Prison Is a Place

Written by Eric Burnham

Personal growth, to me, means becoming the person I was designed to be. I’m not too sure where the balance is found between nature and nurture in the formation of my spirit as a unique human being. I do know, however, that I’m just one incarcerated man trying to overcome my past mistakes and make a positive impact on this crazy world. I kind of think that’s what life is all about: taking the bad and using it for good. Eric Burnham #12729124 Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution 2500 Westgate Pendleton OR 97801

April 23, 2023

Prison is a place I have been for over half my life. I was 21 years-old when I stabbed a man during a fight that I started while drunk in 2001. I am guilty, and prison is a place I have been ever since. Prison is a place where I will turn 44 this month (April of 2023).

Prison is a place where nothing is soft. It is a place with concrete walls, chain link fences, razor wire, and gun towers. It is a place with rigid routines, emotional and intellectual atrophy, and long periods of mind-dumbing boredom, interrupted only by sudden bursts of violence. Prison is a place where nothing and no one is safe. It is a place where I have seen a man beaten and kicked while unconscious, a place where I have seen a man sliced open with a razor blade, a place where I saw a man shot and killed for fighting on the yard, a place where I have seen correctional officers stabbed. Prison is a place where I felt the vibrations in my bunk and up into my body as they cut through the belt that a man in the cell next to mine used to commit suicide.

Prison is a place you must fight with your fists to defend against financial, emotional, or even sexual exploitation, a place where brutality is the vernacular. It is a place where men group together for safety but eventually become intoxicated by the power of numbers. Prison is a place where you can go years without hearing your first name, but not a day without hearing your bunk number. It is a place where kindness is considered weakness and therefore not reciprocated, and respect is confused with fear. Prison is a place where the cost of peace is social isolation and emotional withdrawal.

Prison is a place where you are never by yourself but you are always alone, a place where the rare opportunities to make social connections are fractured when people are transferred or released. it is a place where loved ones on the outside forget to remember you for years at a time. Prison is a place where your friends and family can only hear about your growth because they are never allowed to remain close enough to see it. It is a place where your friends and family can only hear about your growth because they are never allowed to remain close enough to see it. It is a place where you can go years without being hugged, a place where the only time you’re even touched is when you’re being patted down by an officer wearing rubber gloves. Prison is a place where you r emotions go unexpressed because they might be taken out of context and used against you. It is a place where you feel cold inside and can never get warm.

Prison is a place where you are expected to live by unrealistic standards of behavior, and your inability to live by them is perceived as evidence of your moral contamination; therefore, disproportionate consequences for minor rule violations are considered justifiable by administrators who are insulated from the counterproductive results of their policies. Prison is a place where security staff will reflexively do an abundance of research into every minor rule violation yet refuse to put forth the slightest effort to input positive observations of your behavior into the record. Prison is a place where the state will pay for your hormone replacement therapy but not for educational programs that demonstrably reduce recidivism. Prison is a place where you are afraid to discuss your struggles over mental health, depression, anger, violence, sexual orientation, or chemical dependency with staff members because if what you say is put into your file, a case worker or the Parole Board may use it against you.

Prison is a place where evil advances freely, unfettered by the pangs of conscience, shaping the culture by working diligently to snuff out any goodness found within you. It is a place where hatred and hypocrisy are so insidious that they will define you if you’re not careful. Prison is a place where you can scream as loudly as you like, but nobody cares to hear you; in fact, the louder you scream the more they laugh at you, so you hold it inside. it is a place where you witness staggering levels of treachery, duplicity, and corruption, but render yourself an outsider if you express a negative opinion about it.

Prison is a place where I grew up and became a man, a place where I took responsibility for the pain I have caused, for my past, my present, and my future. It is a place where my mother gave me the gift of paying for my university education. Prison is a place where I earned by GED (2003), an Associate of Arts degree (2013), a Bachelor of Arts degree in Counseling (2015), a Master’s degree in Counseling (2017), and a Ph.D. in Psychology and Counseling (2021). Prison is a place where I have taken an additional 350 educational units specializing in substance use disorder counseling through an outside academic institution.

Prison is a place where I have earned over 30 certificates from every class and program the Department of Corrections has offered. Prison is a place where I have been a tutor in the GED program for over 15 years, helping over 750 men earn their high school equivalency credentials. it is a place where I have authored four courses for alcohol and drug counselors that have been published for use by clinicians all over the country. Prison is a place where I work to positively impact others every day.

Prison is a place where the stained are hidden from society, a place where no matter how much you change, you are still considered irreparably damaged. It is a place where the regret and empathy you feel and the remorse you display are questioned by those in authority over you and marginalized by those in authority over the system. Prison is a place where the governor told me my efforts at rehabilitation did not warrant an opportunity to see the Parole Board three years early after 22 years of incarceration. Prison is a place where I watched men with less merit and less dedication to rehabilitation be granted early release.

Prison is a place that threatens your perseverance because you know you cannot win. It is a place where enough is never enough, a place where you can never do enough, never accept responsibility enough, become enough, give back enough, positively impact others enough, actualize your own potential enough, or overcome adversity enough to be defined by how you got back up, rather than by how you fell. Prison is a place where rehabilitation doesn’t mean anything.

Prison is a place where the brightness of your accomplishments gets dulled by the uniform you’re required to wear, a place where the lens through which you are viewed is not pointed toward your future but focused on your past. Prison is a place where years of incarceration transform correctional staff into representatives of society who weave resentment into your personality by using dehumanization as a tool, making positive change ever more difficult. It is a place where case workers and rehabilitation managers ware completely absent from your daily experiences but are always present to take credit for your progress in order to make it appear as if they have personally contributed to the success of an otherwise ineffective system.

Prison is a place of emptiness and meaninglessness. It is a place of egocentrism and stagnation. Prison is a place where almost everyone wears a mask, making it impossible to trust anyone. It is a place where people have done horrible things, a place where men run from themselves. Prison is a place where the collective pain left behind by the men in any given room is profound and ugly but almost never thought about by the men in that room. Prison is a place where you can get clean and sober and discover that you are actually a very loving person but have nobody to give that love to, so it decays. Prison is a place where you work your body until the sweat runs down your face in order to hide the tears already there. Prison is a place where freedom is only a confusing sound. It is a place that hurts … all the time. Prison is a place where I am … every … single … day. Prison is a place.

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1 Comment

  1. JailAid

    I wish you still have a chance to see the world and live the rest of your life with your loved ones.

    Reply

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