It has been said that “like attracts like” and “birds of a feather flock together.” When a person enters the prison system, he will immediately survey his surroundings to determine who could potentially become a friend.
When I started my prison journey in 2008, I looked for anyone with similarities to me. I looked for people who seemed older and more mature. I looked for people who might have worked an office job in the past. I looked for chess and poker players. I looked for people who seemed to have money. I looked for quiet people who treated others with respect. I looked for people with no tattoos.
I also looked for red flags. Which types of people did I want to avoid? Loud, obnoxious people, for starters. I avoided anyone who seemed more concerned with preaching to others than with actually living the right way themselves. I avoided people with more than a few tattoos. I avoided people who regularly broke rules or begged for free handouts. I avoided anyone who approached me on my first day and wanted to be friends — they were usually the manipulators.
Without knowing these people at all, other than my first impressions, I had classified them into three groups:
1) Definitely could become my friend
2) Might be able to become my friend
3) Definitely will not become my friend
This process may not be too different from how many of you might approach an online dating website. You just know, right away, who you will probably click with, and who you won’t.
There are a lot of immature loudmouths in prison. As such, it is much easier for them to make friends. If like attracts like, there is a huge pool of candidates. A young “shitstick,” as we call them, would look around the prison and see hundreds of others just like him. But for me, finding an educated, respectful, quiet older guy proved much more challenging.
Most of the “friends” I made early on in prison weren’t people I would have associated with “on the streets.” Some had been homeless. Some were murderers, child molesters, and drug addicts. Some were dirt poor. Some had never been outside the Boise city limits. Some were gay.
On the streets, I would judge people for what they did, not who they were as a person. I would see a bum on the sidewalk and walk the other way. I would hear of a man convicted of a crime and think, “man I’m glad I don’t hang around with losers.” If I learned of a guy who was 50 years old and had never left the city limits, I might think…”What a waste! He just threw his whole life away and never had the courage to explore.” Once I was in prison, however, all of those preconceived notions went away. Now, it didn’t matter what crime they committed, it didn’t matter what mistakes they made in their past. It didn’t matter how they dressed, or how good their grammar was, or how many teeth they had. What mattered was who they are, now. How they treat other people, now. How they treat me, today. What mattered was how well I could get along with them, now that we’re both stuck in this place together. Are they respectful? Do we have a similar sense of humor? Are they laid back and mellow, like I am? Do they get easily offended? Do they act out violently? Do they steal? Are they sincere? Do I trust them?
None of us are in prison for being a saint, and I’m not here to pedestal one man’s crime over another. When you hear an inmate’s life story, a lot of their behaviors start to make sense. Empathy begins. By looking at who a person is now, as opposed to what they did in their past, it opened my eyes. It made me a more mature person and a better friend.
In 10 years here, I’ve learned so much about people and their difficult lives — things that I never would have learned about had I remained in my Silicon Valley bubble, attending fancy parties in million-dollar loft apartments with the CEO of Yahoo. I spent most of my 20s socializing with high-powered executives, and then, at 32, was suddenly thrust into this alternate reality, playing chess and having burritos with a meth addict with no teeth who worked at a tire store. And guess what? In many ways, he was a better friend to me than the wealthy CEOs ever were. Instead of surrounding myself with those who cared about money more than people, who didn’t appreciate friends and family, who never spent the time to actually get to know a person, who judged people based on the shoes they wore and the car they drove, now I was surrounded by people who had felt fortunate, some nights, to be able to eat a slice of bread from a dumpster near their homeless shelter. Instead of people who were obsessed with having granite countertops in their kitchens, I was with people who were happy to have a $100 tent they could sleep in, to stay dry at night in their brother-in-law’s backyard.
The ostensible goal for prison friendships is to find people with common interests. I like chess, Mexican food, travel, basketball, radio broadcasting, women, football, internet marketing, independent films, country music, and, well…women. As I navigated through prison, I found other people with these same interests. There was the guy who used to own his own taco truck, who would cook delicious carnitas tacos. The gay redhead who had worked at a Thai restaurant and who loved playing basketball. The serial bank robber who used to be a radio DJ in Montana. The aforementioned tire installer who could beat me at chess. The drug dealer who watched The Voice with me as we shared (often humorous) stories of women from our pasts. The hotel bandit from Boston who was obsessed with sports.
It has been said that “like attracts like.” But only once I became receptive to having friends who were very unlike me did I learn the true meaning of friendship, compassion, and empathy. Prison friendships are temporary, but the lessons learned from them will stay with me forever.
Stephen Newman #90843