The title can mean at least two things. One is that even if you go to prison it doesn’t mean that you will learn anything. The other is that you can (and should) learn many things that prison can teach you without having to go to prison. It’s this last point that is the main thrust of this article.
What can I possibly learn from prison?
Having been incarcerated for several decades at the writing of this article, I have seen both great failures and great successes within the prison system. And while many things experienced by prisoners are beyond our control, a great majority of the time what we do and accomplish is based solely upon our own decisions.
Incarceration, for the most part, does not mean that you lose the ability to make choices, both good and bad. It doesn’t mean that you forfeit reaping the consequences of those decisions.
My objective is to show non-incarcerated people that while life for you right now may be less than ideal, doing things that can lead to prison are not the best ways to deal with your problems.
I know this sounds cliche, but my hope is that after reading this you will actually be thankful – more thankful – for what you have right now, and see things in a different, more positive light.
One thing I want to make clear is that what I’m writing is based on my personal experience within the Michigan prison system, or the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). Not only do prison systems vary from state to state, but prisons within the same state can have different rules and operating procedures, and these can change on a whim. What I’m writing about today may not be the same in the years or even months from now.
My goal is to illustrate that if you want more freedom, choice, privacy, comfort, and other things, prison is certainly not the best place to find them. So, what are some of the things that you can learn in prison but don’t have to?
To some this may not seem possible. Being content in prison?! Well, it’s usually not automatic, and for some it may not come at all. Many inmates complain all day, every day, usually about the things they cannot change. In reality, the sooner you learn to be content – both in and out of prison – the better off you’ll be. Allow me to explain.
What I mean by contentment is accepting the situation you are in and making the best of it. In other words, using the situation to make you better, not worse.
This does not mean that you should not try to change or improve your circumstances if you can. Believe me when I tell you that you have a far greater chance to accomplish this in the free world that you do in prison. One example is what is available to you for your personal use. Unlike in the free world, there are limits on just about everything. From what kind of shoes you can buy to how many colored pencils you can have.
Contentment is pretty much forced upon you in prison, and harder to come by. What I’m saying is that if you think you are being held back or restrained now, going to prison is not the answer you are looking for. Be thankful and content for the freedom you have to choose what you want. It may not be all you want at this time, but it’s more than you would have in prison.
I truly believe that if you do not learn patience while incarcerated, then it’s highly unlikely you ever will. There was a time – before the whole commissary scenario changed – that you would have to stand in line for the store in freezing temperatures for sometimes over an hour. Even after doing this you may get to the window only to have them close it on you. You would just have to come back the next time it was open, which could be days away. Even now with the new system, in some facilities you get store every two weeks. You just can’t make a call and have the stuff delivered to you.
Then there are the things you can’t purchase from the commissary but have to be obtained from an outside vendor. These are items like shoes, TV’s, radios, headphones, etc. With the exception of books, which your family can order for you from certain vendors with certain rules, inmates have to order personal property on their own. It typically goes like this. The inmate chooses the item(s) he wants to order, staying within the policy guidelines. He fills out a catalog order form which he submits to the unit counselor. He/she signs the forms and sends it to the property room officer. This usually takes a day or two. But now the process takes an ugly turn. From the property room officer it goes to the business office, then eventually makes its way to the central office, which is in an entirely different part of the state. This is where the money is actually taken out of the inmates account and sent to the vendor.
There is in reality no set time limit as to how quickly they have to send the money to the vendor. If you timing is right it can take as little as a week, but far more often it will take over a month. You just never know. Once it gets to the vendor they fill out the order and send it to the receiving facility. Upon arrival, the property officer has to invoice and label the items with the inmate’s number, then put them on call to come and pick up the property. This process can also take a few weeks.
To sum up, if you want a new pair of shoes in prison it could take anywhere from two to four or more months to actually get them. Oh, and don’t mess up the order. If you do, they will send the form back to you for adjustments and the whole process starts all over again. The same is true for if the vendor is out of what you ordered. It may take months before you know about it. And again, the process starts all over.
So the next time you need something, like shoes, be thankful that you can actually go to the store, choose from practically an unlimited selection, and even try them on before buying them, which is something you can’t do in prison. The whole process takes what, a few hours at most from start to finish? So, two months or a few hours? Quite a difference.
I almost forgot to mention that if you do not have any finances coming in from the outside, it could take you several months to save up enough money to purchase a pair of shoes. One of the better paying jobs? A skilled position in food service pays 38 cents an hour.
Pretty much every aspect of prison life is regulated by MDOC staff. From when you can go to chow, the yard, and medical appointments. Need new glasses, even if yours are broken? Want your teeth cleaned or a cavity filled? There are long waiting lists for these. It could take months to get served after submitting a request to have these things taken care of.
What’s the longest you had to stand in line to use a microwave? Probably not long. In prison you have to share microwaves with dozens of other people. Getting to and using it is not automatic. And no, you can’t buy your own. It could take you quite some time to heat up water for that cup of hot chocolate.
Yard and chow schedules can be interrupted by a number of things, such as a fight or medical emergency. If you have to get to yard to meet someone or make a phone call at a certain time, it may not happen. A lot of prison life is spent waiting for something. The next time you get upset and impatient because you have to stand in line for half an hour at the grocery store, remember that going to prison isn’t going to make it any better.
The lesson of humility begins the moment you are arrested and handcuffed. It is a lesson you will continue to be taught throughout your incarceration. Even if you refuse to “learn” it, you will be regularly subjected to it. Perhaps the most humiliating part of prison life is the strip search, where you get completely naked in front of a staff member. Strip searches are usually conducted when the administration suspects there is just reason to do so. Entire units and blocks may undergo strip searches. It can happen at any time for any reason. Strip searches after in-person visits, however, are mandatory. Once your visit is over you have to be strip searched. This means, for those who don’t know, getting totally naked in front of an officer and going through the motions. This includes bending over and spreading ‘em. Refusing to do so will end you up in the hole where you will be forced to strip down anyway. Be thankful that when you strip down you are doing it because you want to do it, where and when you want to.
It’s also humbling when you realize (especially if you are older) that some of the staff barking orders and telling you what to do and when to do it may not be long out of high school. Possibly the same age as your kids or grandkids. Typical orders you will experience are, “Get off the yard! Go to your cell! Clear the chow hall! Keep it moving!”. These are not suggestions or optional. You will comply willingly or by force. Oh sure, you can act tough and talk back to staff, but in the end you will lose. I say it again, you will comply willingly or by force, and that’s humiliating. Humility, which is the opposite of pride, is a great virtue. But there is a big difference between being humbled and humbling oneself. Pride resents being told what to do and where and when to do it. But being humble and submitting to authorities, whether they be parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, law enforcement, etc., will more than likely produce better results than rebellion. So please, don’t go to prison to learn humility. Humble yourself now. It’s not always easy, but it will be worth it.
Talents and skills
Many would be amazed at the talents inmates possess. From playing instruments, singing, cooking, and making craft items in various fields such as leather, painting, drawing, woodcraft, and others. Some of the things they make, like multi-mast war ships and exquisite purses, are incredibly detailed and beautiful. Many of these purses look way better than anything Gucci put out. What’s even more amazing is that these inmates do not have nearly the number or type of tools that free-world people have. From what I have been told by many of these men is that they did not even discover these talents until they got locked up, after their life came to a screeching halt. Unfortunately choosing a life of crime kept them from discovering these talents and using them for legal gain.
More than likely there is something in you that you have yet to discover. A talent or skill that you can use to better your life and possibly the lives of others. Wouldn’t it be a blessing to produce something with your own hands that’s legal and you could possibly earn a living from? Find out what you like, what interests you, and develop it with like-minded people. It may not be automatic, but keep at it. One thing is for sure – breaking the law and running with gangs are not the “talents” that lead to a long life and a safe and prosperous future. We have looked at things that are better learned or discovered in the free world. However, if you still decide on a life of crime and rebellion, here are some things that you will lose if you end up in prison.
I’m assuming right now that you have your choice of cell phones, MP3 players, shoes, clothes, etc. Not so in prison. Again – regulations abound. Most of the tennis shoes you are allowed to order are white with few exceptions. No air pockets, no gels. You are limited as to how much they can cost and how many you can possess. All t-shirts have to be white with no pockets. Other clothes are limited by what colors you can have. Absolutely nothing predominantly black or gray. Your color choice of sweats and prison made shorts (which are the only personal outerwear you are allowed to wear in certain places) are forest green, burgundy, light blue, neon orange, and neon yellow. You can only buy certain brands from certain vendors (remember the ordering process I described?). Otherwise, you wear state blues, i.e. navy blue pants and shirts.
You can buy one type of tablet from JPay, and they come with plenty of glitches. They offer a limited amount of songs and games to choose from. Songs, at the time of this writing, are $1.52 or more each. No Instagram. No Twitter. No Facebook. No Google.
You get three meals a day from a state wide, four cycle menu. This means the menu repeats itself every four weeks. Probably not the food you would choose. No Micky D’s, Burger King, Little Caesars, Olive Garden, Taco Bell, or any other place you frequent. And no Grub Hub. If the chow hall food isn’t to your liking you can buy stuff from the commissary. Not a terrible selection, but way less than what you can get from a grocery store. You can only buy a set number of certain items and you can only spend a certain amount each store day. And forget ice cream or refrigerated items. MDOC got rid of these types of food years ago. Did I mention that no tobacco products are sold in prison? No cigarettes, no cigars, and no vaping.
Of course the lack of choice is directly related to a degree of comfort. There are things pertaining to comfort that you cannot change. Your eating utensil will be a plastic spork. No forks. No knives. Not even plastic ones. But you can improvise. Like many men do in here, you can use your ID card to cut up your meat sticks (sausages), vegetables, etc.
Your bunk will be a flat piece of steel. Forget “My Pillow” or memory foam mattresses – not happening. You get a stuffed mattress that quickly loses its fluff and becomes very flat. Imagine sleeping on the floor on a few yoga mats. Something like that. Believe me, an air mattress would be an improvement. No Sonicare or high tech tooth care items.You get a five inch toothbrush and you don’t get a wide choice of toothpastes to choose from. No air conditioning. You are allowed to buy a six inch fan that doesn’t offer much relief when the temperature gets into the 80’s and 90’s. I mentioned the shower situation earlier. Imagine it’s really hot and you have to take a shower in really hot water. It can and does happen. Sometimes you sweat more after the shower than before.
The bottom line is that there is little you can do to make your life in prison more comfortable. Your choices for this are better in the free world. You can complain about all these things, but it won’t do any good. Getting angry and upset won’t change a thing. It could end you up in the hole if you become or are perceived as threatening. And then it really gets uncomfortable.
To me, this is the big one. If young people think that your parents don’t give you any now, well, allow me to explain what privacy is like in prison. Oh wait, there is none! That’s right. In prison, all privacy is gone. Even if you are in solitary confinement, any staff member can at any time peel into your cell and enter it if they so please.
The most common settings, however, consist of anywhere from two man cells to eight man cubes. If you are in level four or higher, you will more than likely be in a two man cell where you have a toilet right in your room. And no, if your bunky needs to take care of business there is no walking out until he’s finished. You just have to deal with the sounds and smells. If you happen to be in a facility with a community bathroom, things can get a little more interesting. How many times have you brushed your teeth with someone sitting on the toilet a few feet away? Have you ever been on the toilet and had someone cutting someone’s hair right next to you? Never? Well, if you go to prison these are some of the things you will experience on a daily basis. And don’t think that the toilets have high privacy walls. While some do, other “walls” are around four feet high. Not much privacy there. So the next time you feel like complaining about how ol’ mom and dad don’t give you enough privacy, you might want to consider the options.
This is not an exhaustive list of the troubles you can encounter in prison. I did not include details of the violence, trouble, and disrespect that you will experience from other inmates. The purpose for this article is to try to get people to realize that life in prison is not a better life.
I am in no way suggesting that your life right now is ideal or that your circumstances aren’t bad. Some are experiencing severe hardships. What I am saying is that your opportunities to improve your situation are much better now than if you were to go to prison, where your freedom to do what you want is very limited.