Letter From A Jail Warden
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is quite easy for many white Americans who have felt no prejudice for the majority of their lives to inadvertently assume that being a good person and not actively engaging in racist tendencies is enough. It is not.
It is possible to be a “good person,” but to still value comfort over change. It is possible to be willing to give an inch but unwilling to walk a mile with our black brothers and sisters.
If we fail to move our hearts to consistent, informed, and helpful action, we perpetuate a sense of timidity that is just as devious and destructive as expressions of blatant hatred. This way of living doesn’t lead to white Americans being reformed co-laborers and restored advocates. Instead, this way of living leads us to become moralistic jail wardens — acting with intentions we explain as being “good” while failing to address the undercurrents of oppression that allow us to retain power and privilege.
The following letter is an allegory. The thoughts throughout are from the vantage point of a jail warden who doesn’t find any error with his ways and who has a justification for every difficult reality of his role. When we as white Americans fail to recognize the gravity that is the plight of racism and dehumanization within our country, we take on the tendencies represented by Warden.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his Letter From Birmingham Jail in an attempt to defend his belief in nonviolent protest, to educate on the difference between unjust and just laws, and to exclaim that the time was right for justice.
While some have listened to his words, many have been tone-deaf, continuing on in a slightly modified version of the way things have always been done.
Without intentional thought and specific action, it is quite likely that many white Americans, myself included, will fail to address both the reality of and our culpability in the creation and furthering of the systemic racism that is plaguing our country. Without peaceful protest and legal action, without using our voice and vote, we may continue to dupe ourselves into believing that we have made enough progress when in reality, we have only started to walk towards freedom and equality for all.
Letter From A Jail Warden
I wish to convey to you a brief update on my life and my work. To do so, I will give you a short overview of what my typical day looks like.
Today, I arrived at my job donning my blazer, badge, and baton. I know those are supposedly symbols of power, but for me, I carry those pieces with me every day so they actually feel more normal than not. It’s what everyone I work with has, so trust me, it doesn’t make me anything special.
You see, I work at the local penitentiary.
I do not run this jailhouse, nor do I own the land upon which it sits. I did not put my hand to the bricks or cut the steel pipes that serve as the bars behind which a collection of men now sit. I have never sat behind the bench where a black robe and wooden gavel are somehow transformed into the very tools of life and death, of freedom and captivity. There were stains on these walls long before I arrived, therefore, I am hard-pressed to accept any criticism over that which I was not directly involved in. I did not create this system; therefore, any resulting tension is not my burden to bear.
I just work at this jailhouse.
I am one of many wardens. Day to day, I fulfill the duties of a job I believe I have earned. I had the right list of qualifications — went to the right schools, had the right connections. I never really wanted for anything when it came to opportunities for advancement. I just took the natural next steps and this is where it got me.
My name is Warden, but my nickname has always been, “right place, right time.”
Each morning, as I arrive at my office, I run through my to-do list of necessary work for the day. Before completing the mental exercise, I’ll undoubtedly spare a glance at the monitors showing my row of cells. That glance has been drilled into me, not from an over-occurrence of violent activity, but from the whispering of a voice I never knew, but somehow found in the annuls of my mind saying, “beware and never trust.”
I can’t help being a bit leery. It’s just the natural response for a person in my position when dealing with the sort of people you’d find in my cell block.
On a normal day, I will not interact with the inmates. I need not even walk down that hall, lest I accidentally turn and catch an eye or two with mine. Better to forget the color of their eyes than to entertain the thousand questions held behind each iris. I don’t really like to ask questions because I don’t have a lot of time to spend listening to the answers. Therefore, it’s often easier to not beget those interactions.
Everyone who works at this prison has heard of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I enjoy the way he stood peacefully for what he believed in. He claimed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” My colleagues and I agree. In an effort to pursue justice, we have discouraged and deterred the acts of injustice across many of the worst neighborhoods in our cities. We are tough on crime. We have gone to war against drugs and weapons and anything else that may disturb the greater peace. I realize that our cells are full, but I believe our streets are more free. We are en route to victory, towards progress, and I feel safer now than I have potentially at any other point in my life.
Woven into the words of my oath was the implication of not outwardly or outrageously perpetuating racist tendencies or beliefs. I am not a member of the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klan. If it were found out that I was participating in those organizations or any like them, I’d likely be fired and scorned. I like to consider myself more of a “white moderate,” someone who is devoted to both order and justice, typically in that order.
I have been trained to identify two types of black men — the saint and the sinner. The man at peace and the man at war. You would be hard-pressed to find the saints within the walls of this jailhouse, for why would society seek to lock up those who are quiet, considerate, and agreeable? It’s foolishness to incite the spirit of the seemingly content. However, when it comes to the unruly, the sinner, the man so filled by the fires of revolt and anarchy, that is the man that we have our targets out for
I’ll be honest though. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. Especially in a split-second decision. No one gets it perfect, but we teach our people that as long as you give it the “old college try,” you’ll be fine.
Moreover, I like to think that I am partnering with the men who call for reform. My fellow wardens and I love to welcome them with open arms— after all, we too seek reform. We want to reform their shouts into sensible speech, their outrage into optimism.
Sure, there are examples of other wardens who are foolish and cross lines that shouldn't be crossed. I don’t like the people who feel like they need to make their power known. It’s way better if we, as a whole community, just stick to the status quo. It’s nicer if everyone stays within the lines drawn by the well-intentioned culture and society. If most people are content, why fix what’s not broken?
I hear other jail wardens talking and it seems like things are generally improving. I am encouraged by that. I know that these men don’t like to be behind bars, but I try to encourage them that “this too shall pass.” I’m a fan of the idea that “time heals all wounds.” The men on my row often want to appeal about the fairness of their crime, but I remind them that “if you do the crime, you do the time.” That’s fairness. Obviously, if they didn't want to do the time, they shouldn't have done the crime. It comes down to a personal choice and I can’t help who decides to break the law or not. I’m not God.
No one can say with a straight face that we as a society haven't made progress. It seems like we release another inmate every week. Upon release, we only hope that they will be reformed and ready to start over. Sure it’s hard, but as the late, great President Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
I hate to see when the men we release end up back in our cells. It saddens me to think that the first time wasn't enough, that they didn’t learn from their mistakes. Those are the hardest days for me because I feel like I didn’t make a difference. I didn’t have enough impact on that young man’s life to help him realize that there is more to life than rebellious and unlawful actions.
I like to think that I treat all people well. I like to think that I am good at my job and that one day, people will look back and congratulate me on a life-well-lived. I hope that my God will one day tell me “well done good and faithful servant,” because I truly believe I could have done anything I wanted to in the entire world, but I chose to humble myself and serve those who were hurting and who were broken.
I appreciate you taking the time to read this. I like sharing with people what my work is like and it feels good to be heard.
My hope in writing this letter is to not make any jest of a serious and depraved situation, but rather to elucidate the minds of many white Americans. We must begin to understand that no matter our upbringing, our profession, or our belief system, if we stay silent while our black brothers and sisters are experiencing the degradation and dehumanization of their souls, we are not pacifists, but rather jail wardens. We become prone to adopting this metaphor as our mentality concerning our involvement and responsibility to the community and society around us.
For too long, white Americans, myself included, have claimed peace as an excuse for ignorance. We have claimed busyness and family and even religion as tools that take our time, all the while we have inadvertently or unconsciously maintained the role that was established and practiced long before us — presiding over the incarceration of the souls of our fellow racially diverse Americans.
This letter is meant to show how easy it has been to malign the foundational and inalienable rights of all humanity through seemingly good intentions. We can celebrate our progress, tout our acceptance, and even be proud of our recent efforts to educate, endure, and make equal our society, all the while continuing to perpetuate a culture that is primarily looking to protect the average white person’s comfortability and security.
I beg you to go back and read Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. Many of the arguments we are hearing today are the same arguments he directly addresses in his letter 1963. We have simply found new ways to work around old problems, new “answers” rooted in a similar set of assumptions. As such, we have still failed to address many of the core disturbances as white Americans opt for placated expressions of peace.
I have been guilty of thinking that we are only a few generations removed from the Civil Rights Movement and that for true, healing change, more time is needed. But as Dr. King said in his letter,
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation”
In writing this letter, I hope to communicate to my white brothers and sisters what some have already begun to discuss in recent years — that it is not enough to not be racist. The reality is that due to the decades and centuries of oppression and dehumanization, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are born into the role of the jail warden. If we fail to recognize this, our failure, in fact, perpetuates this systemic injustice far wider than our efforts of not being racist serve to stem the tide.
As I continue to learn and study, I am seeking to be more intentional in looking for the ways in which my privilege and opportunity have disguised my tendencies of oppression and injustice as actions of progress.
Over the last 18 months, I have begun reading books on race and the injustices of the past centuries. I will continue to read, expanding the books I am choosing to include more titles written by black men and women so that I can continue to hear and listen to these important voices in our society.
I am committing to having conversations with both my black brothers and sisters and my white friends and family. I am committing to using my voice, my writing, my time, my energy to actually address this issue, not just letting it hopefully be resolved over time.
It has been shocking and scary to me how through a few intentional conversations, I have already begun to dig up assumptions that I didn’t really know were below the surface of my heart and mind. I have never harbored hate in my heart for people of different races, but I am beginning to understand that my desire for comfortability has influenced an attitude of indifference towards actively addressing these issues and tensions.
You may be finding yourself in the same situation.
Hate is a strong emotion. It has the potential to reside in the heart of every human being on planet earth because there is darkness in all of us. However, we are collectively beginning to uncover an emotion even stronger than our hate — our apathy. The desire of white Americans to cover up and mitigate uncomfortable and difficult realities is real and is playing an integral part in what is tearing this country apart.
So while many of us have previously resolved to eliminate hate from our hearts, may we with equal or increased fervor now seek to fight against the tendency to rationalize, cover-up, or distort any expression of remaining inequality. I implore you to join me and the growing number of others who are committed to such an end.
As Dr. King concluded his letter, so too will I:
“ Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”