Any inmate who has taken a trip to Philadelphia’s State Road House of Corrections knows exactly what the terms “pumpkin patch” or “pumpkin suits” mean: They refer to the orange jumpsuits all inmates are required to wear, and when all of us are gathered together on a cell block, we look like a pumpkin patch. My soul flinches when I hear people talk about the popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” because, on the show, prison looks exciting, adventurous and integrated. However, if you ask any African-American who has been to a correctional facility in the United States, orange has always been black.
Needless to say, I have worn my fair share of pumpkin suits in my short lifetime. I was one of the regulars at State Road from 2003-06. Each time I would get locked up, I’d ask myself, “How the hell did I get here again?” Then every time I would get released, I would pray to God not to let me go back to my criminal ways. Nevertheless, somehow I would find myself right back at the Great Philadelphia Pumpkin Patch.
I grew up in the horrors of the ’80s and ’90s drug wars of North Philadelphia. When the sun would rise, I would walk past the drug dealers in North Philly and admire those guys as if they were gods. I would ask myself, Who needs four years of college when all you have to do is find the right hustle? Although I did not grow up thinking, When I grow up I want to go to prison, I knew at some point in my life, I was destined to go to the pumpkin patch.
Was I a bad seed? Or was I a good seed in bad soil? I could never figure what kind of pumpkin I was. In other words, was I a criminal by nature or nurture? When doing crime, I felt like it was a rite of passage. Everyone I knew had a hustle and I thought this would be a way of life. Easy money was the way to go in my ’hood. I rarely saw anyone going to work, and I certainly did not know anyone who went to college. What I did not know then was that I was witnessing an entire community being victimized by institutional racism. These hustlers did not grow up thinking, I want to be a drug dealer. However, because of institutional racism and the economic status all of us young black men in this North Philadelphia neighborhood, we were being groomed for our pumpkin suits.
I am a raw product of the Philadelphia School District, and I did not read my first book until I got to prison. I often wondered, How did I make it out of high school? I could barely write in 1999. I realized I was pushed through the system like so many of my fellow young black men. Teachers found it easier to just pass you than to engage with you. I remember a teacher screaming at me, “If you don’t stop acting stupid, you’re going to end up in jail!” I did not care. All the black men in my ’hood at some point had to do a “bid” or, as they liked to call it, “take a hustler’s vacation.” But still to this day, I remember being in solitary confinement and hearing that teacher’s voice echoing in my head as I would pace back and forth in my cell like a caged leopard.
Reflecting back on every time I was released from prison, I would leave the pumpkin patch more bitter than the last time I got out. Questions would volley in my head: Where am I going to work? Where will I live? What is my probation officer going to be like? In 2005, when I was released from State Road, I applied for a job to simply clean toilets all day. The moment I turned in the application, I was swiftly denied employment because of my criminal record. As the hiring manager was telling me this I thought to myself, Cleaning toilets is one of the nastiest jobs that I can think of; if I can’t get a job here, then what am I going to do? In that moment, I felt completely defeated, and I told myself: Fuck getting a job. I’m going back to the hustling. It’s a lot easier. As a result of this decision, the next time I would be arrested and sentenced to 75 months in a federal detention center.
So there I am again in my cell with my pumpkin suit looking at my reflection in the beat- up mirror asking, How did I get here again? I had told myself I wasn’t coming back to this place that was so devoid of anything positive and motivating. However, here I was. It wasn’t until I started exploring the backgrounds of fellow inmates that I realized we all had this conversation with ourselves. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that I continued to come back and forth to prison. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, the national recidivism rate for inmates released from prison or jails is 65 percent. The criminal-justice system is made to be a revolving door. If a newly released prisoner does not have a support system in place when he gets out, the chances of returning to prison grow.
Michele Alexander, author of the seminal work “The New Jim Crow,” has explored how the criminal-justice system has created so many barriers for men of color. These barriers come in the form of halfway houses, ridiculous fines and court costs, overzealous probation officers and the one question every former inmate hates to answer on a job application: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” All of these barriers create a vicious cycle of “human cargo” in our criminal-justice system.
As concerned citizens, we have a duty to understand the barriers that inmates newly released from prison face. The people of this great city should no longer have to continue to harvest inmates like pumpkins. Philadelphians should be given the opportunity to offer inmates who are entering into society more support to prevent the revolving door of the criminal-justice system. For a city whose slogan is “brotherly love,” if we do not advocate for new re-entry policies and practices, we are subliminally saying through our lack of actions: “What size pumpkin suit do you need?”
Antar Bush aka TAR! is a native of Philadelphia and has an MSW from West Chester University. TAR! is an enthusiastic social researcher, mentor and writer of social-justice issues. His background in LGBT public health, criminal justice and social work have led him to a number of opportunities and community-leadership roles throughout the country.