Being incarcerated is one of the hardest things that any human being will ever have to endure, and this is coming from someone who just finished up 19 months in a minimum security prison camp for wire fraud. For over 90% of Americans, or 66% of African Americans as 1 in 3 will see prison at some point in their life, a place like the one I was just released from (or worse) will never be a residence that you will take up.
In retrospect now that I am free from that environment and have time to reflect I realized that I too had assumptions and misconceptions about those that were incarcerated, but this has opened my eyes to the fact that literally anyone can make a mistake and end up here. Being mixed in with mostly inmates working their way down from maximum security prison and a small percentage of “white collar” (professional) inmates that came straight from society has taught me a few “prison lessons” that I now realize apply just as much to the real world.
Here are five of them:
1. Survival of the fittest
Darwinism at its finest and a term coined by Herbert Spencer. Fitness is the key to living a successful life in Prison and in society. People are only given one body in the world and the health of it will determine whether an individual is put in a position to be successful. Being unhealthy in Prison is a weakness, not to mention based on the guaranteed poor medical care, will result in nothing but negative results. There is an extreme necessity for self-reliance to survive in this environment and this issue is controllable. A person is alone in prison, regardless of how many associates they decide to be around. Placing an emphasis on eating as healthy as possible -whether that is making time to prepare food personally or making smart choices – and exercising regularly must be a priority in life.
2. People are selfish
what is selfishness? Being self-involved without the regard for other’s feelings or needs and wondering how some act is going to affect them personally. The truth of the matter is everyone is entitled to be selfish. There is a need for a healthy dose of selfishness in order to obtain goals and dreams. However, narcissism does run rampant in Prison, just as it does in society. The key is learning not to take selfishness personally, that is probably the hardest part of being in Prison – the selfishness of friends and family left behind and the inmates and staff of the current living situation. Understanding where someone is coming from is crucial to learning how to deal with people – it’s not absolving them of their behavior, but merely acknowledging the circumstances surrounding them that could be influencing said behavior. The key to dealing with individuals, whether you keep them around in life or not, is to not assume why they are this way and allow them to explain themselves – regardless of how much it might hurt. Having empathy and sympathy to others is important to a happy life behind bars and in society.
3. You ARE Replaceable.
Life isn’t fair. Get over it. This is something I am sure everybody has heard and it’s the absolute truth. Going to prison, regardless of if it was a known possibility in your decision making, will change your life significantly. That great girlfriend, wife, fiancé, job, career, house, car… The “I Love You” sentiments will be gone as soon as the nostalgia ends and “out of sight, out of mind” kicks in, or the government repossesses the hard-earned possessions, or the job finds out criminal charges are pressed. Just like in the real world, it takes a moment to sit back and remember no individual is special, just current. Having a sense of self-awareness and emotional intelligence goes a long way to ensuring continued success. Constantly learn and make a concerted effort to improve regularly to become better and attract the potential earnings and attention of ones that deserve to be around. Prison teaches that nothing is guaranteed, it has to be earned regularly.
4. Mental health is important.
Isolation, fear, longing for a connection with loved ones. Losing those loved ones. Dealing with people that seem to have no understanding of friendship and empathy. That is prison every day for millions of individuals in the United States. Honestly, it breaks a lot of people down and it’s because the coping skills necessary to overcome grief are amplified when there is no outlet. Hopefully in the real world it should be a little easier. Take mental breaks to reflect on what is truly important at the end of the day. The significant other takes off and abandons the relationship, it happens and it definitely hurts. A family member, or some other loved one, dies or the stress of the world seems to weigh heavily on one’s shoulders. Take time to recover because stress and sadness aren’t only feelings and emotions. It has a physiological, physical, and emotional toll on a person and can lead to significant breaks downs internally. Remember pain is normal, but letting a situation that is beyond one’s control have even more devastating effects – that can be preventable.
5. Self-entitlement doesn’t exist.
This is probably one of my favorites. This is seen from a lot of people that come from a privileged life in the “real world” and come into the prison system. All the accolades from college, that great career before ending up behind bars, and what zip code one grew up in mean nothing in Prison. It’s all stripped from a person the moment they walk through the fence or concrete wall depending on how bad the criminal offense. This is where character shows from a person. The above mentioned combination of: emotional intelligence, health, talent, communication, and determination dictate success not previous wins and family pedigree. The only thing self-entitlement gets a person is a target on their back and a fear that is unrelenting. In the real world self-entitled individuals are labeled cocky, conceited, and selfish. Ensure the utilization of the four previously mentioned lessons to engage others and be seen as a member of society and not a user of it.
These are just a few of the important lessons learned when leaving society to enter a world that is: misunderstood, unknown, and downright scary. The Prison system is a misappropriated blow to the life of an individual that followed the traditional paths of life instilled by society. Entering a place that exists on television for most of society and learning the truth and how to navigate it were equally as hard. It’s imperative one harnesses character; part of that character is their integrity. More so that in real life, inmates and staff have seen all the “tricks of the trade” as they deal with more known criminals and con-artists in their day to day lives. When they find offenders, who simply made a mistake in judgement, or convicts that have changed their lives for the better – they embrace them as people to be appreciated in an environment that does nothing but reinforce negative behavior and creates a line right back through the same door when they finally leave, all because they didn’t learn these 5 lessons they should have learned inside the Prison system.