Two men shake hands as a sign of friendship
Photo by IgorTishenko on Depositphotos

It happens every time I’m moved into a new prison building. 

I play Scrabble in the dayroom, join a soccer game in the yard, attend chapel services. Before I know it, I have a handful of new friends. 

We connect over shared interests, talk politics and commiserate over prison life. 

It surprises me, and sometimes breaks my heart. When I think back, I wonder where these kinds of friendship were when I was growing up. 

My friends are of all ages and backgrounds. It feels good to be liked, but in prison, it’s wise to be skeptical of people. It can take me a while to feel comfortable around others. 

So it’s odd that here in prison, in the hardest of places, I have a bustling social life.  

Why wasn’t it this easy to make friends in school? What has changed? 

I am the only son of a poor immigrant family. I grew up in the rough Chicago South Side with my father, a steel worker, and my mother, a housewife. I was smart but lazy. I was tall, lanky and clumsy. All my appendages were years beyond my age — my ears were huge and stuck out like two open car doors. My buck teeth arrived in a room moments before I did. And my thick glasses looked as if they could see into the future. I didn’t have many friends. No girlfriends either. Instead, I lost myself in comic books and cartoons.

In fifth grade, we moved to a nicer neighborhood in the suburbs, in part for my safety. My new school was a sea of whiteness. I felt like an alien. This school had more resources and better teachers, which meant more advanced students. I was still learning my multiplication tables, but my class was already learning pre-geometry. I couldn’t even spell geometry. I felt like an outcast, again. So I acted out.

My new classmates avoided me. My teacher was afraid of me because I was from a rougher neighborhood. I sat alone at lunch. No one picked me in gym class. I was never invited to parties.

Somehow, I graduated high school. Then I joined the U.S. Army. Later came college, and a fraternity.

I lived in a house with fraternity brothers and went on dates. My life had completely turned around. 

I would go on to have a daughter, a successful public relations career, travel the world and live out my dreams. But the good times didn’t last. 

I never resolved my inner trauma. I thought I was beyond it, but no amount of success  undoes deep feelings of inferiority.

Being an adult didn’t make things easier. I abused alcohol. I abused women. Social media exacerbated my issues, and my newfound wealth and power made it easier to hurt myself and others — especially those closest to me. I had become the cruel person I once abhorred.

I eventually landed in prison, where, if I am being honest, I belonged. The real pain in serving my sentence isn’t for me. It’s for all those who I hurt — and most of all my daughter, who lost a father to incarceration. 

In many ways, prison has helped me believe I am worthy and deserving of friendships, relationships and love. I found what I needed in a place like prison. 

Sometimes I think about my life changes, but most of the time I am too busy hanging out with my new friends.

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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Leo Cardez

Leo Cardez is a prison journalist and prison reform activist who has written for various newsletters and newspapers. His work has been selected for various anthologies. He is the editor of the prison newspaper, Dixon Digest. He volunteers as an Advisory Board Member of Prison Health News and serves on a committee for College Guild. He is incarcerated in Illinois. Leo Cardez is a pen name.