"We are all teachers, and what we teach we learn, and so we teach it over and over again until we learn." – – From "A Course in Miracles"
There are always new people coming to prison, people of all different types and backgrounds. Some have been locked up many times before or have spent their entire lives on the street, in the "hood", and are already wise to the dog – eat – dog ways of prison. These are generally gang members and they tend to take care of (as much as take advantage of) one another. But many new to prison have never been in trouble with the law before and are essentially just regular, albeit troubled, people and totally naïve when it comes to the jungle of life inside. These folks are easy targets for the predatory gangster culture, especially if they have any financial support from home. It's up to those of us who have been in here for a while to school these news guys and help them out of trouble as much as possible.
And there's a lot to learn. Prison is a whole different world with its own set of customs and rules. What follows is my advice to anyone just entering prison for the first time.
Rule 1: don't talk; listen. People who are scared and anxious tend to talk a lot to cover up their fear and insecurities, and they don't realize that they're just putting their nervousness and ignorance on display. As much as you might want to persuade others how unafraid – – how tough, how smart – – you are; as much as you want to discuss your court case and how badly you were screwed over; as much as you want to share your troubles and bitch and moan; as much as you can't wait to tell someone your life story; keep it to yourself. Nobody wants to hear it. You're new. Nobody cares about what you have to say – – they care about how you act. Which brings us to…
Rule 2 and, perhaps, the most important one of all: keep your cool. No matter how crazy others may behave and how chaotic your surroundings may become, remain calm. Try your best not to let things bother you; and believe me, it's all going to bother you at first. Do your best not to react with violence when provoked; and you will be provoked. Some guys will want to "check your papers" to see what you're made of. Depending on how you handle this, you may have to fight every day for months, or you'll be left in peace. Be brave and show no fear. Fear and weakness are what they want to see. Remember that words can't hurt you. But if your hit or pushed, you have to fight back. There's no running away in here, and if you don't fight back – –if you don't show some backbone, some character – –you'll be labeled a coward and a punk and your time in prison will only be that much harder. But fighting should always be a last resort, of course. Keeping your cool at all times will also keep the peace
Rule 3: be friendly, but not too damn friendly. The vast majority of us coming to prison are actually good, decent people despite our crimes, which were usually a result of us losing our minds for a time. So, to be a nice person is just second nature. But there are also many in here who take kindness for weakness and who will try to take advantage of you. It may start with "borrowing" your commissary items, but soon they'll be hitting you up on a regular basis, taking as much as they can get. And new guys are often too intimidated to just say no. As much as it may go against your natural inclination to be kind and generous, you need to be aware that not everyone is as honest and trustworthy as yourself and that is important to set boundaries and limits to how much you can give. Basically, don't be a chump.
Rule 4: don't let prison or your crime define who you are. You may have made a colossal mistake, or series of them. But you're not a bad person. Don't let the constant belittling and humiliation by the guards and others within the System bring you down or make you as unforgiving and hateful as they are. Don't get so caught up in the prison lifestyle that you became come so institutionalized that you can't function – – or don't want to function – – in the free world someday. Try not to let depression get the better of you (easier said than done). Your life is not over. Though you may not be happy, you can still learn and grow a lot in prison, and that is the whole point of our earthly existence, after all. Definitely feel remorse for your crimes but don't dwell on it to the point where you don't allow yourself to learn from your mistakes and move on. You may have been an idiot for a moment or an asshole for quite a while, but that is not who you really are and you know it. You can still become the person you want be; you can still become proud of the person you are now, regardless of who you were then.
Which brings us to another Piece of Advice…
Rule 5: make the most of your time in here. Think of it as an opportunity to get your heart and mind right. At first you're going to be spending a lot of time reflecting on your life, remembering every good thing your now missing and every mistake you've ever made, no matter how small. Use this process to learn how you could've made better choices and decisions, but try not to beat yourself up too badly over it all (again, easier said than done). Think about how you're going to live your life differently once you're freed someday. Educate yourself. Regardless of whether there are any educational or vocational programs offered at your unit ( or not due to the state's budget crisis), there are plenty of other ways to expand your mind. Visit the library as much as possible if you have one. Get your hands on some of the many books newspapers, and magazines floating around your living area. If you're blessed with support from family and friends, request that they send books on things like history, science, philosophy, and anything else you'd like to learn about. Study spirituality: believe it or not, there really is a Divine Reality, and we really are all spiritual beings having a physical experience on Earth; and the verifiable proof of this can be found in many excellent books (see my book HERE). Learn to meditate. Get in shape: start an exercise routine, do yoga, try fasting.
For those of us who essentially have life sentences and who may very well end up dying in here, and who may feel they have no reason or incentive to better themselves as they'll probably never again be part of society, all I can say is "do it for yourself." For example, I may no longer be able to live life as it's meant to be lived, but I can prepare for my eventual death by getting my heart and mind right for God, so to speak. The daily challenges thrown at us by prison life are perfect for practicing forgiveness and loving kindness. The abundance of "free" time we enjoy is perfect for spending in contemplation and meditation. Where countless people in the free world are caught up in the struggles for survival or the materialism of the rat race, we in prison can devote our lives to learning and growing spiritually; and in that we are the fortunate ones.
Those are the main points I try to get across. Plus, of course, there's plenty of advice on just dealing with the daily life of prison. "Etiquette" is always a big deal where you have so many people crammed into such a small place. And there are all sorts of pointers for getting along with the other person in a 6 x 9' cell like (flush, flush, flush!). Not to mention the little convict tricks like lighting a smoke using pencil leds and an electric outlet, or how to build a tattoo gun out of a radio, or how to make a gourmet meal with Ramen noodles. Like I said, it's a different world and a whole insane new way of life for many people just entering the System.
"We are all on earth to help others. What the others are here for
My good buddy Jethro is a big, strapping guy and not someone you'd like to get in a tussle with. He is serving a 20 year sentence for beating a man to death. But he's also one of the nicest people you'd ever care to meet. Despite his predicament, he's always quick with a smile and a friendly comment for everyone; and he makes a practice of defending those inmates unable to defend themselves.
For instance, the other day, it was brought to his attention that a feeble, 75-year-old man new to prison was being taken advantage of by a few bad characters. This poor guy was regularly intimidated into giving away the contents of his locker whenever he went to the commissary. Though I doubt that those thugs would've actually beat him up, I would not put it past them, and the threat was enough. So, at some considerable risk to himself, Jethro stepped in and confronted them. Of course, being a big guy and an experienced fighter make this easier to do, but anyone who's been in here long enough knows full well that in a three on one fight the biggest and baddest can get their ass kicked pretty severely.
After first trying to reason with them failed, he tried shaming them: "Look at you tough guys picking on a little old man!" And when that didn't work, he told them "Look, I have no choice. I can't stand by and just watch you treat this poor guy like this. If you won't leave him alone, I'm going to have to beat the hell out of all of you. And then you'll really be ashamed of yourself. What do you say? I'm ready to do this right now. Are you?" He knew, and they knew, that he most likely would be on the losing end of that battle, but his courage and strength of character impressed them enough to not only back off but to give the old man much of his commissary items back.
This isn't the only time Jethro has come to the rescue of another inmate in such a situation. He is a regular champion for the weak and defenseless in prison. But it's not something he brags about or that many people know about. What's more admirable to me is that he never just throws his weight around, although he could, but instead always does his best to first talk the problem through. Only once has it ever come to blows: he didn't do so well but it did the trick.
Despite his horrible crime (committed while out of his mind on drugs and alcohol), I'm happy to call him my friend.
Thanks again, as always, for listening and caring. Bye for now.
– – Eric