When you enter prison as a teenager, you have no idea what you are about to experience.
I spent 33 years in a prison cell in Canada. I was in my 50s when I came out. I spent time in a supermax facility and worked my way to down to a minimum security institution before I was released on day parole. I have been out long enough now to be a full parolee. It was no easy task.
The first place I saw back was a place called Millhaven Institution, a maximum security penitentiary in Bath, Ontario. This was both a population and reception center, better known as the Fifth Circle of Hell. The sight of that place would make even the most fearless a little worried. I spent a decade at that place. To get out with some of your mental faculties intact is nothing short of a miracle.
I then moved down to the lower security prisons in Ontario. This is how we get parole in Canada. You move down in security and participate in the self-help programming offered. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the programming as long as the system thinks you do.
Then you move to even lower security institutions, the so-called “club feds.” This place was the hardest for me. After all the years of higher security with fences and constant tension, I now had no fences and little to no tension. The head games ratcheted up ten-fold and I could do nothing to stop it. I knew I could easily be transferred back up to a higher security prison, forcing me to work my way back down from the beginning.
I had been so steeped in the prison subculture, it was hard to walk away from that many years of faulty thinking. Nobody around you wants you to quit doing the bad things that you do. The guys depend on you for their supply, and the people you buy from depend on the cash. The staff wants to catch you and prove they were right about you all along.
To turn your back on all of that can be hard, not to mention dangerous. I did it though for the chance to earn parole one day.
I estimate that 95% of all prisoners are dealing with a substance abuse issue. So, trying to make positive change in your life is compounded by the need to feed your addiction. In my case, heroin was my drug of choice. I used for the better part of 25 years. I started as a young teen with a line on a coffee table and eventually ended up with a needle in my arm. I did a lot of despicable things in pursuit of my next fix. They are things that I can’t take back or ever forget now that I am sober.
Eventually, one reaches a fork in the road. The first path leads to a prison cell, where you may spend the rest of your days with nothing but endless pain. The second path leads to suicide and the end of all things for you. The third path is to change, and just maybe, get out one day.
The first and second path are the easiest to do. They require no effort at all, and they are what is expected of you.
The third path is the hardest. No one sees the changes you’re trying to make and finding meaningful help on the inside is hard. But I persevered and changed the way I lived my life. I got clean and stayed that way. I am clean. It’s been more than 30 years since my last drink and more than 12 years since I last used.
Here I am now back on the street, making a go of life. Life is good! Hard but good. I’ve learned that nothing that comes to you easily is worth your time. When the demons come and you are tempted, help is just a reach away. You have to grab it. You find a meeting to go to or a friend with whom you can hash it out. Hell, even if it is just to go out back and bark at the moon do it. Do not slip back to the past behaviour because there is nothing in it for you. All of the people that push at you from all sides will eventually be silent.
When that time came, and I was finally granted day parole, let me tell you, the joy was something I have not felt in many, many years.
But then the realization set in. I was going back as an ex-con to a world I had not been a part of for 33 years. It was a very scary thing. I had never seen or used a cell phone, a laptop, or an ATM. I didn’t know how to find work or to get an ID card. I was afraid everyone would know I just got out. I learned to be calm and take one step at a time. There were days that pushed me to my limit, but I found out that it is possible to achieve a better life.
I found that one of the hardest things to get over is that feeling that “they know.” In actuality, nobody knows who you are or the places you have been and the things you have seen and done. But that feeling is still there and always nagging at you.
One of the hardest things for us prisoners, or maybe just men in general, is asking for help. But I learned to just do it. The programs are there and waiting for you to use, but you have to reach for them. People have no idea who you are, so I talked to people and laughed with them. I was forthright and stood my ground. I know I was worth it. Those of us who have been in prison have made horrible mistakes, but it does not mean you can’t come back from them. For every person you meet that may have a problem with you or your past, you will meet ten others who see you for who you are now.
It is hard to be a lamb when you have been a lion. Well, I am here to tell you that you do not have to be a lamb. Stand tall, be a good person and be kind to your fellow human beings. This is the truth of life for anyone regardless of their background.
When I finally cast off the idea of crime and focused on returning to the world, I felt freed.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.