Imagine, if you will, that you are a criminal. Drugs, robbery, and the like are in your record. You don’t want to steal, but you are addicted to drugs and the occasional robbery helps support your habit.
You have been in and out of county jail, and even done a couple of two-year stints in the state penitentiary. But now, thanks to the third strike law, you’ve received a 20-year sentence and they’ve enhanced your felony. You enter a Texas Prison and go to a unit with 2,800 inmates.
You think you can finally get the help that you need. You’ve heard about all the rehabilitation services the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has to offer. But previously, with a two-year sentence, you were not eligible for those services due to waiting lists and you would not have been able to complete them anyway.
You put in requests for as many classes and programs as you can take in a day. You are excited and motivated. You can’t wait. While you await the response to your requests, you catch up with old friends who have been there since you last got out. You sit in the dayroom and catch up on old times. They remember how you used to conduct your hustle in the world and they hip you to the game that they’ve got going on. They have a corrections officer (CO) dropping off drugs and cell phones, and they are making money — real money, not just commissary items. Your friend asks you to think about joining them. They want you on their team.
In your cell, you struggle with your desires. You really just want to take these classes, get yourself better, and stop living a destructive lifestyle. You don’t want to see the pain in your mother’s eyes anymore, knowing that you caused it.
But there is that constant nagging thought: who are you kidding? This lifestyle is all you know. You can’t change. You better join in and make that money, and you can get high for free. Stop thinking that you can do better.
The CO who is working the wing begins to pass out that day’s mail. You don’t get any letters from family, but you receive a response on your requests for those classes: “We’re sorry but you must wait until you are within five years of your discharge date to apply, then you will be on the waiting list, and can take classes/programs two years before your release date. Thank you for your inquiry.”
All the hope that you had deflates like air out of a tire. It’s a big letdown. Wait, wait, wait. That is all you are told in this prison system that has nothing but time to do your time.
You reason in your mind with the only reasoning that you have. It’s the same criminal thinking patterns that have governed your whole life: “I guess for a lack of anything better to do, I’ll join up with my old friends, make some money and get high. I wouldn’t want them to think that I’m a square.”
You head to the dayroom, shake your homeboy’s hand and he introduces you to the guys. He offers you a k-2 (synthetic cannabinoid) cigarette. You get high and forget all about your aspirations to change.
Right then, a commercial comes on the TV — something about littering — and they show that familiar sign that every Texan knows: “Don’t mess with Texas.” Then, as you inhale deeply, you think: “You’re sure right!”
Welcome to mass incarceration. Not everyone gets involved in the “make money or get high” scheme, but when you get here and you see that you don’t have to, or can’t, take classes until the end of your sentence, and you don’t want to be ostracized by the people you live around, well, you join them.
With a criminal cycle of thought patterns, you are limited on what you can choose and will more than likely go along to get along. Everyone wants to be accepted; it’s a hard-wired need that is instilled deep down, influencing all of our choices. So you end up reinforcing these criminal thought patterns for 18 more years, and for the last 18 to 24 months of your sentence, you begin to learn a new way to think.
Which do you think will stick:
- The thought patterns that you’ve had your whole life and the last 18 years in prison
- The new ones introduced to you during the last two years of your prison sentence.
Please help end mass incarceration and reform prison, criminal justice, and sentencing procedures and guidelines. Resistance is not always futile.
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.