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prison life :: stayin alive & gettin Out

April 14, 2007

to be aware is to be alive :: this is a fairly common mantra in prison

except it’s more than a mantra

in prison you learn to see everything without looking at anything

peripheral vision becomes your second best friend right after a well-honed sense of hearing

you are just constantly aware of your surroundings. you have to be.

looking someone in the eye, holding someone’s gaze is often considered a challenge or a sign of aggression.

moving into someone’s personal space uninvited is definitely considered a sign of aggression.


now, i got into a few scrapes in prison and i’ll be the first to tell you i did not win every fight (though i did learn i could take one hell of a beating and keep coming).

i did survive every fight.

and i avoided more fights than i got into simply by constantly being aware of my surroundings (that and keeping my mouth shut at every opportunity).


then one day they let me go.

okay, so it didn’t come as a surprise or anything. you know when they are letting you out. but there is really no way to prepare for it.

i’d been down over 8 years.

as i’ve said before, when i got locked up home computers were a rarity and the internet belonged to geeks and snot-wealthy parents of snot-wealthy kids (i think the world wide web was called *prodigy* back in those days).

i didn’t know what email was, i didn’t even know what a used car was worth.

but the biggest impact was the people.

they didn’t play by prison rules. in a crowded mall or on a sardine stuffed subway folk made no effort to avoid physical contact. people rubbed shoulder to shoulder without a thought for what anyone might do to them. it f*cking drove me nuts!


i had to constantly keep myself in check.

because my gut reaction was *somebody is going to f*cking stab me* . . .

i couldn’t keep an eye on everyone. my ears were useless with everyone milling around. i was a bloody wreck.

it took me the better part of a year to get over it and i still tend to aim myself for the least crowded path even if it means going out of my way to get wherever i’m going.

it has also amped up my level of frustration when driving. i used to enjoy driving (provided i didn’t have to do it in a city). now? not so much. not in anything even vaguely approaching heavy traffic.

the simple, unavoidable fact is :: prison changes you.

if you’re in there and it doesn’t, you probably won’t make it out.


the next trick in the survival circus is unlearning those traits and relearning life.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2007 09:57

    ::::the next trick in the survival circus is unlearning those traits and relearning life.::

    That’s so fitting on a broader scale — the circumstances which force you to learn those traits are prison, bars or not. I’ve heard that many folks go back to prison (by choice) after they’ve been there a long time — they can’t deal with the outside.

    That sounds a lot like typical human behavior.

    Something for me to think over, anyway.

  2. April 15, 2007 12:07

    Very powerful description, Cat Juggler. Lessons learned by other groups have major consequences when they try to integrate into American society (or reintegrate, as the case may be). Refugees from dangerous areas of the world. Soldiers returning from combat. Impoverished inner-city kids who get make it out, to University or what have you.

    Recognizing that you are changed, why that change occurred, and being able to articulate it causes me to ponder how profound changes are dealt with successfully or not in others. Interesting thing to ponder today. Thank you.

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