A reader has asked for my insights as to whether it’s possible to feel “freedom” while in prison.
I’m certain that Pema Chodron, Dr. Wayne Dyer, Joel Osteen, and Thich Nhat Hanh would each have their own opinions on how someone, while locked away, could feel truly free. They might say things like, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, all that matters is today.” Or they might say “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Bobby McFerrin might simplify it: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” My college roommate said, “Mind over matter.” A dog trainer might suggest that we try to think more like a dog would. After all, dogs are always happy.
These are all wonderful ideas, but do they work? I believe the answer is no. It’s easy for a philosopher to sit in a bungalow in Hawaii, overlooking the ocean, and write a book about how an inmate can train his mind to feel free and happy. But put that philosopher here at the Idaho Correctional Institution for ten years, and I suspect his book would be substantially less optimistic. Actually, I don’t think he’d have the energy or will to even write the book at all.
As a relatively intelligent individual, I’m forced to wonder, “What am I doing wrong? What am I missing?” There are plenty of inmates in here who are happy and free. They don’t have a care in the world. You’d think that since I’m smart, I could study exactly what they’re doing and how, and then mimic their behaviors so I could feel happy and free, too. But when I start to observe these people, one key difference between them and me becomes clear: they have no idea what they’re missing.
The people who are able to feel free in here never knew what it was like to own a business. They never knew what it was like to eat their first black and white cookie in Times Square. They have never flown a helicopter under the Golden Gate Bridge, nor watched a Monday Night Football game from the field in St. Louis. They never had a jazz band play at their wedding. Never slept with beautiful women. Never played poker tournaments at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, nor got a massage at the Grand Wailea in Maui. Never traveled with family members to Mardi Gras, Paris, or Amsterdam. Never took a cruise to Alaska. They don’t have parents who visit regularly. They didn’t spend ten years of their life to become one of the best internet marketers in the world, only to be told that once released, they won’t be allowed near a computer. They didn’t practice radio DJ’ing for 28 years, only to be told they can’t work at a radio station because kids might call the request lines. None of that matters to the free and happy inmates, because they never had anything to begin with.
For them, prison is about as good as it gets. Laundry is done for them. They don’t have to buy food, cook, or even clean up afterwards. There is free cable TV. No rent. No utility bills. $2 co-pays at the doctor. Cheap video games. Many of them never had friends before, but now they are surrounded by what they consider to be their best homies, and they can play cards all day and laugh and tell each other fart jokes or gay jokes. Nobody misses them, nobody is out there wondering why they did what they did to get locked up. Nobody cares about them anymore, there’s no one to hold them accountable, and as such, they have no reason to feel any guilt or shame.
These people all feel free because, simply, they truly believe that on the other side of the razorwire fence, life is no better than it is in here. In fact, many believe life out there is worse. (Times are tough. It’s hard to get a job. Apartments are expensive. Health insurance is expensive. Trump will ruin America. Millennials will ruin America. Why bother?)
So how does someone like me, who hates being locked up, who constantly realizes all that he’s missing out on, achieve freedom in prison? I believe there is only one way — withdraw completely from the “real world.”
If a person like me were able to cut off all contact (phones, emails, and letters) with friends, family, and anyone in the outside world, that would be a start toward freedom. He should never go outside, because just seeing the trees, or smelling the air, or watching an airplane fly overhead, could remind him that he isn’t free. The person should avoid TV, and in particular avoid any type of news broadcast or newspaper. He should read a lot, but only fiction novels — the less realistic, the better. I’d suggest focusing on sci-fi, fantasy, or horror genres. This way, he can completely take his mind into a new dimension. He should draw, or make jewelry.
One must accept the fact that he is no longer part of his old life. That part of him is dead now. He needs to let go, stop hanging on, stop thinking about what might happen when or if he is released. Instead, accept that whoever he was prior to prison, whoever his friends were, whoever his family used to be, whatever jobs he had, whatever vacations he took, whatever women he has tasted, whatever traditions he used to take part in, whatever memories he had, whatever his dreams were for the future….all of it is gone now. Dead.
In prison, he has been reborn. He is now in a parallel universe. He’s not who he used to be. He’s now a person with no past, no future, no memories, no family or friends outside of prison, and no outside hopes or dreams. Instead, his life, happiness, and freedom is exclusively inside of prison. He is free to put as many scoops of instant coffee as he’d like into his mug. Free to watch whichever channel he’d like on the TV. Free to walk one lap at rec, or 20. Free to play rummy, spades, chess, or poker. Free to go to sleep at 8 PM, or 3 AM. Free to order any book he’d like from the library.
As miserable as that sounds, these are the inmates who are the happiest inside prison.
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Categories: Stephen Newman