Red Flag Journal #2: Controlled

By Dennis Jefferson | December 4, 2022

I did not want to come to San Quentin. In fact, I tried to compromise the transfer. I was firmly, corruptly embedded at CMF Vacaville, making the best of an end-of-the-line kitchen job. At least at that prison, I could fade away like a trend. A poet once wrote, “one by one the sands are flowing,” which was reflective of my situation, as I watched the hourglass of hope drain into a chamber of self-loathing, shame, and guilt.

Once the counselor pronounced the finality of my involuntary transfer, I had the nerve to act indignant. I felt bullied, and I didn’t want to go…there. I was being dominated and forced to be uncomfortable. Oh, so this is what being controlled feels like. I may have taken comfort in the fiction of my victimization, but the irony that sometimes intersects with reality doesn’t forget to collect Karma’s premiums. I was a hypocrite. Prior to my life sentence and the seasons of consequences, I had made the dark discipline of controlling others an ideology that justified “power over” rather than “power with”. Feeling entitled to my male privilege, I needed to establish and sustain control over my romantic partners. I had to reign over these girlfriends who could defer to my ego and massage my brittle self-worth. In short, their malleability was essential. I co-opted their needs, values, and aspirations, and placed them in my personal tip jar of frenzied demands and self-indulgent expectations. I wasn’t noble. There was never a “we” in these partnerships, just a “me”.

The transfer to San Quentin isn’t the only example of humiliating capitulation and forfeited independence. It happens frequently in this sub-community as the days unfold: subtle indignities to significant prohibitions. Any resemblance to the agency is dubious or measured at best. We wake up every day on a rigid schedule of someone else’s choosing. I’m told when to go, where to eat when to shower, what to wear, and how to act. Come, stop, down (on the yard), halt, wait. There is no variety of choices in entities such as doctors, churches, exercise locations, eating establishments, or even friendships. You unquestionably take what is allotted and you like it. I got up this morning to eat another bland, unpredictable breakfast because the binary alternative is hunger. Positively, I defer to this institutional, no, patriarchal power. It is retributive, absolute, and undeniably authentic. It isn’t the infantile, cowardly, shallow form of power I exercised over my well-intentioned partners.

There was one warm summer evening in 1996, a day too nice to support the heated one-sided “argument” that I was having with my ex-girlfriend, K. I was drinking and angry, but these facts, or the context of my jealous rant, are flimsy rationalizations to cover-up inexcusable behavior. I was out of line and out of control. After K. claimed I never loved her, I set out to prove her truth wrong. Not in any loving way, I didn’t know much about that. But I knew about intimidation, coercion, and the insanity behind proving a negative. I gassed up my Maxima telling  K., “We’re going to Reno right now to get married,” with all of the crazy-eyed intensity I could muster. I made the dangerously impulsive decision to drive to Reno, hundreds of miles from our city, intoxicated, at midnight. I wouldn’t let her out of the car – she was livid, helpless, screaming, but mostly scared due to my reckless driving, which in itself was a form of abusive control. This wasn’t even close to a romantic gesture – more like a hostage situation, which is definitely familiar all these years in hindsight. 

When the “we” that was “me” arrived in Reno, I was starting to sober up while simultaneously rethinking my fool’s errand and over-the-top pride. I then became apologetic, remorseful, sheepish even. How weird is the lifestyle of an abuser? I ran the spectrum from a forced wedding to the awkward hollowness of the honeymoon stage, accompanied by its  “I’m sorry” and tears, all while corrupting the meaningfulness of these traditionally gentle,  collaborative institutions. After I drove K home, she rightfully reported me to the police, as I had unlawfully transported her where she didn’t want to go.

K. did right, not just for herself but for me, in calling the authorities since, without major catastrophic social or legal consequences, abusers usually won’t check their distorted belief systems under their own willpower. I was out of control, and undisciplined, normalizing our unhealthy dynamic. Unless something catastrophic interrupts the process I’d learn nothing from my mistakes, unwilling to search my soul or develop a conscience. 

This process is called the cycle of violence. It consists of these stages: tension building, acute explosion, and honeymoon. During the tension-building phase, the battery could nitpick, yell, threaten, criticize, become passive-aggressive, or increasingly jealous. The victim may respond with an attempt to calm their partner, silence, talkative, agreeable, a mutual provocation to incite the explosion, or a general feeling of walking on eggshells. While this isn’t a comprehensive list, my jealous rant characterizes this stage. 

Next is the acute explosion, the blow-up, which could mean hitting, choking, rape, use of weapons, humiliation, destroying property, or beating designed to punish or teach a lesson. My false imprisonment of K would fit in this category. The victim protects themselves as best they can, trying to reason with or calm the abuser; or the police are called by the victim, children, or a neighbor. 

Finally, there is the honeymoon stage, where the abuser is on their best behavior (just like at the beginning of the courtship). They are full of “I’m sorry’s”, “forgive me’s”, and love bombing with declarations of love, gifts, tears, and promises to get help, attend Church, or AA. They say they’ll never do it again, and may believe that until the next time. The victim may agree to stay in this trap, setting up counseling appointments, attempting to stop legal proceedings, or taking the abuser back. The abuser makes grand gestures, the victim feels happy or hopeful, but something will pop off (again) and the abuser will take the victim places they don’t want to go. 

There are those that would expect me to feel bad just because I’m in prison. I can’t deny this is justice: the seeds of oppression I planted in the world demanded reaping and harvesting. I made cruel choices, so the state has placed me in this warehouse of purgatory until I can figure out uncruelty; ‘til I can respect the social contract until I can align myself with society’s wishes until the ‘ME’ becomes ‘WE’.

I didn’t want to come to San Quentin, but I’m subordinate to the authority of the state. Such is the ethos of legitimate, authentic control. Last night I was told by the staff to get off the phone. I felt checked, harassed, disenfranchised, bossed, and helpless. I desperately want forgiveness from K., from society. But I know this grace would be a gift and not under my control. 

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It's been a rough few weeks in terms of media layoffs so I want to flag a job I'm helping hire for: @prisonjourn, which trains incarcerated people as journalists and helps them get published, is hiring a managing editor to run all of its editorial strategy https://prisonjournalismproject.org/job-posting-managing-editor/

Teaching @StanfordLaw students alongside incarcerated students at @MtTamCollege in #SanQuentin was a highlight of the year—with hopefully more to come!

A fascinating glimpse at the history of higher education at San Quentin! While many hurdles still exist when running a college with a prison as its campus, at least we no longer have to "copy, stencil, and mimeograph" course materials to bring them inside.