Prison is exactly as you would imagine it… and nothing like you could ever believe at the same time.
People always ask ‘is it like Orange is the New Black? Is that stuff REAL?’ and I just have to laugh that the perception of the average American is so heavily rooted in our pop-culture that relating to this reference is the easiest way to communicate the truths of what being locked up is really like.
On it’s most basic level much of what you see about prison on TV is accurate: the food is awful, you get very limited contact with loved ones and there is violence. Yes, you can get booze and tattoos and sure even a cell phone or two slips in, but the real hot-ticket marketable items (because the aforementioned are simply much too expensive and/or people really don’t want the trouble) are things that make you feel like a normal person; things like nail polish or makeup or even a kitchen sponge or ziplock bag.
This theatrical dramatization of prison actually only contributes to the problem because it fails to take into account the emotional and mental destruction that happens with a prison sentence and how most inmates have difficulty recovering from this.
Prison is in one word— awful. It’s the day to day degredation that occurs in a system built to punish and not rehabilitate you. It is being removed from your loved ones and only afforded 20 phone calls a month to keep in touch and feeling completely isolated and alone. It is being treated like you are nothing but scum and unworthy by officers who view you as an unsalvageable human being. It is the heartbreak that comes with hoping to be a better person but stuck in a place where you are constantly treated like nothing and not being afforded even the smallest opportunity to do better. It is feeling totally forgotton by everyone you ever cared for and some days wondering if life would be easier if you didn’t wake up because you literally cannot find anything to look forward too (especially if you have a long sentence).
I know, I know, I can hear you now… ‘but you COMMITTED A CRIME!!! You’re a criminal who deserves to be punished and you did this to yourself! I’ve heard it all and I understand and even agree to some extent.
What I don’t agree with is treating people cruelly, inhumanely, herding them like cattle and sticking them in a cell to rot without acknowledging that they are simply people who have made mistakes and allowing them the opportunity for a real second change. I don’t agree with the denial of the basic necessities of life such as clean water and green vegetables. Prison thrives on the mentality that a prison sentence is punishment and not rehabilitation and that is evident in the food we eat which comes labeled in boxes that say “not fit for human consumption” to lack of any medical care or real programs to help with job skills or education.
‘Lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ is by far and away the most prevalent (and may I just say, banal) response I see on news message boards where criminals are the focus of the story. It’s a sad oversimplification of an incredibly complex and far reaching problem and, unfortunately, our society likes to take the path of least resistance even while decrying the criminals they accuse of doing the very same.
Still, no one is infallible and a constant positive outlook and focus on the good is unrealistic even for the most committed. Realistically, you will just have days (or weeks) that suck the energy and heart from you and there’s no getting around it. That’s when it becomes about stamina. It becomes about doing whatever you have to do to hold on until it passes. Some find solace in exercise, some in the escape of books, some in activities and committees and community involvement, some in TV, crafts, work, and a few in sleep. You throw yourself at whatever distraction you can stomach until one day you pick up your head and realize you’ve emerged. You evaluate, and you might find you’re stronger (mentally or physically), you might find you learned something new, you might find you still feel like shit and just roll over and go back to sleep. It’s different for everyone, but the cycle is the same. When you can convince yourself that this thing is not going to beat you, and you start believing in yourself because you have literally seen your success, the stamina comes on its own.
That stamina certainly comes in handy on the days when all you can think about is how much and in how many ways you let down each person you know. You catalog it and revisit it until it becomes like a well worn stone… smooth and easy to run over again and again like a self-deprecating mantra minus the humor. You spend so much time sitting with that stone that eventually the let down becomes more yours than theirs. You own it, you carry it, in a way you protect it. It doesn’t get easier with time… like you hope it will. The dull heaviness becomes so much a part of you that you wonder if you will ever feel light again.
And while you’re busy with your private self-flagellations, the guards and staff are more than happy to assist with the pulverization of the rubble left in the wake of the nuclear meltdown that is your self-esteem. The bring whatever personal problems they have to work and heap it upon those who can do nothing to protect themselves. A piss poor attitude, crappy home-life or simply too much partying the night before and you know inherently that staying out of their field of vision is probably your best bet for the day. We end up reading in our bunk crossing our fingers that they walk on by our door. Some make it their mission to harass on a daily basis regardless of external forces and issues. It is what they believe we ‘deserve’ and they will tell you flat out. Small harassments and degradations over and over morph into a near constant state of paranoia and/or panic. The sound of jingling keys still disconcerts me greatly… heading into two years later.
The lack of physical contact (like hugging and other physical supports) combined with the complete severing of emotional support is yet another layer of trauma heaped upon those in prison. Creating contrived ‘family’ systems is common because people are desperate to have connection and support. The things we all need and crave as human beings to survive emotionally are a luxury anyone convicted and incarcerated no longer deserves. It’s as though society and the system believes that a conviction somehow magically transforms a person from ‘human’ into ‘other’ the way turning 18 magically creates an adult. The first time I hugged my children it was nearly a physical pain it was so surreal and overwhelming at the same time.
These small glimpses into a deep and outrageous rabbit hole can never serve to produce understanding. The only ones who will ever truly understand are the ones we went through with. The ones who fought to be tough but cried into their pillows (or if they were lucky, on a good friend’s shoulder) when it just got to be too much. And they are taken from you the minute you walk out those doors. The government allows no contact between felons still on probation, no matter the circumstances or behavior of the parties. So once again, on the day you are ‘free’… you are starting over in many ways alone.