Winding down a prison sentence is like walking across a frozen lake. It’s painfully slow and you’re bound to bust your head, but eventually you’ll succeed…or die trying.
I have been incarcerated for almost 15 years. Over the course of my decade and a half behind bars, I have either experienced or witnessed the violent atrocities that make prison well, prison. The murders, riots, rapes, and robberies of the movies are just the everyday occurrences that I’ve grown up around since entering the federal prison system as a scared 23 year old suburban junkie sentenced to 16 1/2 years for armed bank robbery.
While my peers graduated from college and started careers, I was fighting for my life against the gangs and other races.
As they raised families, I was sitting in isolation holding on tightly to my sanity as the years passed by, and the days seemed like they’d never end, until now.
I recently learned that I will be placed into a halfway house for the last 9 months of my incarceration. This occurrence just reduced me down from the 14 months remaining on my sentence, to only 5 months.
A normal person would probably lose their mind at having to spend 5 months behind bars. I think 5 days of penitentiary life would break the average man. But, to someone that has spent years in the dreaded Special Housing Units of the BOP, a 5 month stay seems like a drop in the bucket.
With the decrees behind bars, prison starts to get very real. All the things I swore I was going to do or become during my bid jump out at me. The fact I’m not fluent in Spanish, and I can’t hit the lord of the dance pose in yoga, taunt me when I flip over the tattooed calendar girl heading into the next month.
The realization I posses no tangible job skills whatsoever creeps into my psyche more and more each day.
I’m fully aware that my 11 year old niece, who I’ve never met, will need to teach me how to use a Smartphone before I’m able to communicate with pretty much everyone. I’ve never even sent a text message, let alone had the whole world in the palm of my hand.
I think back to my only semester of college, 19 years ago, and how I couldn’t even log onto the classroom computers, and I actually start to fear my impending release.
Even though a 5 month stay can be gone in a minute, it’s also a life time away for someone that prison is all they really know of “adult” life.
I KNOW that if I receive one incident report not only do I lose my July release, it also means I won’t go home until next year. This fact alone should steer me clear of fucking ANYTHING that could get me in trouble, but the convict in me can’t let go of the “respect” credo of the penitentiary..
EVERYONE has a hustle in prison. I don’t care if you’re fucking John Gotti,- even he was backing a gambling ticket-, it just comes with the territory. Getting short doesn’t change the fact that I need commissary to supplement the tiny portions of food on my trays. Or that I need 3.15 to call home for 15 minutes. Nothing stops because I’ve been issued a light at the end of the tunnel. If anything it makes things more difficult.
Now is the time when convicts will test your gangster. They want to find out if your heart is still in the game.. Someone that would normally pay the book of stamps-prison currency- for a cigarette, now think they can walk around and not have to pay. To “solid” convicts like me, this is unacceptable.
Those of us that have done a lot of time and put in a lot of work in the system, we call this our career. We missed out on working our way up the company ladder. Instead, we worked our way up the penitentiary hierarchy..
We’ve made a name for ourselves over being in THIS riot, or stabbing THAT guy. When you hit a new yard, it’s already established that you WILL stab a motherfucker if they fuck with you. Our reputations are all we have in this brutal world, and we damn sure aren’t going to lose that over some scumbag that thinks we’ve gone sweet at the end of our bid.
This is the type of mentality that has saved me over the years.. To truly not give a fuck about human life, mine or anyone else’s, is the only way you’ll be able to thrive in prison. You have to become a monster of a man to lose the pain of being separated from everyone and everything that you’ve ever loved. This is also the type of thinking that will bring me right back to prison.
At 5 months, I should be shutting this off and turning back to a “normal” person. But 15 years of the penitentiary isn’t something you can just shut off. It’d be like asking an Iraqi war vet, who’s been in Iraq since Bush invaded, to stop worrying about IED’s and jihadists 5 months before they return home. If anything, I’m now more aware of my surroundings.
Everyone has a routine in the big house. It’s how we maintain our sanity in an extremely dysfunctional existence. From the time you take a shower, to the time you take a shit, our days are preordained. So, if the DC black that lives 3 door down for me isn’t on the phone at 6 o’clock, I’ll immediately scan the unit for the volatile lifer.
Even though I have no connection to the DC convict, other than breathing the same air, whatever happens to him can directly affect my outdate, and my life.
I’ve witnessed a convict serving a life sentence lose his mother…then his mind. Shortly after receiving the news of her passing, the Puerto Rican came our of his cell blazing, with a knife in each hand. The Boriqua then commenced to stabbing every motherfucking thing moving! When you already have nothing, you have nothing to lose, and these are the people I’m surrounded by.
I also know another convict, who had 90 days remaining on a 5 year bid, get pressed for sex by a con who proudly enforced his “booty bandit” reputation. Whether you have 90 days, or 90 years, no man is going to sit back and let their cheeks take a pounding from nasty Nate. The cops won’t help you in the pen. Until they find you with your head caved in and your pants around your ankles, you’re on your own to deal with a yoked up 250 lb. serial rapist.
So, the scared convict did the only thing he could do to keep his virgin grippers in tact. He caught the sodomizer walking out of the chow hall, and with a 9 inch piece of steel, proceeded to turn his last 3 months into a life sentence.
Even though he wasn’t trying to kill his would be rapist, pushing steel is the only problem solver we’re taught in the big house.
The penitentiary is the modern day equivalent of the ancient roman gladiator schools. Violence is cultivate into our DNA as sympathy and compassion are bred out.
You can absolutely trust no one behind these walls. From the cons all the way up to the cops. EVERYONE will stab you in the back, most of the time literally, for either self preservation or to get ahead.
With 5 months remaining on my bid, I REALLY need to disassociate violence as the only form of problem solving. I need to relearn how to interact with people in a healthy way, and I need to learn a trade that will allow me to land a decent job upon my release.. But I know none of this will happen.
The BOP stopped teaching trades in the penitentiaries over a decade ago. I suppose deciding those of us in the penitentiaries were a lost cause and instead devoted their resources to lower security institution.
As far as the life skills classes I’d need to successfully reintegrate back into society, which they don’t have,
I’d still be surrounded by men looking for any angle at how to get me “voted me off the island”.
It’s not that I’ve forgotten how to interact with people, it’s that I know EXACTLY how I HAVE to deal with the people I’m locked inside a warzone with. So until the time comes that I’m no longer the prey, teaching me to lose my survival instincts is moot.
As I creep closer and closer to the day I’m standing on the opposite side of a wall, that’s housed me almost half of my life, I know that I’ll be able to adjust back into society, the same way I was able to adapt in here. I don’t know how long it will take me, although the BOP feels it will take 9 months before I can safely cross the street without them holding my hand.
Most convicts fail after their release because they’re trying to make up for lost time.. They’re now in their middle ages, but are acting like the teenagers they were when they came in. But not me. I’ll cherish every sunrise and sunset. Every time I hear a child laugh or cry. Every time I touch a woman, I’ll remember how my stupidity at a young age cost me their beauty.
Learning how to be at peace with the simplest of things is the life experience that I’m taking with me from this penal wasteland. It’s an education that cost me way more than the most top flight of Ivy league colleges could of ever billed me for. It cost me 15 years of my life to acquire the skill that’s going to make my remaining years alive a breeze.
With 5 months remaining on my sentence, all I really can do is survive, and then move forward into a better life. I can’t get back the time that I’ve lost, but i can and will make the most of the time remaining ahead of me.
What an honest and thought provoking article. After all these years his writing still impacts me. I wish him well over his last 5 months and of course after his release. Please send him my best. Justin Paperny
The harsh reality of the prison
I work in a state prison, somewhat different than a federal prison but very much the same I’m sure. Thank you for this raw article, it is helpful to gain a better understanding of the thoughts of those I care for. Wishing you all the best.