April 7, 2014

What does institutionalized mean?

One of the most commonly thrown around terms in prison is “institutionalized.” You’ll frequently hear, “dude, that guy has been down too long. He is totally institutionalized.”

But what does it really mean? I am still unsure. The word is murky, fuzzy, grey, if you will, and the varying definitions I receive prove my point.

Some guys define it as being totally reliant on the institution for their happiness. Okay. Let me give you examples. Some men are totally stuck to their prison routine, such as the time they go to the chow hall, call home, or newspaper they receive at mail call. Recently, the papers were not delivered on time. Some men became angry, nearly despondent, and were totally unable to recognize the paper would most likely show up the next day. They were just too stuck to their routine, the habit.

Others will tell you that someone is institutionalized if they totally shut out the outside world. Okay, I have seen that as well. For example, I had a conversation with a fellow prisoner. During our chat I inquired into his family, children. Rather than engage me, however, he told me the only way to serve time was to totally shut out the outside world. Otherwise if would be too devastating for him to acknowledge all he was missing at home. As a result, he rarely visits with family, and does very little to prepare for the obstacles that await his release. Prison is clearly his home.

I could share more examples but for now these came to mind.

I am not in prison long enough to become institutionalized. I am what they call a “short timer.” I like to tell people here this prison term is “what you make of it.” For me, that involves involving my family in my plans—rather than shutting them out. For me that means finding happiness from within—rather than waiting on a paper or that extra piece of chicken in the chow hall.

Let me close, by stating that while it may sound like I am judging these men, I am not. I am sympathetic to their plight, but lack empathy, because I cannot imagine serving 5, 10, 15, or 25 years in prison. I have not walked in their shoes or suffered the setbacks they have dealt with over a lifetime. Truthfully, I admire most of them for handling their term with dignity and stoicism. It is not easy. While I cannot imagine their heartache, as a result of getting to know them I am becoming more tolerant and gaining much needed perspective.

Andy Rothenberg

Brooks from Shawshank Redemption

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