This is a story that will sound familiar to many who hail from the Midwest. Throughout this part of America, industry and manufacturing have defined decades of middle class living, provided by plentiful blue collar jobs in various industrial plants and factories. Now that many of our large-scale companies have shipped jobs overseas, the Midwestern rust belt has been left wanting. Not just for jobs, but also for a better life and quality of living that gives workers a sense of meaning. We are in now need of industries that affirm humanity and produce goods and services without depleting and destroying our natural resources. We already must work hard to make amends for damage that has been done by the old manufacturing industries. Unfortunately, we’ve inherited a legacy of polluted waters, poisoned soil, and toxins that will persist indefinitely.
Aside from the physical damage left behind by pollution from manufacturing, other prominent industries have brought a lasting mental and emotional calamity upon many parts of the middle west. The prison-industrial complex has introduced an unjust system of human trafficking and profiteering from the pain and misfortune of the poor and under-educated masses. This is most evident in the medium-sized blue collar town known as Jackson, Michigan, which is notorious for being both the birthplace of the Republican Party and the original home of Michigan’s first state prison. Many of the inhabitants of this city suffer from what I will here refer to as the “prison city mentality.”
The prison city mentality is the mindset that, regardless of life experience, family history, and social standing, one is destined to live a life of mental, spiritual, and real physical poverty and abuse. Many are actually pretty justified in feeling this way, as they have actually done time in prison and have had their lives torn apart by our abhorrently racist, inexcusably inhumane, and completely detestable criminal justice system. In a way, those who have suffered the most at the hands their captors, will always be trapped in a life that is limited by their criminal history, and truly are destined to live the rest of their lives in a prison city.
However, the prison city mentality is also a cultural phenomenon, which has unfortunately been encouraged by pop culture icons who glorify and promote a “gansta” attitude and lifestyle. It is quite prominent in the city of Jackson, Michigan because of the culture and history there, but the general attitude is really quite common all across the region and even throughout our whole country, from the inner city slums to the trailer park ghettos that dot the suburban and rural landscapes. Jackson seems to have a larger percentage of people affected by this mentality, and perhaps it is due, in part, to the long history of the prison industry and environment there. Undoubtedly, it is largely attributable to the lower median income and lack of educational resources that keeps many from moving beyond the common limited mindset that is primarily based in fear, ignorance, and a perception of reality focused on scarcity.
Jackson, Michigan is often referred to as the Prison City, since it’s home to the original Michigan State Prison, which was the first prison built in the state in 1842. Early on in it’s history, it soon became obvious how profitable the prison could be, as it quickly became overcrowded right from the beginning, and new structures were constantly being added even as other prisons were built across the state throughout the late 1800s. By 1924, the present Cooper Street facility was built to house more than 5,000 prisoners on a tract of land encompassing over 3,000 acres, which then made it the largest walled prison the world had ever seen at that time. This is certainly not a legacy to be proud of, and the effect that it seems to have on the region is like an overshadowing cloud of angst, abuse, and depression that never really has lifted since the prison was first established. Many of the people who are born and raised in Jackson seem to live with some sort of shameful inheritance, gained by simply being from the Prison City. However, there is hope, and there really are quite a large number of inspired, creative, thoughtful and loving people who choose to stay there.
This characterization of Jackson, Michigan, and the affliction I call the prison city mentality, is not meant to be a criticism or even a critique of its overall state, our social conditioning, or the quality of life experienced in this time and place of existence. Jackson is the place that I call home, the community I was born into, and the dwelling of both my ancestors and my offspring. Michigan (and most other parts of the Midwest that I’ve visited), is a rich and diverse land full of natural beauty and unique opportunities. I am hopeful that some day, even the Prison City will blossom and birth new life into our region of the world, as we move beyond perceived limitations and imposed regulations, toward a more equitable, enlightened, and elevated existence.