“Prison brain cells” or “Why we only know what we know”

Tecapan, Guatemala is shown, where the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates meet

Click this image to expand larger version

At 3am on February 4th of 1976, the giant slab of rock that makes up the earth’s outer crust from Siberia to Central America brushed up against the giant slap of rock that lies below it (shown in the image to the right). In total, the two tectonic plates bumped for less than 40 seconds.

Yet, close to the epicenter of the event, most of the residents of the Mayan town of Tecapan, Guatemala were sleeping. So the resulting earthquake – measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale – killed nearly 3,000 of them in bed. Almost half the town was crushed to death by the very clay roofs and adobe walls their own hands had build. Their bodies were dumped into mass graves by donated bulldozers.

Interestingly, as tales of the devastation spread, so did stories of a mysterious wolf pack that, allegedly, wandered through town a few hours before the earthquake.

Would wolves do this? It’s not likely. Did wolves do this? We can’t really be sure. All we have proof of is that many residents claim to have witnessed the event.

Anthropologists Edward Fischer and Carol Hendrickson explain the wolf story by saying it foreshadowed the seemingly pointless destruction of civilization and the coming of the “wild” to Tecapan. In other words, it gave the townsfolk a reason why.

“The story is compelling and worthy of being repeated,” they write, “because of its cathartic value in explaining the seemingly inexplicable question: Why us?”

Yeah, but the Mayans didn’t have Wikipedia
In our modern culture of televised news and digitized information, we’re prone to assume we’ve outgrown such folklore. Yet, just because nobody is crying wolf pack anymore, it doesn’t mean we’re better at predicting earthquakes, or most other large scale events.

When the economy collapsed in 2007, Americans searched for a reason why. The media worked day and night to compose the narrative for us. In reality, economists say that the intricacies of modern finance are too complicated for simple explanation. Nonetheless, we blamed Wall Street, we blamed democrats, we blamed capitalism and we blamed Alan Greenspan. These things became our scapegoats. They became our wolf packs wandering down Wall Street.

(Flickr.com/Darkpatator photo)

You don’t know what you did yesterday
If we follow this logic to its source, we can say that we are all prisoners locked in our own brains, peering out through gaps in the barred windows we call eyes. And as each second of time flies by, all we can honestly say we know of our entire lives (of our entire history as a species) is the series of stories we compose alone in our prison brain cells to make each day, each history book, each moment make sense.

In other words, life happens… then we try to explain it.

I mention this because, as we begin looking at the crisis of the California criminal justice system, it is important to recognize that hundreds of thousands of people are involved in the process of building it. Every one of them – the prisoners, the correctional officers, the wardens, the psychologists, the professors, the politicians and the social workers – is attempting to make sense of it through their own lens, their own story, their own prison brain cells. Each day, they have ideas and ideologies upon which they base their actions upon which they build their memories upon which they plan tomorrow.

Thus, it is impossible to say why and how things happen exactly the way they do in a system as complex as criminal justice. But, just like the earthquake in Guatemala and the economic collapse in America, once something big goes wrong (or right) we need our reasons. We need our stories. We need our wolf packs.

Over the next few months, Voices of Justice will strive to tell the stories of California criminal justice as well as we can through the eyes of those who’ve experienced, studied and and affected it. Yet, it should always be remembered that they are just that – stories. And they should be treated as such, with an eye for skepticism and a pension for forgiveness.

All of us – writers, prisoners, correctional professionals and everyone else – are just trying to do our best with what we know and remember; running through the streets of time, memories of wolves clipping at our heels.

T'was the wolves that ate the bull market!

That wolf just ate the bull market!!

Posted on by Luke Whyte |

One Response to “Prison brain cells” or “Why we only know what we know”

  1. Thomas says:

    I think you’re spot on with your observations. We can often not understand the complex world – and we try to make up narratives after the fact.
    Maybe you know it, but Nassim N. Taleb wrote some great books about this (like “Black Swan”).

    But on the other hand: I think we can foresee events like earthquakes to a degree. We know why they happen and where. Just not exactly when.
    The same is true about the financial crisis: What caused the specific crash on the specific date is unknown. The bigger picture though is quite clear: Predatory techniques by deregulated bankers led to a bubble. And just as with earthquakes we know it will happen again, since the source of the problem stays.

    So I think also the prison problem will have a bigger picture. Something that can explain the underlying reasons – even if not the specific timing. And other than earthquakes, we can actually do something about it.

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