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I’m not sure who I am as a person, or who I’m going to be in the future. To be quite honest, I don’t really know anything. I’m only 24 years old and have been sleepwalking for most of my life, going through the everyday motions without really consciously being there. 

In a way, it almost seems like I have been being trained to live this way. I can remember being told not to ask questions, to not get involved in things I don’t understand and to never reveal my true thoughts or feelings to others. I remember being told to keep my emotions to myself because that’s what men are supposed to do. Show no weakness. These are some of the thought patterns that were instilled in me at a very young age and ultimately led to my incarceration. 

After almost six years in prison, I have come to realize that these are fallacious lines of reasoning. I don’t have to think like this. 

This is not the 18th century anymore. When someone has a difference of opinion with you, you don’t challenge them to a duel to the death and hope you shoot them first. There was something very wrong with that concept, and yet, it seems a lot of people are still clinging to this kind of past mannerism. 

It is most clearly evident in some of the recent social movements that are sweeping across the nation. They use emotionally charged rhetoric to challenge individuals to pick a side. “You are either with us or against us” is a recurring motto that I have seen used.

Establishing these as the only two viable options is very concerning. 

From an inmate’s perspective, it is bewildering to see this happening in the outside world. A lot of us don’t know how to respond. As a result, we generally try to commit our attention to other things and turn a blind eye to that of which we cannot comprehend. We do everything we can to avoid the news channels on our TVs. 

I have caught myself countless times watching Spanish soap operas on Telemundo for hours on end over the media news networks even though I can’t understand Spanish. It is not just a few of us that do this, we all do.

With that being said, we also see a lot of positive things happening in the world. Most notably, the efforts to beat the coronavirus. Seeing everyone come together to support our frontline workers and perform small acts of kindness to those in need is very touching. 

We may be convicted criminals, but we still have family and friends out there who we care for tremendously. We try to contribute and provide support as much as possible, but to be honest, there is not much we can do besides socially distance, wash our hands and try to maintain clean living environments for us, the correctional officers, nurses and other free staff. 

Those of us who are blessed and fortunate enough to receive commissary funds and packages from our families try to help those who don’t by sharing a couple of antibacterial soaps, basic hygiene needs and food. It’s a group effort, and we draw our inspiration from all of those individuals on the streets doing the real work. 

If you are reading this then you undoubtedly have some basic understanding of how life is in prison. There is politics, and certain topics of conversation you don’t talk about. The protests for racial equality are one of those taboo topics. It triggers emotions that are too strong, and tempers flare quickly. 

We all know what usually comes after that: violence. 

In effect, we never talk with one another about our feelings and perspectives about the changes that are happening in the world. So we find ourselves stuck in a stagnant pool of disconnection from each other. 

It’s for the best though, right? We’re all just trying to serve our time and pay our debts to society and get back home. It only seems reasonable to avoid emotional confrontation. 

But my concern is this: when we finally get home and are released back into society, home as we know it will be very different. Culture shock can happen, and we may not be prepared for that. 

With the stigmatization that surrounds formerly incarcerated individuals, we will be seen as socially deviant and will find ourselves in disadvantageous positions in terms of finding employment and housing. These obstacles on top of a lack of experience in effective communication will most likely result in the continuation of the endless cycle of recidivism. 

I don’t have a solution to this problem. I wish I did. 

As I mentioned, I have been sleepwalking for most of my life for so long that I feel uncomfortable engaging in real thoughtful conversations. It is only recently that I have begun to practice and challenge myself to break out of this lethargy. 

I know that there are great rewards to be had if I do. I’ve experienced moments of triumph by stepping out of my comfort zone and changing my way of looking at life. Of course there are times when a conversation doesn’t really work out, and I am left angry, frustrated or sad, but with success comes failure and with failure comes success. It’s a process that I have to be willing to accept and trust the outcome. 

My purpose and hope in writing this is to provide some insight into the problematic mindset that many incarcerated individuals are stuck in. 

There is someone out there who has the voice to bring change to the established prison system, and there are many voices that can encourage men and women to fight against the repression of our thoughts and emotions. 

Together we can finally end the mass incarceration of America.

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.

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James A. Holmes

James A. Holmes is a writer incarcerated in California.