'All Prisons in America Are Set Up for Retribution, Not Rehabilitation': Cannabis Convict John Knock

Action movies often make prisons seem like inmates are always on the verge of starting a riot or a devious escape attempt. But cannabis convict John Knock, 71, says life behind bars is less 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'Natural Born Killers' and more like a classic Bill Murray movie.

"It’s like that movie 'Groundhog Day.' You live the same day over and over," he told Civilized over a phone call from Fairton FCI in New Jersey. "Same thing, different day." 

Knock has been reliving that same day since the late 1980s, when he was sent to prison for a non-violent marijuana charge for smuggling cannabis. And it doesn’t look like he’ll be getting out any time soon. He was arrested in France and sent back to the United States, where he was charged with conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and money laundering, and sentenced to two life terms plus 20 years.

He says the movies also misrepresent prison violence, which is less about old grudges and rival gangs and more about simple economics.

"Most of the violence in prisons is brought about by people not being able to pay for what they're using," he explained. But the biggest misconception about prisons is that they're a tool to rehabilitate people.

"There is no rehabilitation in prisons," Knock said. "All the prisons in America are set up for retribution. I mean, people get their GEDs, and people learn how to answer questions on tests to drive trucks, but as far as rehabilitation goes, no, it's not there. As far as leaving a prison, leaving a closed environment like this and going back into society? Most of the halfway houses are plugged up, so a person will do 10 to 15 years and get four months in a halfway house. Four months in a halfway house teaches them what? I don't know."

We've read that prisons are flooded with cannabis and other prohibited substances. Has that been your experience?

Well, I mean there's contraband in every prison. I'm not around it, let me put it that way. I've chosen to be not in that association while i'm incarcerated. I just don't pay any attention to it, but I see it all the time.  When I have been forced to be around it, having somebody you have to live with, because all cells in American prisons are at least doubled, if not tripled, you make your choices. And that's what I've done.

What about the biggest misconception about drug smuggling?

I've watched TV shows and it is all fantasy. They're misconceptions of reality. They have very little to do with what actually took place, what actually happened. It's made for entertainment, it's not life. Life is boring, when you get down to it. It isn't, you know, hearts and flowers or any of that, it's just day to day routine and work, and that's life in general, there's no difference. But as far as the partying, and the this and the that, I never saw it, I was never involved. It's fantasy.

What would you say to Donald Trump to help change his mind about prison reform?

I don't think he has to change, I think his mind is already set on prison reform. I think what is happening with his administration right now is he is running into an old guard of bureaucrats who are protecting their power positions and they are trying to manipulate his thoughts and his ideas into their own, or at least use his ideas to help their ideas, does that make sense?

I don't think it's up to him as much as it's up to [Mitch] McConnell and some of these old guard senate leaders who are still pursuing this idea that "you have to vote for me because I will protect you.”

If you were freed tomorrow, what's the first thing you'd do?

I'd spend time with my son and my wife, that's it. I'm 71 years old; I don't really have a lot of life left. For the past 22 years, I've been incarcerated. I left my son when he was three years old. He's now 28. And I miss him. Why would I do anything else? By being incarcerated, you learn to live on very little. And you don't need to make big waves in society in order to exist, i just don't have to. I don't feel that way.

What's the hardest thing about being away from family and friends?

The hardest thing? Well, you miss the graduations, I missed my wife when she got her PhD in biology. I mean, you miss everything. You miss everything that's going on.

You're in prison with a life sentence. Do you think it's ever just to send someone to prison for that length of time for a non-violent crime?

No. I think it's absurd. I think we get back into the idea of manipulating society so that they will vote for safety. What was it Benjamin Franklin said? If a person gives up his freedom for safety, he deserves neither? There was some statement like that. And yeah, there are people who need to be apart from society, there are people who need time outs. Some people need to not be in society, but most of them don't.

What would be a reasonable punishment, if any, for what you did?

Well, everybody is making money off of the same thing that I was doing on the outside right now. Marlboro just bought into a Canadian company for $1.8 billion. A lot of corporations are doing that now, exactly the same thing. There's no difference. You tell me, what is deserved? To me, this shouldn't have taken place in the first place. It should not have been an illegal product the way they made it out to be.

What's one thing that you wish people outside of prison understood about the criminal justice system?

That it's not fair. The American criminal justice system has no fairness. It doesn't exist. It's presented by bureaucrats, and bureaucrats save themselves, they don't care about society. They could care less whether society exists or not, as long as they're protected.

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