Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a malady that affects our first responders and soldiers, but we convicts also see and experience a lot of the same things. It is a strange thing to tell someone that the nightmare you have isn’t any less real than that of a paramedic or soldier, and then have them dismiss it as your own fault for being who you are or once were. I have woken up in the middle of the night in full on combat mode after 30 years in the custody of Canada’s fine correctional sites.
At 19 years old, I hit a place called Millhaven Institution, a maximum security prison in Ontario. I was not prepared for the hell that awaited me in that place. I was big, so I could look out for myself, but I was one fucked up individual that had little to no prison experience and a very active heroin-addicted life.
I was in the assessment unit and not really in open custody yet. When the light went out, the night crept in and the demons started in my head at first. Then I noticed the sounds coming from the open custody side of the joint. I pulled my little package out the old suitcase (for those who may not know this means my ass). I put my rig together and had a hit of sweet lady heroin so all could become right with the world. I drifted off to the sound of the demons singing to me.
After two weeks, I was in open custody at maximum security. It took a while to catch the rhythm of the place, but I kept my mouth shut and my eyes open. I learned the first night in the yard how fast life could end.
I went outside to walk laps in the yard. At the racquetball court, I saw a White guy stab the hell out of a Black guy. Halfway around the yard, I saw a guy kick the face off another dude with a boot.
For a few months I kept to myself for the most part. I needed to let people get used to me and for me to get used to them.
But then a beef happened and a man was killed, everyone was questioned by the penitentiary squad. I happened to be in the area and was questioned hard but kept my trap shut. Snitches get stitches. This opened the door for me and I was invited into the sub-culture. I was considered a stand up guy when the chips were down. I was off and running.
I had a good connection on the street for heroin, so I became popular to say the least. I fit myself into the culture quite nicely. Things moved along for a while with just a few beefs.
Until a snitch got in on me. I had a partner at the time and he made friends with this dude who turned out to be working for the Man. So, one of our packages got pinched, and the heat was on me. Everyone was looking to see what I was going to do. So, I did what was expected of me. One Sunday morning I went into the snitch’s cell, and he died. I was sentenced to another life term and sent to supermax in Quebec.
This should have been a wake up call for me, but my stock as a man not to fuck with was growing and I revelled in the feeling of power when you know that the people around you fear what you are capable of. Add in to that a full-on heroin addiction and the die was cast for a long stay in the system.
I eventually made my way back to max. I had three beefs to deal with when I got back. There were three men that had shot their mouths off while I was in segregation and I thought I had to take care of this. Sad to say I did just that. Nobody died, but men were still assaulted and I took my place in the line to leadership of the prison subculture. I used my drug enterprise to fuel my rise in the system.
I spent years doing all that I could to ensure I would never be released from prison ever. I had made a few transfers to medium security but always got sent back to max. The lower securities were less able to deal with a guy like me. I spent a good deal of time being a thorn in the side of the administration.
I finally got a wake-up call with the overdose of the smartest man I had ever met inside or out. I then accidentally got into the methadone program. So now I found myself working to get clean. I started to look at my life and figure out what to do with it. I looked back, and all I could see was the pain and suffering caused by me and my activities. It is a hard thing to look at your life and see nothing of value.
So, I began the road to clean and sober. It was a hard, scary trip. When you finally have to deal with life on its terms you are not ready for it. I had done things that no man should, and without drugs or alcohol to hide behind, I almost gave up the fight.
Then there was the sub-culture. This was not just a game you walk away from. Those who depend on you to keep the flow of drugs going want you to keep it going. Those who have been trying to catch you, want you to keep going until they catch you.
But I walked away and did not look back. I kept my mouth shut and minded my own business. It was hard to be a lamb when you have been a lion. For the sake of freedom, I did it. Eventually the powers that control life inside said, “OK, give him some rope and see what happens”.
They started to give me little tastes of the freedoms to come, but in very slow and measured doses. I, for my part, changed the way I viewed life. I worked to change my outlook and stay clean and sober. This did not happen overnight; it took years to get there. One day, they opened the door and let me out on parole.
This is when the hard work truly started. Although I have and had great support from family and friends out here. I was still on my own to live. I had to get an ID, find a job and learn how to get around a city I had never lived in. Social media, cell phones, and computers were new to me.
I put one foot in front of the other and just kept going. It was not until a few months passed that the dreams and the odd little panic attack started to happen. It was nothing too dramatic, but it bugged me and I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
It was a condition of parole to see a shrink, so I saw a nice Italian lady with a good sense of humor. She helped out a lot and I was able to talk with her about anything without fear of reprisal.
I soldiered on and thought it would pass eventually. But it really did not. It stayed with me and jumped out at the most inopportune times. While walking through the mall or sitting at home watching the idiot box, that old feeling of tension and anger rises out of thin air. The fight or flight instinct is working overtime in your mind and working you into a frenzy — someone is coming to take what I have and put me back in a box.
If you are lucky the person you are with can talk you down or call your support system. If you are not, you may look to old habits like drugs or booze to calm the demon. We all know where these things lead us. The things we have seen and done will always be a part of us.
You may ask what the fix is for all of these things. Well, Brothers and Sisters, I do not know. All I can say is that it is better to be out here than inside.
I have figured this much out — if you choose to live right and be the best person you can, the right people will find you and good things will happen for you. Time is the only thing that you cannot control. Everything else is within your power to control.
I contribute to society now rather than drain it. I have some good friends I trust and a job I don’t mind doing. I am now on the path to improving my abilities, so I can make more money. Stay the course and reach out to those with your best interest in mind.
It does get better.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.