn set foot in MCF-Stillwater, Serena did 11 years in federal correctional facilities. While in prison at different times for different crimes, their sentences remain connected. They are siblings, and the time they’ve spent away from their loved ones has not only tested them in unimaginable ways, but also their relatives on the outside.

“Of course it’s going to affect you because you feel like you’re doing the time yourself,” their mother Shirley Billingly says. “A mother kind of feels when their child needs them there.” After years of visits to see her daughter, Billingly now works long hours in a Georgia emergency room to save up money to visit Nunn every two to three months. She tries to break up the routine of his life, sometimes surprising him with unexpected visits. Despite moving to Atlanta after the death of her mother, Billingly is still able stay close with her son.

“[Our relationship] is better than it’s ever been,” she says. “I can listen to him, I can listen to his advice. I hear from young men that have been around him and gotten out. They call me and tell me how he’s inspired their lives.” Nunn’s friends who made it out of prison told Billingly about his religious fervor, focus on staying positive, and dedication to fulfilling his work duties. It reminds her of a younger Nunn, a popular teenager whom even older kids came to for advice.

Billingly has observed a great deal of change in her son and worries about his consecutive life sentences. From the mental effects of being put on continual lockdown, to a friend of his in prison committing suicide, she struggles with the fear that he could sink into depression or get to a point where he might just give up. She and Nunn have been in touch with those that were hurt by his crimes. Even the victim’s families agree that he is being held for too long. However, efforts put into reconciliation and forgiveness have little effect on an eventual release. And it’s not entirely accidental either.

“Rehabilitation is not a goal of this system,” Stephen J. Cribari, a University of Minnesota criminal justice professor who has argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, says. He doesn’t wholeheartedly agree that prison time is an effective solution to handling criminals, because the desired outcome is not improving inmates as people.

“If we look at the exercise of personal choice as the essential American freedom, then it’s not time well spent,” Cribari says. “When facilities lack focus on individual growth, the deprivation in that time, if not of that time, would probably be counter-productive. Wouldn’t you come out angry and resentful?” Prison can indeed restrict the time a prisoner can use to make positive change. However, if it is still interpreted as a place that inevitably hardens the people inside, even by a former public defender, like Cribari, there seems to be little hope for inmates such as Nunn—a prisoner who feels that a change at heart won’t be valued any differently than another person who spends their sentence in a world of anger.

The question isn’t so much how a hardened prisoner can come out with a healthy view on life, but rather when that healthy view has no way of being valued over the anger and resentment, where’s the incentive to change? Nunn may put it best: “To feel unworthy, that my love is not worth anything anymore, is a sad feeling.”

Once pronounced guilty, a person entering America’s penal system becomes separated from their former lives, overbearingly governed in their new ones, and feared by people who could never imagine themselves behind bars. Past mistakes do not make it easier for a human being to cope with prison as a long-term punishment. The FBI reported 1,246,248 violent crimes in 2010, and correctional facilities supply a one-size-fits-all approach to deal with those diverse personal and cultural issues which land people on the other side of the law in the first place. Regardless of whether or not a particular institution has the potential to remedy those ills, most struggle to help form healthy connections between inmates and the society where many will return.

A prisoner’s greatest challenge lies in their inability to change others’ perceptions of them while incarcerated. Society’s understanding of comfort, no matter how uninformed or naive, is only getting more insistent on viewing prisons as a place to efficiently house people were equally afraid to identify with and exist among. And so, those we deem morally corrupt are locked up and fenced in; stuck in a place where no matter whether they strive for dignity, education, or an opportunity to return to an unlawful lifestyle, it will always be easier to group them as a threat to people more deserving of the freedoms that come with time and space. No matter how an inmate would choose to spend his time after those first few days of freedom, prisons make it easier for those on the outside to enjoy the false belief that the hours we share on a sunny afternoon have been admirably earned by some, and shamefully compromised by others.