For a long time, corrections departments around the country maintained order—relatively speaking—through the informal system of old prisoners showing new ones the ropes. The young kids would be advised to keep their noses clean, and see for themselves how this was rewarded as, one by one, the old goats paroled out.
Sharing a common goal—going home—encouraged choices that reflected well on the rest of your living unit, in addition to yourself. This invisible social contract made captivity somewhat less violent and more bearable for everyone, including those ineligible for parole—up until no one had a reason to expect it anymore.
Filter spoke with four self-described old goats who, like myself, are currently incarcerated in Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) facilities. Between the five of us, we have served 128 years.
“When I came into the system in the early 1990s, I heard tales from the men who began in the 1980s about men who had made their names inside in the 1970s,” Old Goat Chuck told Filter. “‘Murf the Surf’ began with two life sentences, plus 20 years of hard labor, and was out in 17 years advocating for education in prisons. The point being: Pick a path.”
It took a few years to notice that people were no longer getting out.
Out elders at the time taught us that if you wanted out of prison, you spent your sentence a certain way. Taking classes. Teaching classes. Reporting to assigned jobs. Sobriety. Then, when it came time for the powers that be to review your file, they’d see what they needed to see in order to grant parole.
“There was a way of doing time that led to earliest release,” Old Goat Rick told Filter. “And a thousand others that did not. Them with the longest sentences usually were the ones striving for the door. Young men with less time could imitate their method and shorten their own stay—perhaps gaining, in the meantime, useful skills for success on parole.”
In 1995, Georgia raised the mandatory minimum for life-with-parole convictions to 14 years. In 2006, the mandatory minimum became 30 years. Everyone over 62 is eligible for parole—even if they were sentenced to life without parole—but this has yet to matter.
“Them are the new rules,” Old Goat Hewy told Filter. “There are no more incentives to do right. Only a bigger whip if we show the world how wrong the system is.”
It took a few years to notice that people were no longer getting out. GDC’s old goats are scattered across many herds, and at first each parole denial was chalked up to individual bad luck. But by the end of the 2010s, the number of prisoners who’d been in for 30-plus years had increased by a factor of 10, and it was hard not to notice that. As of January 2024, there are 979 us in GDC facilities who’ve been here more than 30 years.
Kids these days no longer have much reason to take the old goats’ advice.
“The state could better reduce crime by spending prison budgets on schools. But,” Old Goat Anvil told Filter, “the state has stopped honoring the traditional unwritten agreement to reward good prisoner behavior with better living conditions. They appear awaiting multiple riots for which mass use of lethal force will be accepted by the public as required. I’ll hear kids in the chow hall quoting phrases from 1970s Attica. ‘Rather die like men than live like animals,’ and such.”
Kids these days no longer have much reason to take the old goats’ advice. Those with longer sentences aren’t interested in merits of in enrolling in some lame-ass self-help group or carpentry class or what have you. Why go through the motions, when it won’t make the least bit of difference?
Kids with shorter sentences, who come to prison on nonviolent convictions and do stand a shot at timely parole, will get busy moving tobacco and whatever contraband will provide the biggest nest egg for when they get out. For some, this sets in motion events that later return them to prison on violent convictions, or bring repercussions to the rest of their living unit in the meantime. But the old system we try to impress upon them is one they’ve never seen.
What they do see is a long line of old goats standing in the cold wind at the pill call window, as many of us have been doing since before they were born. If the system works, what are we still doing here?
Photograph via New York State Senate
All names have been changed