“We are in prison, we are supposed to do illegal things.” That was a statement I recently heard another man say as he walked past me in the prison day room. I still find such an attitude shocking, even though this is not an uncommon frame of mind amongst the prison community in which I live. Even with California Department of Correction’s public campaign claiming their move towards rehabilitation in response to the passage of Proposition 57 two years ago, many inmates fail to embrace the opportunities available- if and when they are available. And too many inmates do not have a desire for rehabilitative change.
From my observations, it seems many inmates view prison life and criminal activity as a rite of passage or a badge of honor. Even when presented with real opportunity for change, some individuals take pride in continuing their illegal activity and criminal lifestyle behaviors. I have personally seen men with opportunities for early release or reduction of their sentence under new laws continuously jeopardize their freedom by choosing drugs and alcohol over sobriety. One such individual was accepted into an early release program after spending 17 years in prison, only to be returned to prison less than 2 weeks into the program due to a dirty drug test.
Having had my freedom unjustly taken from me, it is hard to see so many men disregard the opportunities they are given. Especially because I know I would embrace those opportunities wholeheartedly and succeed. On a regular basis I see parole being given to men who are still using drugs, participating in illegal activities, and doing absolutely nothing to better their lives. If these men cannot remain sober or refrain from criminal activity in prison, they have no real chance of success upon release.
What I find most difficult to understand is that many of these men have no desire to change. I personally know an individual who under two new laws which recently passed, is eligible to be resentenced. Currently this individual is working on obtaining a resentencing hearing that he will most likely receive. Under the new laws this individual will be eligible to be released with time served or if the judge denies his request for a lesser sentence, the judge may reinstate the original sentence; which is up to life in prison. With such an opportunity available to this man I cannot understand why he continuously jeopardizes it. This man regularly drinks alcohol, uses illegal substances, and participates in criminal activity in a way he practically wears as a badge of honor. A single disciplinary infraction for any of his illegal activity would likely mean the denial of being resentenced. He is aware of this, yet his actions are loud and clear; he does not care. He prefers to drink and get high rather than fighting to be a better man in order to go home to his family.
Besides myself, I have seen some men make the right choice and rise above the negativity that abounds in prison. Men like us stand out within the prison walls. Everyone within the prison community recognizes who we are and generally gives us a level of respect not otherwise shown. I knew a man who served 29 years in prison on a ’15 Years to Life’ sentence who spent too many of those years involved in everything negative about prison; drugs, violence, gangs, and went to the SHU for over a decade (Segregated Housing Unit, where inmates go to be punished for not following the prison rules). Then one day, this man realized he needed to change. He decided prison would not define who he is and he spent the next decade redefining himself. For this true life change he was granted parole and is now a free man. Nearly a year later he is still spoken of with respect on the prison yard, not for who he was but for who he became and what he accomplished.
I see the culture of prison and the behavior of those around me; I do not understand why anyone would continue a lifestyle that will keep them in prison. Or worse, return them to prison upon release. I strive every day to follow the rules in prison in order not only to avoid the consequences of breaking the rules but primarily because nothing within my control will prevent me from going home to my family.
Written by Sean, November 2018