Lesson From Behind the Wall

In prison a person loses freedoms that are usually taken for granted by people in society.wp_20140701_008He or she is forced to revert to a child-like state by becoming dependent on correction officers for nearly everything. The loss of autonomy and individuality are instantly lost upon entering prison.

New prisoners will be shocked to know their hair will be completely shaved; their clothes swapped with uniforms to identify their new subordinate status; their names will be stripped from them and replaced with Department Identification Numbers. As a one officer at Downstate Correctional Facility put it, “You are no longer who you thought you were. You are now itemized inventory and property of the New York State Correctional Services. That means that I am your mommy, your pappy, your higher power. You do not do anything without my permission, that includes walking, talking, eating, shifting. If I catch one of you so much as even chocking your chickens without my permission you’ll regret it. Do I make myself clear?”

The dehumanization of prisoners begins when new arrivals are assigned identification numbers which they are forced to memorize and recite at any given time. It soon becomes clear that the I.D. number, which is used for everything from receiving mail from loved ones to using the phone, is more important than your name, social security number, and even birth date. Some prisoners have recited their DIN numbers so much that they can recall their DINs from previous prison visits.

This process of dehumanization is further evidenced by the treatment of prisoners by the guards. Correctional officers sometimes ignore, neglect, and even physically and verbally abuse prisoners on a daily basis. They are trained to adhere to pre-set rules, regulations, and policies that do not consider the human element of their jobs. Some officers despise prisoners or are not happy with their jobs so they exert their frustrations out on prisoners.

Other guards are born and raised in predominately white neighborhoods and a prison setting is the only time they have come in contact with other racial or ethnic groups, which make up most of the New York Prison population. When combined with stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media these guards are almost conditioned to treat prisoners in an unethical and dehumanizing manner.

It is also important to point out the idea of retribution. It is a common belief that most people break the law in order to come to prison. Some people victimize innocent people in the commission of their crimes. Correctional officers may feel justified in their treatment of prisoners. As if they are paying them back for their crimes; however, it is not the responsibility of the officers to hand down any punishment to the prisoners, society has bestowed that duty on the judge that handed the prisoner his or her sentence in a court of law before a jury of peers.

Depending on the prisoner’s self-esteem, coping mechanisms, emotional stability, mental capacity, and intelligence, the guards’ behavior can greatly affect the prisoner’s psyche and shape his adjustment to the institution, and ultimately upon their return to society.

The number one idea which will greatly affect a prisoner’s time in prison is to come to accept that although there are many injustices within prison walls, there is nothing in his, or her, power to change that. There are countless stories of prisoners who spent their time trying to change what they could not change—only to lose their minds, fall in deep depressions, even commit suicide. By focusing on the things they cannot change, some prisoners find themselves constantly frustrated, dissatisfied, stressed, and physically sick. Let’s not ignore the hair loss that sometimes accompanies stress, and the wrinkles that come from constant worry. This is one of many reasons why prison is filled with young men who have lost their hair and look twice their age.

The first lesson learned by person during incarceration is to channel energies into the only thing can be controlled: Reactions to event as they happen!

In his book A Man ‘s Search for Meaning, author Viktor Frankl shared his experience as a hostage in a Nazi Concentration camp during World War Il. During his stay he was forced to work under some of the harshest conditions known to man: The guards were constantly abusive to say the least, he would go days without eating a single slice of bread, and he was forced to work long hours in cold weather without wearing socks. All of this, after he lost his family to the same conditions, or to cold-blooded, racially motivated murder. Frankl came to the conclusion that the Nazis had stripped him of everything except one thing: His ability to choose how he would respond to the uncontrollable event in his new existence.

Know this: No one can control you, but YOU! You are the author of your life, creator of your thoughts, and architect of your circumstances. No one can force you to feel sad, frustrated, happy, or angry without your permission. In the face of unchangeable and uncontrollable circumstances the only power you have is how you choose to respond. Do not, by any means, cede this power to anyone or anything.This means  you can also decide how to interpret or view any situation. You have the power to see an opportunity where others will only see challenges; happiness where others see only sadness.

One of the mental tactics that I used throughout the thirteen years of my incarceration was to reframe the situation. If I came across a difficult person—whether an officer or another prisoner—instead of becoming frustrated or angry, I would tell myself that here was an excellent opportunity to practice patience and develop tolerance. In fact, if there was one characteristic that I acquired during my stay in prison it was the ability to withstand pain, inconvenience, and hardship without complaint. Some people call this characteristic resilience, a very useful character trait to have in the real world.

You’ll find that by focusing on the things you can control rather than on the things that you cannot, your time in prison will become easier to manage. You will also find that your perspective of time will change and as a result your sentence will speed up. You will no longer focus on not being able to go home when you want, or why your family has yet to respond to your letters, or the harsh treatment by officers. Instead, you will look at your goals and consciously work to accomplish them and then set new goals. Since the goals you set for yourself are attainable and not impossible to accomplish (in other words they are within your control), you will be confident that you can achieve them. This confidence will translate into a feeling of happiness on a daily basis—an important key to doing time.


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