Today when I awoke I looked across the dorm at the rows and rows of other bunks. Some men lay asleep while others were starting their day, and I said to myself life is good. It really is. While I don’t want to be here, I know that so many other people elsewhere have it far worse than I. My journey 24 years ago from the higher security levels down to minimum security where I am now has long since shown me this.
Of course, I saw the world and those around me very differently when I began my sentence. My priorities were the opposite of what they are now. The things that meant anything to me then mean nothing to me now. Life is about family and your impact on those around you. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life. Without family, you are without foundation, and when you negatively impact those around you darkness is the outcome.
There have been moments here over the years that surprised me in such a way as to challenge my thinking and views. All of them had one thing in common: they caused a sudden shift in my thinking and how I viewed my place in the world.
During my first year of incarceration I witnessed countless violent and terrible acts as I was at a much higher security level. There the mentality of offenders is hardened and violence is common. Being new in This World, my main priority back then was simply survival. So I stuck to myself and stayed out of other people’s business at all costs. I had my own problems, I thought.
How you handle yourself in your critical early days of incarceration dictates how you are perceived and treated by others for the entirety of your sentence to come. If you flee from confrontation, you seal your fate and the rest of your time will be a living hell. If you face your aggressors, no matter how many and how unlikely you would prevail, you pass the test. Those watching will conclude that you are more trouble than your are worth, while still others will gain a respect for you. It is trial by fire.
In This World it’s not about friendships. It is about alliances and unspoken agreements that ensure your safety and ability to survive your time whole and intact. But what about those individuals that fail at this or cannot defend themselves no matter how hard they try? What then? I used to think to myself, ‘hmph, not my problem.’
The first moment that shook my beliefs and made me question my purpose in life came toward the end of my first year. There was a young fellow who lived in the cell beside me and was serving a short sentence for a sex crime. It was this last detail that was the source of all his problems, as every predator and thug in the unit made it their business to torment him. One day I found him on the floor of his cell bloodied, naked, and unconscious. I looked around, fearful that someone had noticed that I had stumbled upon their crime. No one was present, so I departed the area and left him there thinking ‘not my problem.’
On another occasion I watched as several inmates dragged him from his cell, beat and then stripped him naked, before tying his hands together with his shoelaces and dumping him in a corner. There he lay, curled in the fetal position for a long time before a guard came upon him. I remember thinking, ‘whatever, he should have stuck up for himself.’
Then one day I was alone in the unit’s laundry room. As I was loading my laundry to wash, I heard a sound from the far end of the room where the dryers were lined. I stood still and listened. It came again, the sound of…crying. I went to investigate and when I came upon the last two dryers, huddled inbetween the gap of each was my neighbor. When he looked up, his face was streamed with tears and I could tell he had been there for a while as his shirt was very wet.
I say, “Hey.”
He muttered, “Hey,” as he looked down again.
It wasn’t so much the fact that he was there hiding and crying that shook me, but what he had in his hand: a razor. He told me that he was committing suicide and that I should go. It was then that I noticed he had in fact sliced his wrists, but superficially. He had been working up the courage to finish when I came upon him.
A terrible feeling of sadness cascaded over me, and I was immediately ashamed of myself for thinking the way I had about him. I understood in that moment that we are all together in this world no matter where we are from or what our demons are. This man was serving time for his mistakes, and now he was about to break his family’s heart, and give into the darkness of the world. I convinced him to give me the razor on promise I wouldn’t tell anyone about what had happened, and so he did. I asked him to go to medical help and request that he be moved to protective custody. He listened quietly to what I said and became silent.
“Okay,” he finally said. I then helped him wrap his wrists with one of my t-shirts, and before I left him I said: “Listen, things will get better. You’ll be okay.”
Later that day he was put into protective custody. Shortly after, he was transferred to a different institution. Four years later he went home. Until today, I’ve never told anyone about this.
That incident made me question my purpose in life. Until that moment I didn’t care about anyone around me, and all I cared about was myself. I was so centered on feeling sorry for myself that the needs and problems of others never registered. I can’t help but wonder what would have been the outcome if I hadn’t found him. From that day onward I promised myself I would help others as much as I help myself, that no matter how bad I thought I had it someone else was always worse off.