How a violent incident in prison led Jennifer Toon to confront racism

Disclaimer: This story contains brief profanity; please use discretion.

I was the only one in the dayroom when he hit her.  Everyone else was either at work or class. I had the day off and decided to watch TV despite the stifling heat. It was quiet except for a small breeze that rattled the window screens against the security bars. Sweat ran into my eyes as I tried to enjoy a rare moment of peace while watching the news.

A deep male voice suddenly boomed outside the open windows. “Shut the fuck up!” Startled, I turned and spotted a group of inmates gathered behind the dorm preparing to leave the unit for field work outside the gates.  One inmate, a Black woman with long dreads, stood apart from the rest of the work crew. She faced the field sergeant as another officer handcuffed her.

I crept towards the window to eavesdrop. “Why are you handcuffing me?” she asked. “I didn’t do anything.” The sergeant, a middle aged white man with a bushy mustache, leaned in close to her face. “Because I told you to shut up!”  She remained stoic as she continued, “All I said was y’all know it’s too hot. We aren’t supposed to go out in the afternoon like this.” She was right. Outside field crews were not supposed to work when temperatures reached a certain heat index.

The sergeant smirked and yelled, “Everyone turn around, get on the ground!” When the nervous looking group of women complied, I expected him to reach for his radio to call for additional staff, but he didn’t. Instead, without warning and without provocation, he punched her in the face. She fell limply, in slow motion, as if she were already unconscious before she hit the sidewalk.

I jerked away from the edge of the window. What in the hell just happened? I had seen violence before but never anything like that. I didn’t know what to do, but I feared being caught watching. In disbelief and terror, I ducked around the corner and fled back to my cell.

Later that evening when I was lying in bed, I kept turning over the sequence of events in my mind. Why did he hit her like that? She expressed a legitimate concern and wasn’t the least bit aggressive. Her hands were even restrained behind her back. Why was this different than when my friend Courtney had acted far worse with the same sergeant, even yelling profanity at him? Courtney told me he simply called her to the side and asked her what was wrong. When she admitted she was stressed out about a loved one’s health, he sent her back to the dorm. What then was so different this time? The growing awareness of the truth kept me awake that night. The glaring difference was that Courtney was white. 

It was common knowledge when I was in prison that white women were treated differently than everyone else. The odd thing to me now was that I never questioned why. It was just the way it was. I had witnessed a white woman receive a verbal reprimand for the same type of disciplinary case that got a Black woman a 30-day loss of privilege. I knew that white women stayed in the fields less often than Black and brown women, and were given the better job assignments. The prized jobs — clerks, maintenance, commissary — were usually landed by white women, while Black and brown women were more often relegated to laundry, janitorial and kitchen work. Until that moment in the dayroom, I never wondered why.

Not that there weren’t times that white women weren’t treated badly — it was prison after all. But even white indignation at such maltreatment was evidence of the disparity.

I remember complaining to a Black friend about some injustice I felt I had suffered. “Today this officer at work snapped her fingers at me like I was a dog and said, ‘Hey you, girl, get these boxes and carry them to the gate. Hey you gal, get in here and wash these dishes.’ We aren’t even supposed to touch their dishes. I’m not her personal maid, but I can’t tell her no.  And the problem wasn’t in doing it, it was in the way she looked at me, the way she spoke to me. She had such contempt in her voice. And there was nothing I could do but to put a fake smile on my face and say, ‘Yes ma’am,’ and ‘Oh of course, ma’am.’ Because if I had for one second showed my true feelings, she would have made my life a living nightmare.”

My friend rolled her eyes and walked off. I then realized another angle I had completely missed. I had never been treated that way and when I was, I suddenly expected the whole world to stop and recognize my righteous anger. My Black friend knew this was a problem, a problem I was part of.  Here was the evidence of some previously unknown entitlement I must have always felt. By contrast, my friend grew up in a world where she was treated as less, and she had come to expect it. My expectations versus hers created a sobering, painful realization. 

Prison taught me life’s toughest lessons. It showed me that racism can be overt like it was that hot afternoon, but it is also insidious and pervasive in ways I never before knew existed. I discovered that we participate in systematic racism when we accept how things are without ever questioning why they are. We participate in systematic racism when we refuse to take an honest look at ourselves and the way we contribute to cultural norms that reenforce inequality.

But I also learned that it is possible to break free of this and create something new. It takes having the courage to not look away from the scene outside the window, and ask the difficult but simple question, “Why?”

Jennifer Toon is a formerly incarcerated criminal justice advocate who was born and raised in East Texas. She attended Kilgore High School and U.T. Tyler, and studied journalism at The University of Houston. She has 25 years of criminal justice involvement inside and outside the gates. She has written for the state prison newspaper, The Echo, for over ten years and as a freelance writer she has published work with The Guardian, The Texas Observer and  The Marshall Project. You can find Jennifer’s contributions to The Tyler Loop and her true, personal story at Season 2 Out of the Loop.

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