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A wooden mannequin holds three colorful alarm clocks
Photo by olgamark on Depositphotos

Every weekday my alarm clock wakes me up at 5:30. Then the usual: I brush my teeth, get dressed and slap some water on my face. Then I go into patiently-waiting mode, just laying back and drifting off into a light sleep. 

I try to stay quiet since my cellmate is not employed and enjoys sleeping in until around 10 a.m. Eventually the institute clears its count and sometime in the next hour the officer on the intercom says, “A and B wing to chow.” 

As I walk down the staircase and button up my jacket while putting on my beanie, I see my friend Bill waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Bill is an old hand that has done 20-plus years in prison. He uses a wheelchair, and I push him to the dining hall in the mornings. We have developed a pretty good friendship. He is a spunky, old fellow and I will miss him when he is gone. 

After we eat breakfast, it’s back to our housing units to wait for another count at 7:30. Usually I lay back down and set my alarm again, since the guards want us sitting up during count. Whenever the sharp beeping of the alarm brings me to consciousness, I re-brush my teeth and start heating water for coffee. Phew, thank God for coffee! Once a healthy cup of java is prepared, I read one chapter from the Bible (English Standard Version) and two devotionals, “Our Daily Bread” and “Day Of Praise.” 

Once again the double-beep of the intercom goes off. An officer proclaims, “Count clear!” A couple minutes after that, it beeps again and we are notified: “Workers to work.” I am lucky enough to have a good job as an educational tutor in the vocational program. That is when time starts to fly and, for a brief moment, I forget I’m incarcerated. 

Being busy helping others learn about residential wiring, or completing whatever project needs to be done, takes me away. No matter what, prison can’t take away our ability to learn. I like to live in this fact. It causes sudden feelings of freedom. 

The electrical classroom is limited to 13 students, a tool man and a tutor. This facility offers instruction in electrical work, outdoor power equipment, welding, building trades and applied computer technologies. 

We like to keep the electrical class as hands-on as possible, but there is a lot of book work as well. It is always a great moment when you explain something and you see in someone’s eyes that they “get it.” Some of these guys haven’t been in a classroom setting in more than 20 years. 

Teaching is challenging and rewarding. My goal for each class is to have each man ready to go on a job site and perform at the level of a first-year apprentice right out the gate. We try to create  small new-construction and remodeling wiring jobs for the fellows to practice. We have pretty much every tool known to man and a lot of teaching modules. I particularly like teaching Ohm’s law. It’s a basic algebraic equation, but the students are terrified of it at the beginning. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my class learn the material and gain confidence.

At 10:30 a.m., we are released from vocational school and head back to our housing units. Count once again happens at 11 a.m. After that clears, we hear the beep beep again: “All workers and diabetics.” This is so medical staff can provide insulin to those who need it on a regular schedule, and so workers can get back to work. In here, inmates provide most of the labor to run this place. The corrections officers turn keys and push buttons.

I return to work. At 3:15 p.m., another bell rings, indicating that it is time for the students and me to return our tools. After a tool count, we get released and again head back to our housing units. Poof, the best part of my day is behind me.  

Back in the housing units, it is impossible to forget you are in a prison. 

Next step is to shower off and wash the laundry. Both of these are daily rituals. Unbeknownst to some people, the water is free to inmates and feels very nice. I then find myself with the rest of the afternoon and evening — sometimes an entire weekend — to knock out before I get to go back to work. I try to keep busy and out of the daily dramas of this prison, which I’m sure all prisons have. 

Unlike the weekdays, the weekends drag. This is largely due to the fact there is a lot less structure and days are less scheduled. I watch TV, read and play a few hands of cards when I’m free. Usually, though, I wake up Saturday and Sunday and complete whatever college coursework I have for the week. I do the work on the weekends and study during the week.   

I recently enrolled in college and hope to get a Bachelor of Science in organizational studies. We have a liaison from Ashland University who works here. This semester I’m studying English, math and ethics. It has been fun so far and keeps me busy on the weekends. 

I was lazy my first few years of a 12-year sentence. I truly believed that by sleeping my time away I was winning. 

After a lot of resistance, I finally accepted that I’m here and I don’t run things. Once I put down that fight, I found I was hungry for things I could do. After filling my time the way I enjoy, little things don’t bother me like they used to. A guard can talk to me all crazy, and I just ignore it. They can tell me to lock down, and I say OK. No big deal. Patience comes easy now that I don’t want to swim upstream all the time.

After they lock us down again at 9:45 p.m., they do a count one more time. Some of us are already asleep. It’s odd how a stranger looking in on you and counting you while you’re asleep just becomes normal. 

That is how to survive incarceration: Grab a hold of anything you can that helps you pass the time positively. 

This place can drive you mad, with its unnecessary bureaucracy and long wait times. With my job and school, I found that structure is my best friend — it could be yours, too.

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.

Jared Kirby is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.