One of the first questions people ask me when they find out I went to prison is: “How did you feel when you got out?” I often wonder if people expect me to tell them how great I felt about my newfound freedom. But the truth is my first year out of prison was quite difficult. I could not be in a room full of people without feeling inadequate at some point. Almost every conversation with a stranger led to me revealing I had recently got out of prison. Even in the quiet moments, thinking about what I wanted to do and who I saw myself being in the future often felt overwhelming. I thought I was alone in feeling this way until I spoke with friends who got out and battled with similar feelings.
Those of us who have been incarcerated are keenly aware of the mental burden we carry every day. This burden arises in prison for many reasons, such as being unable to connect with family and friends and losing a sense of purpose through work and hobbies. A 2006 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showed that roughly 30% of all incarcerated people in state prisons, federal prisons, and local jails experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety, or mania. The BJS released another study in 2020 showing that suicide was one of the top five causes of death among currently incarcerated people.
These observations expose what incarceration and isolation do to the mind. Although much attention is given to the fight for a more reasonable and fair justice system, it does not help those in prison with their daily struggles. Emotions that arise from situations like being on lockdown, worrying when our loved ones are sick, or waiting for the time when we can go home are the feelings we wrestle with daily. In addition to fighting for a more equitable justice system, we must also address the psychological challenges prisoners face in the meantime.
Isolation leads to two insidious thoughts: 1. you are alone, 2. you have no purpose. Either idea can manifest into reality the more a person chooses to believe and live into it. You are alone only if you choose to be. You lack purpose only if you decide not to pursue something meaningful and challenging. You always have the option to live into a meaningful future where life is happening for you, not to you. Now you must ask: How do you find activities that are meaningful both during and after prison? There is no one answer that works for everyone. But, writing and exercise are two things that worked well for me and gave me a sense of structure and purpose in my life.
I began writing letters to family and friends I had not heard from in some time or had lost touch with altogether. For me, it was a way of connecting to the people who were important in my life, even when I couldn’t be in the same room with them. All too often, I heard roommates and peers make comments like, “Why should I write them? They should be writing to me. I’m the one who is locked up!”
But here’s one of the big lessons I learned while in prison: I am not (and can’t expect to be) the center of anyone’s world but my own. Everyone has struggles they are working through, and many people who used to be in your life will move on in unexpected ways. You can’t control who will end up staying in your life, but you can control the effort you make to keep the best ones close. I wrote letters because I learned that I could not wait on the world to come to me; I had to reach out to others in the world. At best, it keeps you feeling connected. At worst, you just wasted fifty cents on a stamp.
Exercise in jail, just like the streets, is something you either love or hate. While in prison, the first few weeks of exercise were filled with pain because I had not exercised in months. The muscle pains and cramps lasted longer than I expected. It was hot and humid, and I only had two sets of clothes to wear. But I knew from prior experience that every rep was a small victory. I saw myself steadily getting stronger and was motivated to keep going. I began challenging myself with new exercises from magazines, books, and routines others showed me. I finally found something I could be proud of because of my hard work. Additionally, people who saw me working out respected me, as I was one of the few who stayed on the path. It also afforded me some space from the knuckleheads in the dorm who saw me as stronger than I was.
Many of the people I knew who maintained a positive mindset followed a very similar and structured routine. What separated those who habituated these activities from those who did not was the purpose they instilled in their lives. The purpose we find in these activities is critical to how well we endure our suffering. In his book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning,’ Viktor Frankl speaks to this point:
“To give a man in camp mental courage…he had to be shown something to look forward to in the future. He had to be reminded that life still waited for him, that a human being waited for his return.”
There will be times that you hit a wall and struggle to find the motivation to keep going. It will take a lot of self-talk to get yourself out of bed and do what you need to do. In the most difficult of moments, it’s important to meditate on your goal and remind yourself why you need to accomplish it. Always have at the forefront of your mind that future you want to create for yourself. One thought that always stuck with me was not allowing my time in prison to define who I was. As soon as possible, identify your goal, define your purpose and determine how you will pursue it. As Frankl said, “…human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning.”
During this challenging pandemic year, we all became keenly aware of how mentally straining isolation can be. It was a great reminder that these feelings are part of the universal human experience. Although learned the hard way in prison, lessons about isolation are just as applicable to the free world. By sharing what we learned while incarcerated, we can help others through difficult times and show that we are all part of a shared human experience.
The rewards of sticking to my education, connection, and health goals are starting to materialize for me. I now have a clearer picture of who I want to become in the future. I will be attending school in the spring at KSU thanks to the support from CGA, and I am writing a book about my experiences in prison.
More importantly, I’ve become more self-aware and empathetic. I have become more aware of the struggles people are going through and feel motivated to help however I can. Striving to help others alleviate their pain has helped me transcend personal battles for the sake of others. With each new student and each class taken, we lay another stone along this path towards peace. There is enormous power in reaching out and helping others—it enables you to heal your wounds, too.
If you’re having trouble finding your sense of purpose, start with a few small things. For me, it was writing and exercising. Whatever it is for you, start small and commit to taking action daily. Soon enough, you’ll emerge a different person. Eventually, you’ll find yourself full of more hope and purpose—no matter how difficult things get along the way.