Doing time in prison is a universally difficult experience, and the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated came in totally unprepared for life on the inside. As a result, most come out worse than when they went in, but a few defy the odds and overcome the prison environment in order to transcend the mistakes of their past and become better people. I have been incarcerated for 20 years now, and I’ve learned a few things about doing time well. Hopefully you will never need this information, but if you have a loved one going to prison, you might think about letting them read this.
What is of utmost importance is that the time be used productively, which does not happen automatically – nobody is set up for success upon entering the prison system. However, the ultimate deciding factor that shapes everything else about the time spent on the inside is the choice to take responsibility for your actions and not blame others. We put ourselves here – not the broken homes in which we grew up not the police or the district attorney or the judge, and not the correctional officers who run the prison. We did this, and we must not only recognize that fact, but we must also own the pain and turmoil left in our wake before we can move forward with our lives. Unless we do that, we will not have an effective springboard from which to launch, and we will be trapped in a destructive cycle of compensation behaviors that impede growth and stifle the actualization of inner potential.
Once we have taken responsibility for the pain we have caused others by our selfish actions, we regain the power to determine the direction of our lives. We are not victims of circumstance, and when we internalize this reality, we can use our time in prison to learn how to grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We can summon the motivation and determination to stay physically healthy, and we can expand our understanding of what it means to be a good person. Through relentless practice, we can make prison time an advantage in our pursuit of meaning and purpose. Yet, we still must do the time.
There are six primary things to avoid in prison. A failure to circumvent them effectively will, without a doubt, make the prison experience far more difficult. Gangs, drugs, gambling, informing on other inmates (ratting), homosexual activity, and talking about other inmates are all issues that have no good outcome. They should be avoided with vigor.
Gangs can offer acceptance, a degree of companionship, and the protection of numbers, but they come at a price – you are not your own. If you throw in with a group on the inside, you are no longer able to do your own thing. Using drugs in prison will put you in debt fast, and owing people in prison opens the door for violence and financial or sexual exploitation, you never want to put yourself at the mercy of sociopaths. Gambling holds another potential for exploitation, and sharks often swim in the waters that surround poker tables and sports books. Tread with extreme caution. Rats get hurt – never tell on anyone, and keep that which is not your business, not your business. Whether you are gay, bisexual, straight or anything else, homosexual activity in prison is never a good idea. It attracts the wrong crowd, invites predators, and can lead to violence, disease and victimization. Finally, keep other people’s names out of your mouth – if you don’t talk about anyone, then your words can’t be misrepresented.
Avoiding these six things will increase your safety and personal peace exponentially. The overwhelming majority of problems on the inside flow from one of these six issues. Those who come to prison often miss this fact, and whether through ignorance or a lack of self-control, get caught up in a cycle of violence and exploitation.
How you carry yourself is crucial as well. Be respectful both to staff members and other inmates. If you are respectful, you will usually receive a greater degree of respect from others. Don’t be a tough guy or a bully – it’s ugly, and all it does is show everyone how insecure you are. However, you must stand up for yourself, but that doesn’t always mean a physical fight. Communication and authenticity, although frightening and countercultural in a prison setting, will often lead to positive resolutions. Yet, there may be times when you must physically defend yourself, and if you are confronted physically, fight back. Defend yourself, but do it ethically – you do not need to stand tall in here, but you do need to stand up.
Prison is an honor culture where often seemingly insignificant slights can be met with sudden violence, but losing a fight does not always mean a loss of respect. Yet, a failure to defend yourself will lead to exploitation every time. Be mindful, however, and do not set out to hurt anyone – if you knock your opponent down, allow him to get back up or leave him be. Do not follow him to the ground or kick him, and never use a weapon – you don’t want new criminal charges. Violence is inevitable in prison, but you should make sure yours is defensive and never offensive.
It is also important to establish a routine. Get into a groove, set some goals, and work towards accomplishing them. Use smaller goals as milestones on the journey toward reaching the larger ones. Put your head down and put in some work on yourself and your life. Your time will pass quicker, and your self-esteem will improve as you see progress in your life.
Resist institutionalization. That is, depend as little as possible on the system. The encroachment of a certain amount of institutionalization is inevitable after years of incarceration, but an over-reliance upon routine, on others, on processes can lead to helplessness, anxiety, and an avoidance of people. Change your routine up from time to time. Get out of your safe space once in a while – growth begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Stay active and stay social. You may not always like those around you, but you need to stay human. Just be careful with whom you associate – remember, most of the people in prison are untrustworthy, and they will drag you into their drama. Some warning signs are those who have been to prison several times, talk bad about others behind their backs, fight a lot, are highly manipulative or exploitive, racist, overly controlling or overly nice, gang members, bring negative energy, complain a lot, are creepy or make you uncomfortable – if any of these are observable in a person, you should disengage. Be kind and cordial, but keep them at arms length and never do business with them.
I have been here for two decades, and in all that time, I have only met 4 people I consider friends, people I trust. In prison, you’ve got to accept that there will be extended periods of loneliness – savor the moments of genuine laughter and peace. They are often few and far between. Prison time is slow time, empty time. You’ve got to fill it with positive things or the darkness will cling to your personality and control your thoughts and behaviors. Fill your time with education, spirituality, reading, exercise, healthy competition, or anything that relieves stress and makes you better – and do it on purpose. Don’t sleep all day and do your time feeling sorry for yourself. Get up and grow!
Finally, no matter how much time you are doing, whether a lot or a little, remember you get out someday – that day will arrive and in order to be successful when it does, you need to be prepared for it. Seek vocational training if you can, acquire some skills you can use in the pursuit of your future. Increase your social skills, job interviewing techniques, self-control, and anger management. Save money and NEVER screw over the people who have helped you while you were on the inside. The universe aids the honorable, and luck favors the well-prepared. When preparation meets opportunity, potential can be actualized.
Look, it is really up to you. You get to decide what kind of person you are going to be each day. You can be a thug, self-centered and dangerous. You can be addicted to substances or behaviors. You can be a car thief or burglar. You can be a liar and a cheat if you want to be, but you don’t have to be – while it may not feel like it, it is very much a choice. Do you want to be in and out of prison the rest of your life? The department of Corrections will keep a light on and a bunk open for you. Sure, it is easier to come back to prison after you have been here, but it is your life. You can squander it behind these iron bars and razor-wired fences. You can either become someone who overcomes the mistakes of his past, or you can be defined by them and doomed to repeat them. Doing time well means coming out of prison a better person than when you went in to prison. The deck may very well be stacked against you, but enough with the excuses. Don’t follow the crowd. Do the time; don’t let the time do you.
Not proper grammar, to be sure, but this was the response I sent Melissa when I got the news. The feeling I had was one of pure elation. It was as close to having a religious experience as I have had in a decade – so much so, that my total outlook since that day has only been positive. I have learned to feel joy again, to embrace hope.
In this current climate, it seems that good news, real good news, just doesn’t happen that often. I asked myself why, pondered the possible answers, and then asked myself why not? When I was a free man the only person who was truly responsible for my happiness was me. Oh sure other people could influence me and my moods but in the end it was my choice to be happy or not happy.
In prison I am told what to eat, when to eat, when to work, when to sleep and even when to use the restroom. Yes, even when to urinate. Every aspect of my life is controlled. Many of those over me feel they are not doing their job if they ever see me or another inmate smile. Yet I smile.
Do you wish to create some good news in the world? I know I do. Here is how you, just one person, can change the world. Adopt an inmate. It’s simple, pain-free and a great way to prove that one person can change the world.
What adoption means is simply making a pledge, a commitment, to correspond with an inmate by snail mail or e-mail. You can give hope to someone who has lost faith in human compassion — to somebody who most likely has lost everyone they ever loved or cared about.
Everything about prison slowly strips your humanity away. Everything about prison teaches you not to trust anyone. It is a vicious cycle that turns men who made a mistake into career criminals and some men into worse. The average inmates I know developed an inferiority complex and began to resent society as a whole. We miss the real world so much that it turns into frustration and helplessness. All it takes to stop the trend is an angel with a few minutes to spare each month.
For many of us, it is as if time has stopped and we are trapped in a bubble. For me every day was February 12, 2012. I was broken until Mrs. C adopted me.
On April 7th, 2018, I received a polite, well-written e-mail from a complete stranger. It was short and to the point, but for me, a total stranger was treating me with respect. What? I had forgotten what it felt like to be treated like this. Mrs. C ended the e-mail with “All my best.” I was in shock. Later that day I received a second e-mail, and again Mrs. C was polite. She wrote me as if I were a long-lost friend who had merely lost contact with her, or so it felt. After I finally came out of shock, I was sure it was a mistake.
The following day I received an e-mail from Melissa from Adopt an Inmate, telling me I had been adopted by Mrs. C. It was after I reread that email for the fourth or fifth time that I realized the too-good-to-be-true woman who was treating me like a real person was true. GASP. It was not a mistake. I cried over the good news, then my clock started back up, it was no longer February 12, 2012.
I will forever be grateful to Mrs. C and dedicate this article to her. We e-mail back and forth a few times a week and I feel human again.
You want to change the world for someone? It can be done. It takes only a little effort. Mrs. C agreed to contact me once a month, but has gone beyond this. Thank you Mrs. C., for being a light in my darkness.
What adopting an inmate is not. It is not a dating service. It is not putting money on phone or commissary account or paying for a food box. You are not being asked to do anything more than treat a human humanely. You really can change the world by corresponding with one person.
You can talk about the weather, what famous movies were filmed near you, books, or trends. I suggest that politics and religion be avoided at all cost.
Inmates who get adopted should show respect for those who adopt them. Mrs. C is somebody I find witty and funny. I care not that she lives on the other side of the planet and I will never meet her.
A stranger has done for me what my family and friends would not.
I have once again realized that even in here, I am ultimately responsible for my own happiness. This is something my counselors have been saying for years. It took Mrs. C, her compassion, and her kindness for me to come to this conclusion on my own.
Thank you, Mrs. C., thank you, Melissa and everyone at Adopt an Inmate.
*Note: Boundless is correct, we ask for nothing beyond regular correspondence. We do have adopters who also choose to call and/or visit, put money on an inmate’s commissary account, send books or an occasional package. I have some adopters who send Christmas gifts to their adoptee’s children for Christmas or birthdays. All of these acts of kindness are appreciated, but not required.
We have a backlog right now, but with help from some dedicated volunteers we are working through the list, and continue to welcome all requests. If you’re one of the waiting adopters – expect to hear from us soon! Feel free to email us to see where you are on the list.
These days people can be quick to tell you what’s wrong with our society, and we all have canned solutions to almost every problem — just add water and simmer for 15 minutes… problem solved. I do it myself all the time. Give me a half-an-hour, and I can tell you how to solve healthcare, poverty, mass incarceration, you name it, and I have no doubt you have some good ideas yourself. But being passionate in the abstract is easy. What counts is how we deal with them when we actually are blessed with the opportunity to do something real.
See, doing something about the seemingly insignificant injustices we encounter in our immediate environment is risky, and therefore … more difficult. Affecting change universally brings negative blowback, whether from skeptical friends, ignorant or frightened colleagues, or the generally unforgiving social environment. However, the question for all of us echos throughout time: Do the changes we seek in our country matter more than any potential repercussions we may experience as a result of a decision to challenge the injustices we see? And if the answer is no, then stop telling people what’s wrong with the world. The opinions of those unwilling to change the world when given the platform and opportunity are like the sound of flatulence — humorous at best, but generally disgusting, unless of course, they’re your own.
Let me give you an example. This prior week, I was at work when another inmate, a young, black man and co-worker, asked me for advice. He then described a situation that made him uncomfortable (and me somewhat angry): One of his supervisors, who is not incarcerated, made an inappropriate and racist comment to him, framed as a joke, but in front of several other guys of all races. He explained that the comment not only perturbed him because of its inaccuracy and stereotyped underpinnings, but also made his job more difficult because he still was required to work with all those who heard it.
I gave him what I thought was sound advice. I encouraged him to speak with a staff member I know to be generally receptive and sensitive to issues like this. However, the person whom I thought would be willing to stand up against racism … simply wasn’t. The staff member described feeling uneasy about disrespecting the other staff member (the one who made the racist comment) by getting involved. In fact, in this meeting the young man was actually accused of a prior lack of professionalism, implicitly suggesting he somehow deserved the racist comment. Basically, the young black man was told to go to someone else if he wanted help, which saddened me, but I’m not naive about the prison environment.
Yet, I can’t help but find it disheartening. Picture a dog kennel, rows of dogs in cages and several dog handlers performing the duties of their jobs, feeding, cleaning, and otherwise caring for the animals. If one dog handler were verbally abusing one of the dogs, the other handlers would not hesitate to speak up. But incarcerated human beings apparently are often not as worthy of advocacy as dogs. Unfortunately, the very concept of rehabilitation will remain a farce until the men and women in prison are viewed and treated as human beings with inherent dignity and worthy of respect, regardless of their past mistakes, and dealt with as people who will one day return to the community.
I could allow myself to feel depressed and wallow in the injustice of it all, but I’m very mindful of the fact that I put myself here. I’m not the victim; I’ve hurt a lot of people. But even still, I can learn from those unwilling to use their power and platform to make positive change when called upon by the powers of fate.
The same night I experienced that unfortunate situation at work, I saw a gay kid being picked on by someone I know. I thought of what I witnessed at work as an example of what not to do, so I stepped in to stand up for the kid. Sure I took a little heat, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time that kid is picked on. And I certainly can’t be there for him everytime he has a problem. But I was able to help him that time. I did the right thing because I could, even though doing the right thing ain’t easy. But changing the world will never be easy, even if we all pitch in, which clearly … we don’t.