I've taught creative writing in Philadelphia's maximum-security prison for ten years. I joke with the inmates that most of them are POWs in the Drug War. Of course, most of the men in the class are African American.
Last week only two men showed up for the class, which gave me and my co-teacher the opportunity to talk with them about their lives.
Both men are in their thirties, one white, one black. Not surprising, the white guy was in for drug use and the black guy was in for dealing. Both are intelligent, thoughtful men. They are not saints -- but who is anymore in a society where the stone cold killer is a pop culture hero and the so-called "free market" rules?
The white guy, who I will call Bill, was raised in a hard-working blue-collar family. His father busted his tail and sent his son to St Joseph's Prep School outside Philadelphia. Bill played football at the school but could not relate to many of his peers, who were upper class rich kids with fine cars often headed for Harvard or Yale.
Bill fell into a disastrous cycle of drug use and got hooked on heroin, the tragic horrors of which he didn't grasp until it was too late. Shame at being a failure further fueled the cycle, and he was a junkie before he was 30. There was the inevitable collision with police, courts and prison. He is now on an in-prison methadone program.
The black inmate, who I will call Ahmed, has much different concerns as he looks toward getting out and back on the streets. Like Bill, his concern is also how to "make it" in the world he finds himself in. But he has no monkey on his back to throw off; his challenge is a matter of earning self-respect.
Ahmed has five kids with three women. When he gets out he will live with the woman who bore his last two kids. He has a strong parental need to be a protector and provider for his kids. Having his woman's respect is especially important to him.