In early March, a group of men, including myself, gathered in the prison dayroom and watched the Academy Awards. Most of us had food. Some of us sat at tables, others in bright plastic chairs.
When a woman appeared on screen, someone shouted, “Who’s that?”
“Ariana DeBose,” I answered. “She’s in … something! She sings well.”
As the broadcast continued, guys trailed in and out of the sitting area, while others became lost in their state-issued electronic tablets. By 10 p.m., the time we’re sent back to our bunks, only a few remained.
This night reminded me of a family function complete with the odd friend and estranged cousins and uncles up past their bedtimes. It reminded me not of real life exactly, but a scene of a memory from real life, just with the wrong participants. The people around me aren’t my brothers, sisters, my grandmother or my friends. They aren’t my family and some will never come close. But in some ways — good and bad — they are like my family.
A new life
The resilience of human beings is remarkable. We build little lives in here. Uprooted from our loved ones and transported to prison, we are forced to adapt. Even when stripped of liberty, we find ways to cope. Our brains subconsciously normalize prison routines. The people we associate with become friends.
After an initial 10-day stint in county jail, the state of Connecticut moved me to a Level 2 minimum security facility. This facility is where I will complete my three-year sentence for manslaughter with a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
I’ve lived in the same dorm — a recovery-based therapeutic community — for seven months. The older residents are here for DUI-related charges, the younger ones identify as being in recovery. A small population of men take methadone, a medication-assisted pathway to recovery. We come from all walks of life but must coexist.
My little life inside differs from my life before this, and is vastly different from the life before that. The people I spend time with are associates by circumstance not choice.
Sure, I can call the three friends who remain from before my prison bid, but it’s like phoning the past. The line is seasoned with static; the conversations feel light-years away, like I’m reaching backward through time and trying desperately to pull ancient artifacts into this era. The person I am now is unrecognizable to them.
This life is blessed with routine. Addiction and bipolar disorder plagued my previous life, and that affected my work, my relationships and my well-being. Even though I had a master’s degree, I worked at Wendy’s to pay rent and feed my addictions. I would wake up mid-afternoon, dazed from the night before, and repeat the cycle.
Before that, I worked at a major health insurance company where my job entailed helping Medicare and Medicaid members understand their benefits. The times in life where I have only helped myself have been the times I’ve felt lost. But in that job, I felt a sense of purpose.
Now I wake up at 5 a.m. each weekday for breakfast, and I participate in my dorm’s morning meeting at 8:30. I have a paying job as a unit clerk, and I am a peer support mentor for the men in my dorm. My job is easy and enjoyable.
My bosses, the staff in the addiction treatment unit, are kind, enthusiastic and — most surprisingly — human. I’m helping others with a team of like-minded individuals, and that reminds me there’s more to life than my current situation.
Progress not perfection
In my last life, I let myself go. The stretch marks that ripple across my stomach and my arms are stark reminders of that darkness. It is, however, amazing how those 40 pounds I hauled from one existence to the next have melted away inside.
You can find me in the weight room during recreation time, hoisting kettlebells and running laps around the gym. A month or two into this life I had an epiphany: Exercise is a mental game changer. But deep down, I think an old version of me knew that.
When not working, I keep myself busy with institutional programming. My current groups include Mindfulness in Recovery and Helping Men Recover. The latter is an intensive aftercare program that can only be taken after completing Tier 1 and Tier 2 drug and alcohol groups.
A few weeks ago, I completed Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery’s Coach Academy. I learned and honed many tools sure to be essential in succeeding in my next life.
Disputes are inevitable facets of any life. Before prison, I used to handle disagreements by ghosting people, blocking others and turning my phone off. In prison, I don’t have that luxury.
The majority of my day is spent in the same room with tropical-level humidity — condensation on the frosted windows, mold growing on the air vents. The air is redolent of stale farts and salty, gas station-quality beef. Worst of all, I am stuck with the same people, a motley crew of personalities. The only true reprieve from each other is sleep.
When someone does something I disagree with, or when a difference in opinion arises, I rarely raise my voice. Most times I just walk away. The urge to isolate and ignore the problem, leaving it unresolved, is persistent.
But sometimes I exercise a third option that I never would have considered a few years ago: talking it out. Not all men are receptive to the idea of talking it out, but there is great beauty and scary power in communicating emotions in a healthy manner. Of course I have days when cooler heads fail to prevail; but I think, at their core, these little lives are about progress not perfection.
Sometimes I long desperately for pieces of past lives, the good feelings mostly. Love, a sense of fellowship, of belonging. Other times, I yearn for my next life. The farther I get from my old lives, the farther I am from the unhappiness of those times. But I have no control over when my current little life will end and when the next will begin. The Connecticut Department of Correction has that power.
Along with thoughts of my future life come questions to which I have no answers: Can I bring any of my current family with me from this life to the next? If so, where will they fit? What will I be? What can I be? Will society welcome me back? Will I be happy? Will I find peace?
Hours turn to days as I contemplate the future. The more time I spend focused on my next life, the less time I spend living in the moment, taking in what this little life has to offer.
When I look around at my current dysfunctional family, I see men from whom I can learn; men with whom I can laugh, cry and share the most intimate parts of my mind; men who may disagree with me or outright dislike me. But this is our little life and, no matter what, we all still show up.
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.