Prison Reflections from Patrick O’Neill (transcribed and edited by J. Mark Davidson)
March 1, 2021
In this most recent reflection, Patrick shares his conversations with fellow prisoners – mostly sex offenders who are facing long prison sentences – and how they deal with time behind bars.
“A lot of guys in here have their days numbered, as in ‘I’m getting out in blank 2026 or 2031.’ While I’m counting days, these guys are counting months and years. As a Western nation, the U.S. has the longest sentences by far both on state and federal levels. There are few nations on earth that have life without possibility of parole; we have thousands of people with that sentence. How did Ben Franklin’s idea of penance (as in penitentiary) go so far afield? How did our nation become so punitive and unforgiving? I have to be careful in here and not get into the day-counting game. Too many people view their time incarcerated as a stolen part of their lives, as if time in prison is valueless and should be subtracted from the total of years one lives. Counting days always has a person looking off (sometimes very far) into the future, and thus they fail to live in the present moment, which is all we’ve got.”
The plight of sex offenders, the lowest caste in prison society, has captured Patrick’s attention:
“I plan to write some stories about the conditions sex offenders face because of their long sentences and how they are treated so poorly in the “filthy, rotten system.” It is hard to imagine – especially at my age – to spend 10 years living in this warehouse-like room of 64 cubicles, but that’s what’s happening to many of the guys here. Gene said he thought about half of all guys here are sex offenders. This is unbelievable and unjust. This place has only one purpose – that’s punishment. There is no effort at all being made to help people better their lives – nothing…Most of the guys who have long sentences have not been convicted of ‘touching’ a child or ‘manufacturing’ the pornography, but only viewing it or sharing it on their computer: ‘I am here on pornography charges. I had something on my computer and that was it. They maxed me out,” one guy told me – he has 30 years….A lot of guys are hoping for the return of 65%, which used to be the percentage of time a person had to serve in the federal prison system. Biden got rid of 65! (full given sentence and no parole), and now there’s pressure on him to reverse his cruelness from 1995. If he does go back to 65%, many guys will get year off their sentences, which is the great hope.”
A very difficult human problem – sexual addiction/child pornography – is made much worse by “the system”:
“Part of the problem is the system – the prison-industrial complex – that serves only to punish the “offender” rather than nurture them toward a better future. Hence, many guys leave here in far worse shape than when they arrived. They have all the baggage they came in with and leave as a convicted felon/ex con. Here at Elkton, we are doing time for the sake of doing time; judges pretend the people they send to prison are being helped in some way, but in truth we’re just being warehoused for an arbitrary period of time with little of no rehabilitation. So these circumstances lead guys to ‘count the days’ because it’s hard to find anything to bring you hope or joy in the present moment.”
There is no escaping the absurdities of the prison system:
The first week I got here I was brought in handcuffs to a steel cage in an open, cold room with lots going on all around me. I was locked in the cage – still in handcuffs – for a “psych eval”, as it was called. I tried to point out the absurdity of this picture to the young woman psychologist who asked me a few questions: Were you ever sexually abused? Do you have suicidal thoughts? Do you abuse substances?, etc. It didn’t seem to occur to her that asking these questions to a man handcuffed in a steel cage might be ‘unprofessional.’ (I was told by another female psychologist that she did not have to take the Hippocratic Oath. ‘Well, it seems that should still be the guiding principle,” I said.)”
In the midst of so much dehumanization, perhaps it is wise to close this prison reflection with two images that incline the heart toward brighter, more hopeful messages: The first was a scene Patrick saw through his barred window outside – a large gathering of birds on the snow being fed by the inmates. The second was a phrase from a prayer offered by one of Patrick’s clergy friends, which sums up what is so greatly needed in our world – “May God break the stone coverings off of our hearts.” AMEN!
P.S. Patrick has expressed concern about fellow inmates who rarely, if ever, receive any communication with the outside world. For those who would be interested in forming a pen pal relationship with one of Patrick’s fellow prisoners, please be in touch with him so he can help facilitate that life-giving human connection. Patrick’s address is: Patrick O’Neill, #14924-018, FCI Elkton, Federal Correction Institution, P.O. Box 10, Lisbon, OH 44432.