27 June, 2022

The Difference Between Acceptance and Institutionalization (And Why I Still Want Out of Prison)

People first coming to prison enter a world of pain and anxiety. Even the biggest badass passes through the gates with a sense of trepidation, unsure about what, exactly, he's walking into. Will there be violence? (Answer: almost certainly.) Will personal dignity be threatened at every turn? (Without a doubt.) Will privacy become a dimly remembered vestige of a past life? (Do you really have to ask?) Depending on the kind of person you let prison mold you into, your fear will probably transmute as the years go by into either get-them-before-they-get-you aggression or some species of outright paranoia. Neither is pretty, and neither serves very well the person feeling them. They're nothing more than survival tactics. I've said this many, many times before: survival is very different from living.
Anything can become a habit, and I'll venture to say that more destructive habits exist in the world than constructive ones. It's no different for prisoners. If anything, people in prison have a higher-than-average tendency to develop self-destructive, dangerous, or otherwise gross habits. Blame it on laziness, mental illness, poor coping skills, life experience, hopelessness, or any combination thereof. The walls and fences can't talk, but these environs seem to suggest, to all of us hemmed in by them, that operating from a continual state of desperation is a valid solution to our woes. Therefore we face a decision every time we wake to the sight of these concrete walls. The choice seems simple: succumb or resist. Although few consider it, there is a third option. When you're frazzled, at your wits' end, and nothing in the world seems to want to go your way, it's possible to make a conscious decision to be okay with it, to look at your situation with equanimity and say, "Well, this is how stuff is right now, so I'll ride it out." This isn't some next-level Buddha shit, but it is a tricky skill to develop. I started doing zazen (seated meditation) about three years ago, and I can't say whether it's made much difference in my patience. I certainly haven't become the embodiment of serenity or anything. For my ability to face with calm demeanor even happiness most of what the days subject me to, I attribute my broad perspective.
Right now, I'm not in pain. I'm not crying with grief. I don't fear for my life. My stomach isn't growling with hunger. I'm not even all that warm, even though it's the middle of June. I'm sitting calmly, with a clear mind, things are pretty quiet, and I'm sharing with my fellow humans a bit of wisdom that I've realized. Things are okay. Let me say that again, so that the full meaning of this radical phrase can sink in. I'm in a maximum-security prison, and I'm telling you that I'm doing pretty good. You probably think I'm out of my mind. Far from it. Let me be clear about this. In my situation, radical acceptance does not equate to institutionalization. For a person to become institutionalized, they must forget how to function outside of prison, where "three hots and a cot" are guaranteed and you don't even need a job to get by. Institutionalization means that a person has given in, capitulated, allowed themselves to be reduced to the very thing that the system considers them a convict, a number, a criminal. I don't think of myself as any of these things. They haven't broken me.
I look at the day and see promise. I laugh at the absurdities that make other prisoners so angry. I don't get wrapped up in gossip, which just fuels dissatisfaction. And I certainly don't follow the news, which basically guarantees you a miserable morning. I hardly watch TV anymore, in fact. A good movie will sometimes come on; otherwise, I stick with books and podcasts for my leisure-time enjoyments. If I got out of prison tomorrow (something I dearly want), I'd do fine. I'm driven, creative, responsible, and adaptable. I shine especially brightly when challenged. Even my social skills are better now than they were twenty-one years ago, when I was wrongfully arrested for a crime I never committed. Whatever livelihood I sought to undertake, I'd excel at it. Most importantly, I don't feel or think in any way that I belong here. These are not the traits of one who's institutionalized. The gray-faced men who call prison their home (as opposed to somewhere they just are) can't claim to feel the same way. These are the traits of someone dynamically alive, who's ready for the world. Don't you dare confuse the two.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Glad you're doing good. Hopefully you'll be out soon.


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.