What Prison Is Like
The first two years of prison were the most difficult for me. The next day it suddenly got easier.
Wrongful convictions are frequent and painful. The shock of mine lingered for two years.
Only recently had I come to terms with my unique gender identity, with all of its vulnerabilities. Now I was negotiating for survival among wolves in a men’s prison. Depression took its natural course.
Then one day I reached out to help others in need. In that single act two years in, the depression finally broke. Suffering became repackaged with new purpose.
In connecting with others of like mind, the crucible of prison life was burning away stuff that didn’t really matter. Despite our shared meager circumstances, we found ways to grow stronger.
Keeping our faith
In the summer of 1995 I met two acquaintances in the yard for what I called a “Word Encounter.” They agreed to hear me share some encouraging spiritual wisdom I had learned years earlier, couched in Christian terms.
While sharing an “optimum number of friends” concept, we could see ourselves being sucked into Christianized platitudes of trying to please and be friends with everybody. It was time to stop worrying about appearing Christlike for others and be more Christlike for ourselves. Especially in an environment where it would be easily exploited.
It was a liberating moment. In a place sparse on liberation.
Keeping our sanity
Until that moment I had been overwhelmed in self-absorption. That simple act of shifting focus to what they needed helped me see my own needs in a new light. We needed each other.
We then expressed more resolve in the face of taunts and prison politics. I owed no one any explanation for how I ended up in prison, any more than I needed to know their cases.
No more putting up with “you’re just in denial” by people who didn’t know me, or demonstrate any concern. I did not owe them any answers.
I was doing this time, and no one but me was going to do it for me. At last, I owned the space around me. And my newfound confidence warned others I was no longer suffering fools.
I commanded respect by giving it. Or by remaining firm to the disrespectful, and moving on.
Keeping our sense of humor
At least the three of us had each other, to share our occasional frustrations and anxieties. “I had another nightmare last night where I was in prison,” Walt explained with a smirk. “And when I finally awoke, I was in prison.”
“Yeah,” I smiled back, “I’ve been having that same old dream.” We learned in the process not to take ourselves, or situations, or the foolishness around us, too seriously. One way to handle the discomfort is to laugh at it, see its ironies, and know we are not suffering alone.
Isn’t it ironic that an asexual person can be accused of sexual misconduct? Isn’t ironic how I finally come out as transgender, only to be thrown into a men’s prison? It helps to learn how to laugh in a place where it’s unsafe to cry.
When Walt had another falling out with his wife during a visit, we agreed to meet on the yard. I did more than provide a listening ear. “Now how does that go?” I asked him when we rendezvoused at the gate to the yard.
“Is it starve a cold?” I continued, as I reached for something in my coat pocket. As I handed him a candy bar for comfort I concluded, “Or is it feed a depression?”
We laughed together. We cry alone, in stolen moments of solitude. But prison affords little occasion to be truly alone. Privacy remains an elusive luxury.
Keeping it real
Our other friend put it this way. “Imagine a complete stranger moves into your bedroom, and you have absolutely no say about it,” he explained to my family. “That’s what prison is like.”