June 23, 2014

Learning the Ropes in Federal Prison

Since I got here to federal prison camp I’ve been proud of my bunk-dismount technique, a swan dive from the upper rungs in which I catch myself, with grace and poise, on the steel locker opposite my bunk. It’s a technique (or so I thought) that demonstrates my athleticism and newfound yogic balance. Little did I know that it’s also a no-no. My neighbor – who’s wizened in the ways of the place – politely informed me yesterday that every time I dismounted, I was jolting the men in the bunks ahead of me with the domino-effect of my locker tilting against the bunk. I had no idea, but was glad to learn: jarring the wrong person could lead to a punch in the nose.

So too with walking around the camp in shower shoes: I’ve been doing it for two reasons, first because it reminds me of the outside, where I walked everywhere in my flip flops, and second because it’s comfortable and helps me recover from the weed-whacking blisters that appear as a result of our awful work boots. So much for that. I learned last night from a different old-timer that this was yet another no-no. One that could get me in trouble with the guards.

I could go on. For example, I walked to the shower this weekend in my long, prison-issued boxers and was told that by doing so I was broadcasting to the whole barracks that I was “available”. Then there’s the confrontation I had with a guard over failing to pick up my mail at mail call. Or the time recently that I innocently strayed into an unmarked forbidden area which we are apparently expected to “just know” is off limits, as if we were born with that knowledge.

As you can see, I still have more to learn.

At the other end of the spectrum, I find myself laughing at the naivetĂ© (dare I say stupidity?) of the newcomers, never mind the fact that only a few weeks ago I was exactly like them, floundering about as I struggled to find my way. As I listen to them complain about the things I already accepted a long, long time ago – the bad food, the bureaucracy, the annoyance of re-count – I wonder how the old-timers ever put up with my whining and complaining in those first few weeks.

Actually, I exaggerate a bit. The truth is, I’m an empathetic guy. After all, I was in those exact same shoes not long ago at all and can vividly recall those first few disorienting, disheartening days. What the passage of time has taught me is that, as the old saying says, time heals all. We humans have a remarkable capacity to learn, to adjust, whatever our circumstances. What may have seemed awful or unacceptable only weeks ago can become accepted and tolerated with the passage of time.

The trick, as a prisoner, is to adjust and accept, to tolerate and to “get along”, while at the same time keeping sight of your inner self, maintaining your inner values and your sense of right and wrong, who you are. It’s one thing, for example, to do what it takes to fit in, to put a veneer of toughness on your face or to conceal aspects of your past from your fellow inmates. That’s called self interest, self preservation, even self respect. It’s another to lose yourself in the atmosphere, to become a thug or a bully, or a judgmental prick, someone you really aren’t, someone you don’t respect, in a misbegotten effort to gain respect around this joint or belittle others who may not act or think like you.

So as you can see I’ve learned something in these first weeks but still have a lot to learn. But I’m determined not to lose myself – my values, my goals and my qualities – in the process.

Leigh Sprague

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Learning the Ropes in Federal Prison

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