Although I did not have a five-year sentence, my experience is that any sentence of a year or more is instructive. The first day of my one year, one day sentence (nine months actual incarceration) in 1988 for insider trading began in the "wrong" prison: I had been assigned to a federal minimum-security camp in Pennsylvania, but when I got there, I found I had been reassigned to one in Connecticut. So I spent a few days in solitary confinement in Lewisburg federal prison (a classic, Depression-era, high-security Big House) until I could be prison-bused to Danbury, CT.
The one over-riding emotion I felt in the first few days, which I learned is shared by many first-timers, is that somehow there has been a mistake that is just about to be corrected. An angel is going to swoop down and rescue you from this mistake. Your lawyer went to court after the prison door slammed behind you and the judge had a change of heart. A guard is going to come up to you and say, "Hey, guess what? We were only kidding. You can go home now. Just don't ever do it again."
The related emotion that for some inmates can linger for years is the fantasy that your sentence is going to be terminated or shortened, or that somehow you are different from other inmates, and one day that's going to result in you going home early.
As a journalist, I approached my experience from a research perspective, and it became clear to me that for most inmates, the dominant preoccupation is, "How can I legally get out of here?" For most, the hardest part of prison is accepting that you have virtually no control over your life. "Forget about the street," is an expression newbies often hear, and a wise one. For those with spouses, children, aging parents, unattended businesses, prison is often much harder.
What I found even more interesting was the LAST day of a sentence. Inmates count down the time to release as "X days and a wake-up," since most often prisoners are released after breakfast. I remember a very smart 30-something guy who one weekend was finishing up a six-year stretch for cocaine trafficking. On Sunday night, with just a wake-up remaining, I asked him what it felt like. What he told me was unexpected, but I've since found it to be nearly universal: "I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I got here last Friday." When your sentence is over, it's amazing how all that time seems to collapse.
The US puts far too many of our citizens in jail for far too long. There are so many other healthy, less-costly ways to punish wrong-doers. I encourage readers to check out this 20-minute video from a TED conference where the speaker eloquently makes the case for rethinking how we dole out justice:
- Is there anyone who has done important academic work whilst in prison?
- How can we improve the process through which inmates transition back into society as happy, productive citizens?
- What particular moment during their temporary stay in prison made a lasting impact on the participants in The Last Mile (training program) and why?
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