TURNED 21 IN PRISON

Kevin Pelot struggles to articulate the thoughts fermenting inside him, sealed in the cask of prison life

I think it's more powerful in somebody else's eyes than the way I view it. I'm not gonna let it govern the way I react in every situation. I've been told I'm lucky that I didn't get life, and some people say I should have had a medal. I don't think I really agree with either one.

What's the prison culture?

This is a society mostly of respect. If you disrespect somebody or you get disrespected, there are consequences — unlike on the streets. As a whole, it's a polite place. You bump into somebody, it's, "Excuse me." With respect come strength of character and honor. There are people in here whose word is as good as any contract. That's so rare outside these walls, it's almost nonexistent.

Do you feel different from the other inmates?

In whose eyes? As far as the Department (of Corrections) goes, I'm not even a person, just a number. They very rarely research somebody's background before they get in here. As far as the way I look at myself, I don't know. I'm getting to the point now where I'm starting to feel like there is no difference.

Do you believe rehabilitation's possible?

The only true form of rehabilitation is education. But now all they have is a bunch of classes like "anger management," which don't work. They generalize too much. Besides that, any other type of rehabilitation's going to come from within. Problem is, the system doesn't have any accurate way to get inside somebody's head and know when they have hit that point.

Are the caseworkers any help?

(He rolls his eyes.) They run around issuing violations if your furniture is not lined up right or your desk is in the wrong place. It just gets you to where you feel like no matter how hard you try you can't stay out of trouble, so you figure, screw it, I might as well just do something to be deserving all this grief.

What do you do all day?

(Gov. Mel) Carnahan's got a six-hour work day for the inmates, but there's not enough jobs to facilitate that many hours of working, so they have a bunch of people who just stand around and look like they're working. I'm on the yard, supposed to be pickin' up cigarette butts.

Is life better at a brand-new facility with new corrections officers?

The people that run things like this usually have degrees in sociology. They go through training. (Heavy irony, heavy sigh.) I'd rather be at one of the older, dirty, beat-down penitentiaries, because the old-time cops make the rules, leave you alone and let you serve your time.

What advice would you have for a young inmate fresh off the bus?

"Shut up and pay attention to what goes on around you. Don't get in debt. Mind your own business. And if you want to avoid problems, stick with your own kind." Besides that, as long as he is not easily intimidated, has some heart, common sense and a somewhat hard head, he'll make it.

He'll have problems, but he'll make it.

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