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This article was first published by Mule Creek Post, a newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

“It makes no penological sense to penalize yourself, in a penal institution,” Mr. Jones said to me one day at Mule Creek in B yard. As illuminating as this statement was, it clearly defined “institutionalization.”

Institutionalization is a product of being behind bars for years and even decades. 

In my case, I have spent more than two decades in 6-by-9-foot cells. I know when to wake up, get on the ground when a “code” is announced, and “bird-bathe” when on lockdown. I understand what to do and say when confronted by aggressive individuals, and choose to deescalate the situation by being assertive. 

For many individuals, breaking this cycle causes anxiety and stress when released from an institution. For example, sights, sounds, colors and dealing with people can be confusing. The newness of life on the streets is, in many instances, unfamiliar and overwhelming. 

It is difficult to readjust when discussing personal informalities, sharing feelings, or having awkward conversations about the past. Being in large crowds, physical closeness and misinterpreting body language causes anxiety. Learning new technological advances and social and cultural conventions is mind-boggling. 

There is a positive side to being in an institutionalized setting. The mundane aspect of the institution creates, in some individuals, a need to find a purpose, excel, and heal. This takes discipline. The same discipline it takes to successfully operate in an institution can be an asset in the free world. For example, the same discipline it takes to go to college, attend rehabilitative groups, work to sustain oneself through art and writing, and practice self-control, can be applied to life in society. 

In summary, the structural nature of being in an institution prepares us for the demands of today’s society. Sure, it won’t be easy, but anything worth accomplishing demands real effort. It takes time, patience and dedication. 

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.

D.J. Sierra is a staff writer for The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.