September 12, 2014

U-Shaped Prison Curve

I received a message this week that pleased me. It said, “JP, my lawyer gave me your book. Read it all last night. I am going in soon, real soon. Been thinking about the U-Shaped Prison Curve you wrote about. Gotta be ready to ascend that U. My family too. Let’s chat tomorrow if you are available.” We spoke the next day, and this gentlemen is proudly a new client. Some wait to take action, others talk about it–some step up and make it happen!

For a longer summary of the U-Shaped Prison Curve I refer you to my book. For purposes of this blog, however, I will summarize: In prison I noticed a pattern emerge as I listened to more and more men express their anxieties about the obstacles awaiting their release. Whether they were serving a one year sentence or a ten year sentence, a new kind of anxiety seemed to set in as they were getting closer to home. My good friend, Michael, described it as the U-shaped prison curve.

Essentially, the U-shaped prison curve measures a man’s ease of confinement or adjustment. To understand the theory, Michael told me to think of society as being above the curve and the prison community as being below the curve. As a man enters the criminal justice system, he begins descending through the U. He feels himself leaving society behind and anxieties plague him as he moves deeper into the unknown world. Yet, the man begins to adjust to prison life and he acclimates to the world of confinement. He falls into a routine of exercise, cards or television. By the time the man moves halfway through his prison sentence, he will have adjusted in ways that sets him at ease with the prison community, which lies below the metaphorical U.

In advancing through the halfway point of his sentence, however, the prisoner begins to develop those anxieties again. The comfort level dissipates because he is ascending in the U, knowing that he will soon leave the ease of prison behind and he will return to society. Recreational activities and four-hour exercise days will cease. The time of rent payments, car payments, insurance payments and stress over paychecks inches closer each day. As a prisoner’s time moves beyond the halfway point, regardless of the length of his sentence, the theory of the U-shaped prison curve suggests that anxieties return.

In prison and in the filthier halfway house, it was difficult for me to see so many of my fellow white-collar offenders feeling helpless and scared. Rather than feeling excitement about returning home, too many worried about how they would “make it” again. In interviewing some of these men, I learned they all regretted the way they served their sentence. Many wasted the opportunity. I am thankful for the assistance I had in preparing for the journey. Indeed the data suggests the time served me. I was always preparing to ascend the U. Are you?

Justin Paperny

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