When I got to prison, I thought the art of doing time was getting through it as easily and with as little thinking as possible. Thinking brings emotions — shame, guilt, self-doubt, pity, remorse — and I have been purposely avoiding those emotions my entire life. I didn’t know how to handle the feelings, so avoiding them seemed logical, easier, and way less stressful.
The key to doing time, I thought, was to stay busy. I ran around, doing extra jobs and side hustles for a little extra commissary cash and so I didn’t have to think about doing time.
I made money doing these side jobs but I didn’t learn anything new. I cleaned bathrooms and showers. Cleaning a cube for a month paid a flat book of stamps (currency in prison). I found different ways to smuggle meat and vegetables out of the kitchen to sell on the prison black market. I took bets, hid the ledgers and stashed mackerels (prison slang for cash) throughout the unit. All these things made me money while I was incarcerated but they didn’t teach me how to stay out of prison when I leave.
Much of my work was just reinforcing the criminal thinking that got me incarcerated in the first place. I didn’t take classes or learn a trade or do anything that was going to help me provide for my daughter upon my release. I just kept doing the same kind of shady stuff I’d been doing before.
Some inmates have the philosophy that the easiest way to do time is to sleep as much as possible. Take enough nighttime allergy pills (in prison they’re called “yellow dreamers”) to leave you in a daze but not enough to cause permanent damage to your organs. Some people sleep as much as 18 hours a day which means they are only awake for a quarter of their prison sentence. I understand the seduction of being unconscious and not thinking but I questioned whether that was any way to spend a life.
Early on in my sentence, all I wanted was to get out. For the first 5 years of my incarceration, I was lost, my life in limbo. I was just sitting and waiting to be out. I wasn’t growing as a person and I was letting the time just run down the drain.
Not only was I not learning, it seemed like my brain had gone off line. I struggled to find simple words in ordinary conversations. Once I was telling somebody about where I misplaced my coffee mug and then couldn’t find it for an hour. I got stuck trying to think of the word, “You know the thing below the mirror, the little platform.”
My roommates give me a look and one of them said, “Do you mean the shelf?”
“Yes, that’s the word, ‘shelf,'” and the room erupted with laughter. Damn, the word wasn’t even two syllables. My brain had gone lazy. Wasting my time was wasting my brain.
In the more than six years of doing time, I’ve gradually learned a bunch of things. I’ve learned the benefits of routine, that people care about me, and that I am a better person when I’m clean and sober. I know now that I have potential, that there are good people everywhere, that good things can come from terrible situations and to be respectful of others. And most important, I understand that time is precious. I also know for sure that I don’t want to do any more time.
If I want to stop wasting time and start constructively doing time, what am I changing? First, no more TV every night. I watch two shows — Yellowstone and Animal Kingdom — that are too good to miss. Other than that, no more TV. Instead, I am walking the track with someone having a meaningful conversation or in the library writing posts or reading.
Second, I’m not going the “yellow dreamers” route. I get my eight hours a night and that’s it.
The last and biggest is I am working my twelve-step recovery program. The steps are part of my weekly routine as are nightly meetings with my sponsor, Dennis Cockerham (whose writing you can find on resilience2reform).
I’ve gone from wasting time to doing time. I am not counting the days, but I am making the days count.