Top 10 things you can do to help a loved one or friend who is in prison

#9 Celebrate the passing of milestones

Last week marked the passing of 6 months of confinement since I self-surrendered to prison. Milestones of time passed signify that the storm is beginning to move on, and our family is slowly inching closer to being back together. The journey is long and painful, and sometimes its harder for those on the outside than it is in here. Many interesting lessons are being learned. Some of them are personal in nature, and others are related to a diverse community that is unnaturally, yet creatively interacting under difficult circumstances. I once believed that nobody would choose to be here, but surprisingly that is not necessarily true. For some people, institutionalized government confinement on this compound represents something far better than what is available to them elsewhere. Its a reality that may occasionally be discussed in society, or even joked about, but it isn’t well understood until you see the reasons why. For myself and many of the others that are here, existing with absolutely no expectation of meaningful accomplishment is a psychological challenge. We are reduced to fabricating our own benchmarks for success in simple yet abstract ways. As milestones pass for your loved one or friend, prompt them with a note of encouragement, as many of my friends and family have done for me. He or she will appreciate your sharing in the reality that this temporary experience is neither stagnant nor wasted.

So after 6 months in prison, here are a few things that I have learned. Some of them I actually appreciate understanding better, and most I likely would have never stumbled upon had this experience not occurred. In no particular order, they are a mix of cultural anomalies, harsh realities, and a few humorous anecdotes resulting from 300 guys living in hysterical awkwardness under government supervision. In any case, they are snapshots are what your loved one or friend might be experiencing as well — physically, emotionally and spiritually.

1. Black people take excellent care of their shoes, especially compared to how white people do. In fact, white people don’t even seem to have the ability to learn how to do a decent job in this regard. My bunkee has tried to train me, but I just don’t meet the standard. In the absence of my ability to perform this simple task, he secretly cleaned my shoes before my family came to visit one weekend because he didn’t want me to go into a visit looking “un-crisp.” He is a great friend!

2. Its helpful to know a little Spanish, and it isn’t too hard to learn when words are put into context. For example, the Bureau of Prisons posted new signage on all of the showers and doors to the bathroom stalls. They read: “Un preso a la vez” (One inmate at a time). Thankfully they left off the graphical picto-icons and just went with the words.

3. Of all of the health benefits from walking, stress relief is one of the best. Spending time in nature has a healthy way of calming anxiety and bringing difficult circumstances into context. The track at this prison is a place where much thought and problem solving takes place. The men here sometimes walk together, and other times they walk alone. Twenty-four laps is about 10,000 steps, and many of us accomplish that more than once per day. This leads me to my next point…

4. I’ve lost almost 50 pounds in 6 months. Fortunately I needed to drop every bit of it as my street life facilitated borderline obesity according to generally accepted guidelines. I have reached the low end of my weight loss goals, and its actually proving more difficult to stabilize the weight loss trend while maintaining the healthy routines I’ve learned to enjoy. Its common for inmates to struggle to fuel their aggressive exercise schedules.

5. Your misery is your ministry. My recent experience started the day I met Mike. He arrived here a few weeks ago and moved into the top bunk across from mine. By the end of day-one he began a difficult detox from heroin. Vomiting blood, his frequent trips to the bathroom were painful to listen to. I think he finally ate something on day four. One particularly tearful conversation revealed that he had never been away from his wife more than a few days. She had to have their dog put down right after he arrived here, and his sister had a bad car accident a few days later. At age 37, Mike had started taking pain medication, then switched to heroin because it was cheaper, and now two years later finds himself bouncing off the bottom in prison. In that two year period, heroin killed seven of his friends. I can’t go into the details of how I’ve been able to help him adjust to prison-life, but others did the same for me when I arrived. Regardless of what sin brings you here, its just one of many that could have. There’s a miracle in this prison with Mike’s name on it.

6. Patience is not about waiting; its about your attitude while you wait.

7. My son wrote me back on an email that I had sent to him recently when I was missing him. In closing he wrote: “I do think we are becoming stronger as a family and in faith because of this.” I frequently reread his words, as I am very proud of him. He is so awake, and his confidence is solid. The very same goes for my daughter, but his email message is the most recent example that I have handy. As I was thinking about both of them, I connected their strength through faith with something I read a few months back that helps to explain the root of why we sometimes need to be re-centered in life:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author and Russian dissident during the Soviet era, said, “I have spent fifty years working on the history of the Russian Revolution. In the process, I have collected hundreds of personal testimonies, read hundreds of books and contributed eight volumes of my own. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause for the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God.”

8. Coaching an adult through the successful passage of their GED certification is incredibly rewarding. There is really no greater anti-depressant than helping others.

9. Optimism helps in life! Therefore, I promise…

To be so strong that nothing can disturb my peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person I meet.
To make all my friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything, and make my optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as I am about my own.
To not dwell on the mistakes of the past, and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature I meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of myself that I have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

10. The best time to do laundry in prison is when everyone else is watching Lovin’ Hip Hop on TV!

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