Imagine being an invalid or elderly. In your mind there live desires for simple things such as a walk on the beach, an ice cream cone or maybe a visit with a friend, but there’s no way to attain those desires without help. Now imagine being physically and mentally able, yet completely restricted by the function of your environment. You can’t because that is the nature of prison and it creates an overwhelming sense of helplessness that reduces your thoughts to the most essential needs. You’re told when and what to eat, wear, sleep, stand and sit, with whom you may speak, what you can say and for how long. It’s an endless list of controls no one can possibly follow, unless of course they’re mindless automatons who’ve surrendered their will.
Maybe, if you’re daring, you read, write and think outside the box. Even then there are restrictions in place that make this difficult. We depend on censored books and other materials via the prison library or friends and family kind enough to send them. With the advent of the internet’s accessibility to information the prison simply tightened security until only tiny cracks remained.
Nevertheless, the entire day is spent waiting, for one thing or another to enter your world because of all the places and institutions in society prison is the most static. Your schedule, whether you like it or not, is the prison’s schedule.
Time has a way of slipping by as if we were rocks stuck at the bottom of a river. As society moves at its usual pace we stand grounded in the mistakes of the past. Moving on here can occur if there is a real effort, but the system, our punishment will never move on. Even as many death row prisoners have their sentences overturned or exonerated altogether, American society has made it impossible to move on. Need a job? Check a box that says you’re a convicted felon. Never mind that your sentence is over –your dependency on the system is not. Want to vote? Maybe in another five years – you’re not quite a citizen yet. Need help staying on your feet and out of prison? You’ll not get it from the state. Any state.
It would be easy to give in every time something frustrated me. This is how I lived as a reckless teen on the street and at the start of my death sentence. Thwarted goals sent me into a tailspin of depression and anger. Rather than fix my faults or be responsible I focused on the idiosyncrasies of others or the pitfalls of my environment. My life changed with accountability.
I no longer get as frustrated, depressed or angry when helpless in the gears of the system. What little I manage to achieve is hard fought and harder to maintain. There is no coasting, and you might think this makes reaching my goal oh-so-sweet, but the feeling fades before new obstacles, another road block or reminder that being incarcerated is hard. The thought that life would be easier with freedom crosses my mind, but then I remember the single word that will challenge me for the rest of my life no matter where I am. Felon.
My day-to-day grind is an unlikely effort to exceed limitations mean to punish me until my execution. I live to defy the word “cannot”. It is a war against helplessness and hopelessness, the brick and mortar of my prison. Everyone succumbs at some point, but the real test is fighting and thriving. In prison this takes more than staying busy and dreaming of an existence beyond the wall – it means putting up with frustration and finding a solution, stuffing anger over petty people and holding yourself to the highest standards of self-actualization.
To self-actualize is to evolve and reach your highest potential as a human being. It’s a term, used by Maslow in his hierarchy of needs, often disputed by psychologists because of the difficulty in measuring such a trait. I use the term here as a way of explaining a simple fact of life I stumbled over not too long ago: there will always be obstacles and hardships. No matter how much effort goes into minimizing them all that truly matters is that my best is given in every area of my life wherever that life finds me. After all, it’s how you do time.