Recently I reconnected with a friend after a 15-year hiatus and found that my day-to-day life surprised her. Her friends at work, at her OB-GYN practice, backed up that reaction. Over the phone, I could hear them discussing it while she was on break.
“I didn’t imagine there was so much to do at prison,” she said. “On the shows, all we see is the pod where they live and the dayroom. Maybe a chapel. Everybody is bored. But you are always going places, it seems.”
I know she and her friends were genuinely curious, but the pressure of lining up our schedules to talk on the phone also spurred the comment about how busy I am.
Given that imprisonment is so prevalent in the U.S., one would think our circumstances would be more widely understood. Yet, few gain enough access to see our lives up close, and media portrayals of prison have not not accurately reflected the world I know. Without direct experience, what do people have to go by? “Oz”? “Orange is the New Black”? So-called documentaries on National Geographic or the History Channel? “60 Days In”?
I cannot control what appears on people’s screens, but what I can do, and what I hope others in my situation will do, is speak to my own reality.
But that also daunts me because of the limitations in my perspective. I am one of around 2,000 prisoners in Tennessee serving a 51-year life sentence. Not only am I not able to speak for all prisoners in the state, I cannot even speak for all of us lifers.
Our state institutions have a common history and some degree of structural homogeneity. Most prisons are constructed on a campus model. Living units contain two-man cells, and one must go outside to go to another building on the compound to work or attend school. We have a baseball field with weights, a gym, a chapel, an education building. Yet we all know that conditions are different, not just from prison to prison, but even from unit to unit within each prison. Such a stubbornly complicated reality requires me to start from my own experience.
My time each week is split between my duties as a clerk, my responsibilities as a student, my activities as a musician, and everything else. All prisoners in this state are required to have a job, even if that job is a class rather than a work assignment. Although I have worked many jobs over 23 years, currently I work as the clerk for the Retrieving Independence service dog training program.
Like most guys, I report to work in the mornings after breakfast. Although I have trained service dogs for four years, I now handle paperwork and distribute supplies to the other trainers. Most of the day, I stay around the training building and the unit where we live with the dogs. For these duties I am paid 50 cents an hour, which is top pay for almost all prisoner-workers in Tennessee.
Currently I am working toward a bachelor’s degree with Belmont University through the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI). From 3 to 5 p.m. on weekdays, I attend classes online in the education building. I am typing this article on the same computer where I will soon face a grueling final exam in business law. Outside of these windows of lab time, I also spend many hours a week studying and writing in my cell.
In Tennessee, prisoners are allowed to have musical instruments with the warden’s approval. Here at Turney Center, an official inmate organization also allows qualified prisoners to form bands and practice together in an approved space. Four nights of the week, between 5 and 8 p.m., I go to the band room, plug in my guitar, and play songs with friends. I also spend a lot of time playing and practicing in my cell.
Fitting a job, college classes, and music into the rigors of the prison’s operating schedule (count times, meal times, recreation times) leaves me scrambling to do the other things we all must do, such as socializing, getting exercise, showering, and using the phones to stay in touch. I often have to make room in my daily schedule to accommodate my cellmate’s needs as well. Between the time when they let us out of our cells in the morning and the time when they lock us back in at night, there is a lot to get done.
While I stay busier than some prisoners, I do not think my experience is exceptional. Rather, I see myself as one of a class of individuals who finds a way to be a human being inside a rigid, high-pressure institution. Having accepted the justice of my punishment, I make the choice daily not only to survive but to make life worth living if I can. Make no mistake, although I make the best of the situation, being denied home and freedom constitutes a life of daily suffering. Doing my time this way is how I make it bearable.
I am curious about the daily lives of prisoners outside my experience and my sphere of imagination. In this state, I can remember a time when the conventional wisdom was to allow those with long sentences to construct some sort of life within the walls, but more recently it is harder to see this wisdom reflected in administrative decisions.
Positive activities have declined drastically. For instance, I used to do woodwork in the prison’s arts and crafts shop, but now those shops have all been closed in Tennessee. On the other hand, I am grateful for the recent rise in higher education opportunities, and I don’t know where I would be if not for the band club.
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.