If you ever sit around the house, feeling like your life is listless, boring and monotonous, and perhaps feel depressed just waking up every morning knowing you’re going to experience it all over again … then cheer up. It could always be worse.
For one thing, you still have the freedom to make changes in your life, to spice it up, invigorate it – a new hairdo, a visit to a nightclub you’ve never been to before to find new friends, maybe a jazzed up Facebook page as a creative challenge.
And besides, look at it another way: at least you’re not in prison. If you think the real world can be tediously bland, you probably don’t know much about the daily routine known as incarceration.
“I’m languishing in my rack,” wrote a friend of mine, in a letter he sent to me during the first month of his two-year incarceration in a Florida prison. “It’s raining so there is no second rec,” or outside recreation. On that day, inmates were stuck inside. The tedium had set in so quickly, he wrote, that just sitting in that prison dorm for hours was maddening. And he still had 19 months to go.
“Hopefully we can visit soon,” he wrote. “I’m also falling into the routine of waking up at 6 (a.m.) for chow, although I never eat it, and getting up to start my day at 8. Make the bed, military regulation, and sit up for count time. Shortly thereafter, we have to go out for first rec, which consists of me walking around the track for a mile and then sitting in the sun getting acquainted for the new day of incarceration. Then, by 11, we are cattle prodded back to our dorms, and we have another count. Yay! Not. Now we twiddle our thumbs until chow, which today consisted of TVP, also known as dog food. Seriously. It is Textured Vegetable Protein, a main ingredient in all canned dog food. It’s made by Purina. Scrumptious. Now we are herded back to our dorms, where we usually sit until second rec, which today was rained out. Now I wait until 4, then we have another count. Then chow. Then rec. Then count. Then mail call. Then bed. Hooray.”
If it sounds intolerable, I can tell you that as the long months drag on, the inmate gets more and more demoralized by this routine. They find less and less to be hopeful or optimistic about, less to look forward to, and, when they call you from the prison phone or when you visit them at their facility, it’s a pretty depressing experience.
During that first orientation week in prison, before he was given the privilege of making phone calls or getting visits from family and friends, my buddy wrote about how emotionally difficult it was to feel so completely alone in that crowded prison.
“Without talking to y’all, I have the habit of being more aggressive/Alpha maleish,” he wrote in his first letter to me. “I’m missing everyone like crazy. Not being able to talk to or see anyone has taken its toll, causing a few scraps, but I fared better than the other guy. I need to talk to y’all, I need reassurance.”
I know people who can spend an entire lunchtime complaining about how hopelessly vanilla their lives are, how they wish they weren’t stuck in a rut, how they feel like life has no “meaning” (sigh). Even the television shows don’t interest them anymore — oh, the horror! They love a good shoulder to cry on, and I can toss out a sympathetic smile like the best of them …. much as I’m more often tempted to ask if they’d like some cheese and crackers with their whine. But mostly I really want to say, Be so thankful you still have your freedom. They know they do, and that’s the problem; they don’t know what to do with it.
Which made me wonder what my 24-year-old friend would be like, starting in January, when his two-year prison sentence came to an end and he was coming home? Now, having observed him for the past month, I can say freedom is a roller coaster ride of rather extreme highs and lows for a convicted felon now out of prison, and if you’re wondering if prison changes these inmates, I can say no.
Before he got sent to prison, my friend was outgoing, lively, a great practical joker. I was surprised at how quickly he reverted back to all three once he got released, although I finally recognized that this was a part of the roller coaster at a high point. After all, he was free – no more prison dorms, no more corrections officers to answer to, no more prison food. I watched him devour a steak with a smile so bright it lit up the room. It was like having my old friend back again, before he got violated by his probation officer in the spring of 2010.
And yet … has he changed in other ways? Absolutely. He has a visible temper now, one that flashes more frequently than it ever did before prison. I had assumed that was going to be the case, and haven’t made much out of it. But what I did find intriguing was a conversation we had a week ago, as I was driving him home, which told me quite a bit about the two separate emotional planets he and I live on now. I hadn’t thought much about how prison toughens you up — and I don’t mean physically. In order to survive such an experience, shutting down your emotions is probably a necessity. Being a tough guy who can take whatever is thrown your way becomes a critical survival tool.
My friend pointed that out as he described his first day in prison, when he watched a bombastic corrections officer hassle an older Latino inmate who didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand what the officer was ordering him to do. When my friend mouthed off to the corrections officer, he got a quick response, all right: the corrections officer walked over to him – and maced him. His eyes now painfully blinded, he was dragged into the shower to wash it off.
My friend told me this story without the slightest hint of pity; he spoke in a flat, emotionless voice, like he was describing how he had repainted his apartment. And I didn’t realize it at first, but tough, Alpha male guys like my buddy tell these stories to other men so they’ll respond by banging their fist on the table and saying Know what, if that had been me, I would have said to the guard, you wanna mace me? Go ahead, I don’t care. Do it again. You don’t scare me.
Then they both smile and think, time spent in prison? I can take it. Hell, yeah.
But that’s not how Mike Freeman responded. Instead, in a very heartfelt voice, I said, “I’m so, so sorry. That’s a terrible thing that happened to you, and I’m so sorry you had to go through that. You didn’t deserve that.”
As he listened, my friend’s cheeks turned a slight shade of red, and then, clearly flustered, he grumbled, “Mike, shut up!”
I was startled by that. “What? What did I say?”
In a highly annoyed voice, as he cringed a bit, he added, “You’re so gay. I don’t want to hear all this feelings stuff …”
And that, my friends, was my introduction to the notion that prison inmates hate sensitivity and prefer some macho grandstanding instead. Silly me. Boy, did he pick the wrong friend.
And yet, there was a recent morning when I picked up him to drive him to work and, in an incredibly rare show of emotion, he talked about the down side of freedom, post-incarceration.
He has no driver’s license, and no car. He has no credit cards, and no recent work history. But he does have responsibilities piling up, including the need to provide for the care of his young son. And for the first time since he got released, he opened up to me, enough to admit that he had spent hours that night, lying in bed unable to sleep, worried about how he was going to support his family. He doesn’t open up like that very often – he’s the classic tough guy with the steel exterior who can take anything you throw at him.
Listening to him, I couldn’t help think of my gainfully employed friends with nice cars and fancy apartments who complain all day about their state of ennui. Boo hoo, boo hoo. I’m starting to lose patience with their “sorry” lives.
The first time my friend wrote to me, in June 2010, he opened up like that a few times – describing his fear that he might get sent to a prison so far from Orlando that family and friends couldn’t make the long drive to visit him.
“You promised you’d come see me every week, don’t forget!” he wrote.
He mentioned the letters I had sent him, and added, “Thanks, man, it definitely boosts my spirits, makes me feel like I might not be alone after all.”
Because in the same letter, he also wrote about one fear that was nagging at him daily.
“I’m just worried,” he wrote, “that y’all will stop giving a s**t about me and what not.”
That didn’t happen, either with me, his girlfriend, or his family. But I can understand why he was so nervous in the beginning.
Now he’s free. Sometimes he’s so exhilarated by it that it’s like being with a kid at an amusement park. Other times he feels so much pressure from his new responsibilities that he’s tense and all wound up like a rattlesnake.
But at least he’s in control of his future now, as exciting and intimidating at it may seem — often, at the exact same time.
Not everyone, I’ve discovered, appreciates having that joyous freedom handed to them, gift-wrapped and all.
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