How Prison Can Free You Up to Live

It might be because we watch a lot of prison shows, but I think a lot about what it would be like to be locked up. Would they serve me gluten-free food in the joint? Would I get to use the satin pillowcases I’ve grown quite fond of? What would it take to get the plum job of pushing the book cart around? How long would it take a conflict-avoidant person like me to learn self-defense so she could keep all her teeth? Oh, and would I be able to keep up the blog?

Be not alarmed; I also think of what it would be like to leave prison. What would I want to do first? Who would I want to see the night I came home? Who would I be okay to never see again (other than my parole officer)? Where would I travel to first? What kind of a dent would I want to make in the world, as a newly freed bird? And how many miles to the nearest Do Rite Donuts?

All my neurotic thinking here actually has two points:

  1. Prison helpfully highlights what matters. My worries about what I’d have to go without while on the inside and my elaborate plans for how I’d spend my time on the outside — these musings shine a spotlight on all that I value and all that I have to lose, both superficial and meaningful. What would you miss the most if you were serving time? What would you most look forward to after 10 years (a.k.a. “a dime” in prison slang) behind bars?
  2. Prison helpfully highlights what I am squanderously taking for granted. Many of the things I fantasize about doing after a not-so-brief period of incarceration are things I am not even doing with the opulent luxury of 24/7 freedom. Sure, I get to use my fancy face products and eat my rainbow-sprinkled gluten-free donuts, but I know I’m not living with even a speck of the intensity, urgency, and fervent passion I imagine I’d feel as a captive woman on the eve of being set free. Nope… the life I’m living now has nowhere near that fervor. It’s not a fervor-free life, but it’s tainted with the spoils of freedom. What are you taking for granted in your life? What are you NOT doing today that you’d fantasize about being able to do if you were serving a life sentence?

Are you suffering from death row syndrome?

I stumbled upon a psychological condition called death row syndrome, that in part results from the distinct stress of living under the sentence of death. Knowing the end is on the horizon without a firm date doesn’t do great things to the human psyche, and death row inmates can suffer mightily from this awareness.

So, I hate the be the bearer of bad news — and I do not wish to diminish the horrifying reality of what it must be like to await execution — but WE’RE ALL ON DEATH ROW. Some of us just have boundless freedom and way better pillowcases than they do in prison — but we’ve all received the same sentence and not one of us is getting out alive (or being granted parole), and we don’t know when the Reaper will show up to escort us out.

Fortunately most of us don’t have to endure the psychological or physical repercussions that death row inmates encounter as we grapple with the awareness of our pending demise; our stay-at-home experience during Covid-19, for example, pales by comparison to solitary confinement in a supermax prison patrolled by an ill-humored guard named Jock with a mean streak. Yet we’re all watching the clock, and the difference between us and the prisoners facing capital punishment is that we have a vast, gaping amount of liberty available to shape our lives the way we want. We get more than an hour of yard time each day. We get conjugal visits more than once a month. We can work at meaningful jobs that pay fair wages… you get the idea. We suffer from a tyranny of choice, but before we moan and groan about how hard it is to be victims of our enormous freedom, let’s get our heads on straight and do something with these revelations.

If your freedom was restricted and then opened up like a floodgate of exonerated glory (because of course you’re the innocent type), what would you do with your life? Who would you be? What would you savor, with the wisdom of knowing what it felt like to be without it? What would you do with your remaining Mondays? And with your answers to each of those questions, what is stopping you from being that person and living that life today, without the hassle of wrongful imprisonment (and really not looking good in orange) to shine the light on all you’re taking for granted?

“Man is the only animal who has to be encouraged to live.”  –Friedrich Nietzsche

Prison Wishes

Jodi Wellman

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