What a Day in Prison is Really Like

What would you ask a person who has spent decades in prison? You might inquire about the violence, or perhaps you’re curious about the food. When I encounter individuals who have spent more time in prison than myself (26 years), my question is consistent: “Why are you still here?”

As for me, I’ve been asked a lot of questions, but the most common was, “What is your typical day like and how does it feel to be locked in a cell?”

The first time I was asked this question was during a community awareness program session. I sat on a Q&A panel with three other incarcerated individuals. The purpose of the program was to bridge the gap between the community and prison population. Most of the participants were students studying criminal justice. I thought to myself: how can I give them an accurate depiction of my reality? Then it came to me—a bathroom.

Imagine your bathroom being your cell. But we have to make a few adjustments. Let’s remove your medicine cabinet and mirror. Next, remove the toilet seat and disable the hot water in your sink. Replace the bathroom door with bars and the drywall with metal; metal that will make your bathroom hot in the summer and cold in the winter. No fancy showerhead—instead, one that sends small, sharp streams of water that burn your skin. You can’t control the water temperature; it’s been replaced with a button you press in order to turn the shower on. Some days, the water may be too cold or too hot to stand under. Your bathtub is your bed, with a mattress as thin as a sleeping bag. Each week you are issued state clothing, one towel that you can barely wrap around your body, a hotel-size bar of soap, a single-blade razor that irritates your skin, and one roll of toilet tissue. Lastly, you are given one thin blanket that barely keeps you warm during cold nights. The simple luxuries you once enjoyed are stripped from you—but this is only the beginning.

Depression will likely begin to consume you. You’re trying to cope, but you simply don’t know how. These feelings are unfamiliar. With time, your depression will turn into stress and, eventually, anger—a roller coaster of debilitating emotions. You’re told when to eat, sleep, exercise, and visit with your loved ones. Not being in control of your life brings about a feeling of frustration. Your thoughts begin to consume you, and you just want to sleep to escape this reality, but the yelling and banging all night keep you awake.

As you lay in your bed, you’re wondering if these people are losing their minds. It scares you. You fear encountering them. You also hope you can keep it together mentally. Your thoughts are redirected as hunger settles in, but you must wait for breakfast; you have nothing to snack on.

Eight hours later, your cell opens—time to take a walk for breakfast. As you enter the mess hall, you notice nothing but metal chairs and tables. You see a friend and call out to them, but an officer yells at you: “No talking in the mess hall!” You smile at your friend, and they smile back. That’s the best thing that has happened since you arrived. You sit down to eat, and when the person next to you begins to talk across the table, food from their mouth lands on your plate. You remain silent to avoid conflict and decide not to eat.

Suddenly, a fight breaks out. The officers jump into action and use pepper spray to break it up. The mist travels through the air and reaches the table you are sitting at. You inhale some of it and begin to cough; your eyes burn, and you need water—but this must wait until you get back to your cell. Once you are back, you wash up and wish you never had to walk to the mess hall.

After this eventful morning, you just want to speak with your family. But today isn’t your phone day; you must wait until tomorrow. That time comes, and your family answers. After 15 minutes, the officer tells you to hang up. All you can say is, “I have to go.” You don’t even get a chance to say, “I love you.” You spend the rest of the night thinking about that 15-minute conversation, wishing it was longer. You lay in your bed wondering when you will see the ones you love.

A few days pass by, and you are called for a visit. When you walk into the visiting room, you’re greeted with forced smiles. They notice that you have lost too much weight; they remain silent and immediately buy you something to eat. Your loved ones are affected and feel helpless. Your child has many questions—questions you find other answers for, except the truth. You lie and say you’ll be home soon. They tell you to promise and you unwisely say, “I promise.”

Now comes your biggest fear of the day: it’s time for them to leave. There are no more smiles. Your child begins to cry, saying, “I don’t want to leave!” There is nothing you can do or say to comfort them. It overwhelms you to know that your relationships are at risk. You want to do something, but your hands are tied. This is the worst feeling you have ever experienced; it feels like mental torture. You consider not having anyone visit because it is too painful for all. Anything less than a miracle . . . 41 more years to go, and hope is all you have.

There’s my answer. It may leave you with many more questions and, hopefully, with the conclusion that changes need to be made. Incarceration in our country is impeded by the punitive approach taken. Prisons, in many ways, should reflect the way one would live and function in society. Some Scandinavian prison systems have adopted this approach and people are much less likely to return to prison in those countries. In some prisons, cellblocks resemble college dorms, rooms have TVs, stereos, refrigerators, and a cell phone on the dresser. Wages are $5.30 to $9.50 per hour. Incarcerated people are allowed to spend time with family outside of the facility, wear their own clothes, and eat with staff. Correctional officers fill both rehabilitative and security roles. People in prison feel like humans. What’s the benefit? They yield recidivism rates one-half to one-third of those in the United States.

So, I ask you this question: why should you care about the way men and women are doing time? Because over 95 percent of all incarcerated individuals in state prisons return to their communities. What type of man or woman do you want living in your neighborhood, or even next door to you?

Although our prison system may not be as accommodating as those in Scandinavia, there are many men and women who have dedicated their lives to change and would do more good in their communities, alongside their families, rather than deteriorating in prison. While incarcerated, I have met amazing men—men who have influenced my life in truly transformative ways. They are woven within my every accomplishment. These are mentors I will never forget. And they deserve a second chance in a system that, for those with lengthy prison sentences, has yet to provide any meaningful hope of returning home. For those men and women, I often ask myself, “When is enough enough?!” For our families, I say the same.

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