I have spent twenty two and a half months in French jails. This was back in the 90s. The judge I first saw promised me that she would do everything possible to keep me imprisoned for more than 15 years. Further investigations showed that my case was not as bad as it looked, and I got free after the trial, months and months later. But the point is: I thought I was going to be sentenced for a long, very long, time.
I don't know how it is in US prisons, but French jails have a ritual of "breaking" newcomers. Not from other prisoners, but from the administration itself. It comes in the way they speak to you, the insults, the physical control, nudity, etc. Regardless of how much time they would spend there, every single person I have known or heard from shares that the "welcoming ritual" is like a rape. Although the law still considers you as non-guilty unless proven otherwise, facts show that prisoners are already receiving a whole series of punishments and humiliations.
My first reaction was: I am never going to accept this and be broken by jail. All my energy and hope then got directed to preparing my breakout. This idea left me a few months later, when I knew I was not going to spend the rest of my life there (but my partner with whom I prepared this breakout did it!).
Prison has been a long journey with ups and downs. What kept me alive were four different things:
- Never ever forget that there will be better days in the future. Someday, this experience will belong to the past.
- Keep a very straight daily discipline: exercise and keep fit, read, write, keep clean, and take care of yourself. Keep a sharp mind.
- Don't buy into prison culture. Keep out of it. It's fake and leads nowhere. Keep connected as much as possible with the outside world: teachers, visitors, facilitators, religious people, etc. Follow any training program there can be.
- Do good things for others everyday. Be helpful. Be a servant leader. There is so much need for support and healing! Not just for prisoners, believe me. Families, guards, jail personnel ... All of them suffer in some way or another. No joy or personal realization can ever send someone in to a universe like this, regardless of whether you are a prisoner, a guard, or the director. Transcend who's on the right side and who is on the wrong one. Just make yourself useful, non-judgmental, loving. Reality will shift. Unexpected gifts will show up.
Now this whole period belongs to the past. What I have learned became a treasure for me. Indeed, I have met hell. But touching my own ground zero has led me to an important decision: become the best human being I can be. I think this is what I am today: not perfect, but certainly the best I can, at every moment. I have the most fascinating job, I travel the globe to give lectures and conferences, and I have the most wonderful little boy. I have become a free man, in the deepest sense it can be.
Everyday, I remember these moments in prison and how right I was to believe there would be better days. I had to seek very, very deep inside my soul to make sure that these better days would become true, as nothing at the time would show any evidence that this was a right expectation.
My advice: follow the guidelines I mentioned above. They will shift your first days in jail and help you transcend the walls. The real walls are in our mind.
More questions on incarceration:
- 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 advice would you give to a youth that is heading into a life of crime, that might make a difference to their views?
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