Michael Lee Banker was awarded second place in Essay in the 2020 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


Before I was even convicted, I told her to find another husband. A woman has to have a man there with her to share her life as she lives day to day. I told her, Be real, you can’t go through life alone, you’ll eventually get another man anyway, so just do it now and let’s get over the heartache and be done with it. No. No, I’ll stay with you. No, you will not—I would not live alone if it was you in prison for life and me on the outside; I would get another woman. No, I’ll wait, I love you.

The trial comes. Convicted. Mandatory life sentence. I get life-plus extra years. How can a person do more years than life?

She says she’ll stay with me, there’s always an appeal. No. No, the appeal is a sham. She waits. The sham weaves through the courts. Three years go by. I’m still doing life-plus. She has a boyfriend. The appeal keeps being denied at one level of the courts after another. I am doing my life sentence. She has a baby, a little daughter. I tell her that is a fine thing, babies are the most important thing in life, that I am happy for her, and I send the letter off to her. (She doesn’t come to visit anymore -never will again—but that is how I knew it would be). That’s reality. That’s why I told her to get another man as soon as I got locked up on the murder charge. I knew. She knew, but wouldn’t admit it (to me). Women can be funny, that way.

I am alone in the darkness of my cell, not laughing.

The daughter that is not mine grows. The son that is mine must also be growing up, yet from the increasingly-infrequent letters, the progress is not noted. I wonder how he is, I write, I wait for a letter to answer all my questions about my cherished son. Mail call comes once a day. I wait, I am excited, I am disappointed, I am pissed off. Well then, maybe tomorrow, or possibly the tomorrow after that.

I am pissed off.

In prison, every single person nurses a simmering rage. For some, it surfaces only on occasion, for others, it dominates their existence. Every sensory input is filtered through this tainting emotion, thereby coloring reality. However, rage enables the bearer to abolish the veneer of political correctness, that hypocritical whore, and forms a callus against an unforgiving life that can and will destroy the weak of mind and spirit.

I’ve been in prison many, many years. When people are in a rage and spouting out torrents of hate, I listen. It is their truth, undisguised.

Life sucks,

And that pisses me off—

I’ve been pissed off for a long time… a long, long time.

One wife gone, who can’t be there because the husband is in prison. Enter another. The high school sweetheart, a good girl (not a dope whore like many prison wives) back in contact after twenty years of separate lives. I write her out of a melancholy remembrance during a week-long lockdown, a time of reflection and homesickness. A miracle: she responds, she still loves me! I was her first, a bad boy who relieved her of her innocence and in return was given her school girl love, deep and without reservation. And twenty years later, the love flares from the sight of a prison letter, like an unbelieving flame from a dormant coal of virginity lost. Women are funny that way. She visits a few times. We get married-imagine that: a woman marrying a man in prison when they can’t be together. True love can be an enduring thing, or, a hallucinogenic love that can be for a boy from high school that exists only in memory. Yet there is love. One conjugal visit, marriage consummated (legit), schoolgirl fantasy complete, married to the one to which she gave her virginity.

I relish this one day, well, the four hours of one day, and then she is gone, visit complete, married. (It will be our last visit). I know only the feeling of a man having had sex with his wife who is good and innocent and loves him. I spend days alone in my cell, pondering. I write the first wife; how is the son, her daughter, is life good, I got married to a high school sweetheart of mine, my whiskers are all turning white, hope your new husband is good for you, goodbye until… forever, I guess.

Months go by, years, and letters don’t come. None from new wife, none from old. The romance of a husband in prison that blooms from an infatuation of memory grows cold with reality, and the new wife does not come back, does not write. Well. The old one, she has a completely different life, these years later, so why would she write? After years of dwelling on the questions of the why-women-are-funny-about a husband in prison, the answers crush me like a tumor that has grown ever-larger year after year until at night in my cell it crushes the breath out of my chest to where I can only gasp in the darkness.

Some pain never leaves you. Knowledge is that pain; the knowing that prison is where you are, where you are going to be, and—worst of all—that it is your own fault that prison is your existence. That pain festers, grows, and feeds the cancer of self-directed anger, until your life is infected with an enduring rage. This rage permeates you and burns every living thing that ventures to touch your cage; it overshadows all else that does not feed it.

And the cancerous rage relentlessly consumes you.

Racism in prison is not a choice. Everybody is racist to some degree, that’s the way it is, and it isn’t ever going to change. A guy can have friends—best friends, even-of another race, but when shit comes down in the yard, he better hang with his own race, even if his buddy is on the other side. Sure, he can position himself so if the problem goes past words to physical, he can fight somebody besides his buddy, but that’s all he can do. A guy who sides up with another race is the first to go down. That’s politically correct in prison. That’s righteous.

There are answers to it all, in here.

You can check out of life with a shot of dope, temporarily. The problem is, when the dope wears off, you have to check back in, and life is there as you left it. But now, you got the physical pain, your cost for the high. Every shot costs you: your money, your health, your own strength of will which you gradually gave up one shot at a time. Then you are left without willpower, without integrity, and all you have of note in the record of your life is the habit. Of course, there is the inevitable Hepatitis C that comes with being a junkie, and maybe AIDS. You’ll be lucky if you die prematurely.

You can cancel reality, forget the real world outside, and turn prison into the only reality. Then, degeneracy is the accepted norm. All is in line, all is proper, all the facets of twisted reality are in place. This is the adjusted norm. To become normal in such a place is surrender. If you deny what has become your reality, if you fight the change, you drive yourself insane. (I think I am crazy, after all these years inside, and if I was religious, I would thank God for this condition.)

You can check out of life by taking it yourself. Why not? It is yours; it sucks. It will be over eventually anyway. Really, it is not worth living.

So what if my life is only
One spark in eternal time
To me it is forever
And after all, it is mine.

I try to cry sometimes, on rare occasions, but I can’t. This perplexes me. I know I would feel better, but try as I might, I can’t squeeze out even one tear. Twenty-eight years without a tear—that doesn’t seem normal.

The last time I cried was a few days after I got locked up, when the alcohol and dope finally wore off and the hangover eased some, and in the middle of the night reality visited me in a moment of clarity, and I realized that I was never going to get out of prison. No more freedom, no more house, job, wife, son. I cried (I couldn’t help it) silently so nobody in the row of cells would hear me. When the bout of emotion was over, I felt better, but weak. How can a guy, a murderer, be tough and a macho convict if he cries? So, I decide I’ll never cry again, I will bury any emotion deep inside and never let it surface, will never let emotion make me weak again. And I don’t. When people die, when life stomps on me, when despair overwhelms me, not a whimper nor a tear. But I sure wish I could, even just once, because I know it would help. Seems I’ve built an impenetrable barrier to prevent that type of inappropriate behavior from surfacing—because maybe if it ever does and I cry even just once, I might not ever be able to stop.

If only I had a shot! This whole fucking world would go away. I could find some kind of peace. Everything in this fucked-up life wears on me. Everything I’ve ever done haunts me. A shot of dope would make it all go away. I would do anything for just one shot that would help me make it through this day. Anything.

Awash in a sea of degradation, floating along, dirty and tainted by it, my head just above the surface, sucking air, waiting for the inevitable time when the last of my strength deserts me, and no longer can I stay afloat.

If you accept all the facets of depravity, you then condone them. You devolve inevitably with each instance that you adjust your standards. Anyone with even a limited degree of self-respect will not associate with a child molester—will not even speak to one. Yet they are all around you in modern prison populations; you cannot escape having to see them. You despise them, hate them, you feel the rage churn inside you at the sight of them. Yet around you there are those who have already accepted them as equals because they are inmates in the same cage. They speak to them, have conversations with them, they are friends with them. They have lost their self-respect. They have lost real convicts’ respect.

Junkies will do anything for dope. I have seen even a few gang members, who strive to promote the image of how hardcore they are, shake hands with a child molester, walk the yard with him, be his buddy, so they can get some of the dope he mules in. And their “hardcore” buddies accept this as proper—it is for a shot, after all—and they do the same thing themselves when the opportunity arises. Some hardcores will slip off and do anything-homosexual acts, snitching, snitching on their own buddies, anything for a shot of dope.

The weak are broken early by the stress of the prison environment. Some guys give up and flee to the chapel, where they give themselves to God in hopes of surviving under His protection. Jailhouse Christians, these are, and there are several types. The child molesters and rapists are the quickest to convert; as soon as they step off the bus they are looking for a sanctuary, from the guards, from the convicts, from the knowledge of themselves, and they bolt to the chapel at the first opportunity where they attempt to cloak themselves under the guise of respectability which they believe religion to be. There they will find a few truly religious men, and these degenerates will taint those men’s integrity with their deceptive guise and depravity and weak character.

Some prisoners cannot tolerate the loneliness. There are men everywhere around you all the time, twenty-four hours a day, constantly you are overwhelmed by unwanted company—yet you are alone. These others are not your family, your people; they are those who are thrust upon your world, forced into your world, but they are not substitutes for your family. You are alone. And when this realization hits some men, they fold inside, and their weakness is exposed. They search for a bond among those around them, and if they are lucky, they will find one or two real friends. They might instead find those homosexual predators, flagrant or disguised, who become their friends and confidants; all pretense of self-respect and integrity are soon swept away. In this depravity they find their sanctuary.

There are many truly tough, mean, vicious, bad-ass men in prison. They are found in every segment of the population. Some are aggressive, bold, and intent on impressing their machismo on everyone. There are those who are quiet and unassuming, yet lethal. There are physically huge and powerful, small and athletic, and some who are physically pathetic but will stab somebody in the back or asleep. Some men are physically and mentally so tough as to be able to fight several other men, and win. Being able to physically beat or kill somebody is something many guys can do; being willing to do it is something most don’t want to do. Some like to do it.

The toughest of all are those who go through prison life alone, who face the gangs and prison life and loneliness by themselves. (Who face themselves, too?)

Everyone who spends time in prison is affected by it, is tainted by it. Inmates, guards, staff, outside contractors, everyone who comes in is altered by it. The more time spent inside, the greater the change. And it is never for the better. Even the visitors leave with a smudge on their view of humanity. Anyone who works in prison sees the baser side of humanity, feels it, is touched and infected by it. Those people who spend years inside as inmates will be altered beyond what a human being is supposed to be. Or possibly, they simply shed the skin of civilization and let the darker side of humanity evolve. This bare view of people shock those who come for a visit, or tour, or an eight-hour shift, and they leave prison different, because what they have seen cannot be forgotten. Everyone who spends time in prison is touched by depravity like a germ from a herpes virus, and it dwells within them, permanently.

Those who stay in prison, year after year, watch the virus of depravity surface and blister. They can fight it, with reason or rage, or they allow themselves to be consumed by the sickness of the darker side of humanity.

Anybody can be a criminal. It is so much easier to do something negative, as that usually takes very little effort; it is easier to steal something than to work and make money to buy it. Being a criminal leads to prison, where it is easy to be a worthless degenerate. After all, the majority does just that, revels in the persona of being “bad”. A badman convict is the thing of movies, a gangster is a tough guy, a lawbreaker is a rebel, and the “bad boy” is always macho. Truth is, there is no glory in being a prisoner. Anybody who feels proud of being locked in a cage, told what to do every hour of every day, gets strip-searched regularly (bend over and spread ’em) and who thinks being a prisoner makes them a tough guy, is definitely warped.

Being worthless in prison is what corrections wants:

The prisoner is easier to control if they have no self-esteem, no self-respect, no value of self. Warehouse them, crush them, keep them down. People have to be in prison to keep it full: job security. Prison is a big industry. Some people have to be sacrificed, might as well be the rejects, the ones who don’t/can’t/won’t follow the law. Some lives have to be discarded. Cut your losses. Let ’em waste away. Rehabilitation costs too much, money and time and manpower. Let “em rot. Put on the blue plastic gloves, throw ’em in a bodybag, out with the old, in with the new. Fill that cell, make that money.

My reality. I hate the certainty of the reality that comes relentlessly, that cannot be stopped or avoided. I dwell in rage, because my reality is skewered. My memories are relentless in their torment. I struggle to remain human, fight to remain normal and cling with rabid obsession to my last kernel of decency even as I feel it melting in my grasp. Rage propels me inevitably onward through a wasted life, as I clutch at morsels of worth, at any vestige of meaning in this trivial existence.

When there is a life sentence, it is the life that they take. Oh, the shell lingers on the remnant of a human that withers steadily toward a biological end. And the lifer will be free only when he escapes into death, where his sentence will officially end, simultaneously as does his wasted life. Until this release, his hollow eyes will peer out from his emptiness, from the vacant shell that occupies his prison cell. Life ebbs day after endless day, it seems, yet there is the kernel of knowledge that there will come an eventual end. So the lifer hopes not of freedom, not of a real life, not of a reassertion into real society, but of the freedom that is granted by the final parole of death. And on the days and nights when the emptiness is crushing, the lifer, in his existence of loneliness, yearns for the final release.

Since a prisoner’s life itself is of no importance, society hopes you will die sooner rather than later, which will save the expense of keeping a prisoner, and besides, the life they are supporting is that of a worthless person and therefore a wasted expenditure. So when the lifer’s life ends, the agents of the state will come. The guards with blue plastic gloves will toss the lifeless shell into a body bag, zip it up, and wheel the gurney out. One guard will remain to quickly empty the value-less personal effects of the cell into a trash bag to accompany the body out. The cell will be cleaned by another prisoner, and before day’s end, another reject from society will come to occupy the space. The cycle of the sea of incarceration will then flow on, day after endless day.

I live in a bad dream. Oh, it feels real. The pain comes in every manner to remind me. I fight against it, all that is inside my dream and torments me relentlessly… but I cannot win, in the end. There is no honor, no comfort, in the ongoing battle. There is no hope of victory. There is only the knowledge that this twisted dream will eventually end.

The greatest consolation is that at the instant of death, all that was life ceases to matter; however good or bad, all the events of that life suddenly become completely irrelevant. There can be no regret, or suffering over the past, because there is no consciousness, no existence. The life [sentence] will be over.

The End

Further Reading