#139 Middle ground (retro)

April 12, 2010 at 2:18 am Leave a comment

The Middle Ground

How odd, just a week ago we had snow on the ground, now today we are looking at warm temps for short-sleeved shirts…hmmm.

Anyway, before I begin, thanks to a friend at Embarq that helped me to see what was the trouble with my email. I had mentioned to you guys that I noticed that when I tried to write emails, it seemed to slow down when I backspace to correct errors. It was very frustrating. A guy from Embarq saw my blog on it and wanted to help, and he figured that maybe I was using the “enhanced” version rather than just basic. He said if I switch back to basic, it might work as normal…and it did.


Now, I have had time to sit down and think about this subject since a reader brought it up, and I wanted to make sure I could give you the best answer I could give, relying on my experience, but knowing I do not know it all.

The question is based on the idea of whether an inmate who lives in prison under violent or “institutionalized” mentalities can properly adjust to a free society. Is there a middle ground here, or is there only one way?

I think in order to truly tackle this subject, we have to first understand the definitions we are using here. What I mean by that is we have to be clear on what we are talking about, and not assuming something. I’ll explain as we go.

What I will do also is speak for inmates, since at this moment they cannot speak for themselves…unless of course you copy my blogs and send it to them, and they write back, but since we are talking about guys in prison, they don’t have the privilege to browse the internet and find me. But note that I am not saying I am speaking for them all, because I can’t. I can only use myself as an example, since I once was an inmate.

So…is there such a “middle ground”?

Is there a place where felons can come out of prison and have room to adjust to society, even with a strong belief in how they lived in prison. Can an inmate bring out his feelings, beliefs and actions from his life in prison into a free society and thrive, or is this condemnable by society?

The comment the reader made is a very good point of the battles we are facing in this issue. On one side, we as society believe that a person coming out of prison should do right, and not repeat his or her negative actions. In a free society, that is not desired nor tolerated.

But on the other side, an inmate lives a life that a free citizen may not understand. I don’t need to tell you how violent many prisons are, and how an inmate has to learn to adapt to them, often times by “trial of fire”. When an inmate has to live such a life for many months, or many years, it is not as easy as “turning it off” when they get out.

But yet that is what society expects.

To play the side of the inmate for a minute, consider this: An inmate in prison has to adapt to being ready, willing and able to defend himself and his property at any moment, any day, at any time. Not just for a week, but throughout the entire course of his incarceration. There then develops the mentality of protecting what is yours and defending your respect as a man (or woman in women’s prisons).

To many inmates, this is all that remains of them, because for many, they have lost everything else. To lose your respect while in prison is to lose everything, and it is nearly impossible to do time when you have nothing to live for. Again I say, prison can be a very violent place, and no doubt there are many individuals in prison that will take from you if given the opportunity. Whether by force or by guile (treacherous cunning), prisons are full of guys that don’t care about your loved one.

Woe be unto the first time felon…like myself.

It was hard for me to adapt to the idea that I might have to physically hurt somebody if I had to…but the reality of it was I had to defend myself, or be prepared to do so, at any time. Often times society does not fully get the idea of what an inmate goes through. This isn’t school, where you MIGHT get in a fight with a bully during school hours. This is prison, and the possibility is every single day, every waking hour.

So an inmate that believes in this has to be on “red alert” every day, for days, weeks, months or years. You can see how over a period of time it is deeply embedded in them as a lifestyle, not an option. An inmate that did 10 years, for example, with that mentality, is not going to be able to just “turn it off” when he is released. But often times society expect that, not knowing his mental state of mind.

I spent about 17 months in county jail before going to prison, and I heard and saw the effects of how juveniles treat one another. If you have a juvenile son, I would suggest you take a moment to pray for him, because you will need God to watch over that person. Some of the most violent inmates in jail were indeed the juveniles, who preyed over the weaker ones like lions in the safari. I will not go into all those stories here, but I say that because it shows how violence in prison is not just for gangs and older inmates. It is also in juvenile prisons as well.

So there is a “credible” point when an inmate feels that sometimes they have to be violent, because it is your last defense in prisons where other inmates can indeed see you as prey. And it is important to defend what is yours, because if not, then other inmates may see you as an easy target and try to take from you.

And let me add to this: It’s not just that potential violent mentality, it is survival. It’s all too easy for people outside of prison to say how a person in prison should live, but when that inmate has to lay his head down on his bunk, he has to believe that he can, and will, do what he has to if somebody came to him to do harm. Tonight when I go to bed, I have no fear of somebody trying to do me harm, because I am not in prison. But when I was in prison, that thought came every once and awhile.

Greater than that was the idea of inmates trying to take from me. Stealing can be quite common in any prison, because a lot of guys there are not in prison for winning boy scout badges.

So survival is a key idea in how an inmate thinks and lives. This isn’t easily changed when an inmate goes from prison to free society, nor can it be. Yet let me add even more, in the idea of the natural surroundings of prison.

The human body is like a sponge, it has the ability to absorb many things depending on the surroundings of that individual. If you surround a person with positive feelings and beliefs, he or she may eventually begin to think that way. In prison, consider how much negativity surrounds the inmate. Consider how much anger, hate, sadness, guilt, shame, depression and doubt lies in those walls, the beds, the dorms of that prison? Now that sounds a little corny, but you can understand it if I said that those feelings were in most inmates.

Hang around somebody negative too long and see what happens to you. You’ll either get frustrated with that person or you’ll start absorbing some of those negative feelings. In prison, imagine a building full of negative people, and no way out. Over the course of days, weeks or months, the mind will be filled with the negativity of the prison and the individuals in it. This, the idea of survival and the possibility of being violent to protect one’s property (including self) could very well be a reason why some inmates believe that they don’t need to change, or don’t want to change.

But that does not change the fact that society EXPECTS them to change.

Yet we must define WHERE the change is suppose to take place? The middle ground is located where? In the prison? It can’t be, for that would mean that society expects inmates to change while in a violent society. If every inmate would stop trying to use another, and if they all respected every person as a human being, then YES, it could happen, but what society asks is not reasonable while a man is living in a dorm where perhaps one, or two guys might be looking to make a sexual advance on him.

And yet, let me add this…

Many of these same individuals, when released, are often put in the worst possible conditions and given the commandment of walking on water. Example: A guy in prison for 10 years for a violent crime gets released, under a 3 year parole, and has to live with a relative in a tough part of town. He is expected to get a job, pay his fees and have drug tests as well as scheduled visit with the parole officer. Now, that sounds great for the inmate at first, but often times the judicial system does not make preparations for an inmate to start life anew, it only replaces him back in the same element he came from.

Now this is NOT every inmate, because many inmates go on to do wonderful things once given the chance, but many inmates find themselves back in the same situation, because their life never really changed, just the times. It reminds me of the example I shared with you guys before, where an inmate I knew was released from prison and only months later, was back in prison.

I thought this guy was an idiot, I mean, why would any person want to come back to prison, and one day I was on the yard with him and we talked. He told me that when he was released, he was under parole for a few years. But the problem was the state he committed the crime was not his home state. I think he said he was from Texas, but was arrested in NC. When he got parole, he was not allowed to be released in Texas, but rather here in NC, where he had absolutely no family or friends.

He was expected to make a life with no place to live, no money, no job, no food, no support, nothing but the clothes on his back. And because he was on parole, it was an obligation for him to make a life or go back to prison. He told me he knew it would not work, and he felt he was better off back in prison. He felt the odds were just way too high.

Some of you might judge him and say “that’s just lazy”. Maybe so, but he was thinking survival. How bad was his outlook if he felt prison was better than society? Think about that.

All these things play into the mentality of an inmate who feels that it is necessary (at times) to have a violent mentality. Now don’t misunderstand this either, this does not mean that every inmate is walking around with shanks, ready to “do in” anybody that looks at them funny. That is NOT every prison, in fact, it is not most prisons. Yes there can be violence in any prison, but it isn’t as common as some are led to believe.

So the middle ground ought not be the prison, because it may be unreasonable to tell inmates to “be good” in the midst of a world of negativity. But if the inmate is going to be successful in his transition, it has to start somewhere, right? I mean, even though I can defend the life of inmates, I know too well that if an inmate does not change (or is allowed to change) he will not be productive in society.

It has to start somewhere, right? Where then is the middle ground, because inmates can’t just “turn it off” when released. You can’t expect a man that did 20 years to just adapt to society as easily as everybody else.

And here is another thing to add…many folks in society won’t give ex felons an opportunity anyway. Society as a whole likes to tell inmates to do right and change, and they have every right to say that. I have no problem with that because it is the inmate’s responsibility to adjust to a free society, if he wants to stay in it. But the hypocrisy we have as society is many of those same individual who want inmates to change are the same ones, if that inmate applied for a job at their business… would reject them because of their background.

A business man might claim that ex felons should be treated fairly, but if one came in his business and got a job application, he would have 2 and a half strikes against him simply because of his background. Lots of times society is about lip service, talking about righteous things, but far from it.

So I have kinda piled a bunch of things for the inmate to support his beliefs, not only that his life in prison needs violence, but it is also filled with negativity, strife, depression, anger and guilt. Add on to this the necessity to survive while in a hostile environment, and the belief that ex felons are often denied jobs simply because of their backgrounds, and you might be able to see how an inmate can say what they may say about this “middle ground”.

So now, let me destroy that idea.

One of the things I can start on is the fact that from what the reader shared, this idea came from in inmate in minimum custody….


How can a guy in minimum custody be possibly embracing the idea of the violent mentality? Now, I say this as a guy that did time in medium custody as well as several minimum custody prisons. I gotta tell you, the mentality of a minimum custody prison is nowhere like it is in a higher security level.

Now it sounds like I am poking fun at the inmate who said this, but there is a heck of a lot of seriousness here. Inmates in minimum custody are the closest ones to obtaining freedom, either by finishing their sentence, by parole, by probation or even getting home passes, work release or community visits. These are the individuals that are closest to walking out that prison. It stands to reason that these inmates MUST be ready to adjust to society. You don’t put a guy who gets in fights in minimum custody; he stays in a higher security level because he is a risk to others and has not learned to conform to the rules of the prison.

Inmates in minimum custody are not there because they get in fights all the time. I say again, NOBODY in a minimum custody would be there if they are constantly written up for fights or have a violent nature in them. Now, there are exceptions because for me to say what I just said, I would have to imply that there are no fights in minimum custody… not true. I was in one myself…got my lip busted and spent time in seg for it.

But for an inmate to say that he has to embrace violence to protect what is his can be questionable, because some guys embrace violence rather than peace. Remember folks, there are a lot of guys in prison who delight in manipulating people to get what they want. Even prisons can be manipulated by inmates.

Lots of times we as inmates have a perverted sense of “righteousness and blessings”. A perfect example was a HRD (Human Resources Development) class I took while I was at Dan River Prison Work Farm. The teacher was one of the coolest guys I ever knew in prison (he wasn’t in inmate), and he really seemed like he enjoyed the class, and enjoyed helping us. Just a quick note, I pray he is doing well wherever he is….

Anyway, we were in class talking about making the right decisions, and knowing the difference between right and wrong. In the discussion, one of the inmates said something that deeply disturbed me. He was saying that sometimes a wrong decision to some might be the right decision for others, and he based it on this example:

He said that if he was in a grocery store, and an old lady, was to be in front of him, and happened to drop a $100.00 bill, he would pick it up and not say anything, because to him, it might be a blessing from God…

Look folks, I am not perfect, you know that, and I am not the most righteous person out there…but I felt so miserable when he said that, and half wanted to just walk out of the class because of what he said…and yet, a couple of other inmates actually AGREED with him.

This is the problem a lot of us (inmates) have, we realign life as to what is in it for us, rather than what is in it for society. Lots of inmates are looking for the “loop holes” so they can take advantage of it, and often times this is an attack of the kindness of others. A gentle act or innocent act by one means an opportunity for another, not to help, but to take.

I gotta tell ya, an inmate talking about how violence is necessary while in a minimum custody camp is likely not the example I could use in defending what some inmates believe. I spent a lot of time in many minimum custody camps, and if you asked me how many fights I might have seen in that period of time (including mine), I might say about 3 or 4, give or take one.

But for an inmate to have that kinda mentality while in minimum security seems to show what he embraces. Yet it may not be so much the violence, but the idea of being tough…there is a difference. I knew a LOT of tough guys in prison, and a few violent ones. I knew of no violent guys in minimum custody, but still knew a lot of tough guys.

The idea of prison survival takes on a different meaning when you talk about lower security levels. This is not to diminish the threat of an inmate taking what is yours, but the overall mentality is much less than as in a maximum security prison or a supermax. Are there guys in prison out to take what is yours…yes. I myself have been victim to it more than once. I wrote in my second or third “Grades of Honor” book about a guy that was taking advantage of me by asking favors and promising to pay me back since his hustle was making cards. After awhile I noticed he was always asking for favors, but never paid me a cent back, yet he was still selling cards.

You gotta be careful in prison when you get stuff, because there are eyeballs everywhere looking at what you got. I used to make a joke of it when I went to canteen, because some guys would see me with a bag and asked what I had. I often joked with them, saying, “medication”. A lot of guys got a nice laugh out of that, because it was a humorous way of saying, “none of your business” without offending them.

But there are guys out there that are looking for people to prey upon, and they exist on every camp in abundance. Even in minimum custody camps, that was quite common, in fact, I would say more common than when I was in higher security camps. But get this, the idea of “taking” was not so much by force, but by guile. In prison, some call it “running a game” on somebody. And because I looked like a college student, maybe I just had that kinda face that either implied that I looked sincere, or was stupid.

In my first book of “Grades of Honor” I talked about how one of the inmates conned me out of some canteen. I wanted to get in line for canteen, and one of the guys that was in line near the front offered to “sell” me his spot. Being new to prison (as this was about a week or two into my incarceration), I thought it was a great opportunity, so I bought it. We switched places and he wanted in return, a soft pack of Newports…now I have never smoked a day in my life, and I never knew there was a difference in soft pack or hardpacks. But a deal was a deal, and because I had not made canteen before, I was willing to do it.

While in like, he changed his mind, and told me to get him two packs of cigarettes. I started to think, “hey, he is changing the deal on me” but I still wanted that spot, so I agreed. I bought him the two packs of cigarettes, and got my canteen, but felt like he had the better end of that. I will tell you this, it was worth it to get a cold soda for the first time in over a year, but afterwards, I knew this guy had ran a game on me.

Only like a day or two later, the same guy came to me, asking me to buy him a pack of cigarettes, I told him I was broke (although I was not), because I now saw that this guy was gonna try to bleed me for everything he could get. Lesson learned.

This is indeed the mentality of a lot of guys in prison. Not all of them, but some. And these are the same guys that would think that they need to embrace toughness while in prison (especially minimum custody) when they could be trying to get their mind and heart ready for release into a free world. I have been around some very negative individuals while in prison, and it can see how indeed we can “soak” up the guilt, anger, depression and stress from other inmates. If you live with negative people long enough, you too may become negative…but that is not always true. The eye consumes what it put in it, much like the heart. And while there are many things you cannot prevent, there are things you can do. If this was not true, then there is no way I could have written nearly 300 blogs to this point on Blogspot. And certainly, I could not have written them with an encouraging edge to it.

So what prevented me from embracing the negatives? I think it is based not just on what I unwillingly absorbed, but what I also willingly absorbed by hope. There has to be a control when there are balances of negative thoughts and encouraging ones. In prison you will be flooded with negative emotions and beliefs and feelings, but it is the inmate’s responsibility to find hope. You can put it in his lap, you can put it to his face, but until he decides to accept it, and embrace it, INSTEAD of negativity, he will never change.

For me, something deep inside of me refused to let me be cold and discouraging to others, even at the worst time of my life. Remember folks, I wrote in my book that when I was first sent to prison, I gave up on God…or so I thought. But how can you give up on God, who is love, and continue to help your fellow man…even in prison? Good deeds, no matter how small, prove that the love of God still abides, and refuses to give up on the person.

Many times guys did take advantage of my kindness, but more often there were guys who needed help, and was glad to get it. One guy I knew could not read, and asked me to read his letters from his girlfriend, and to write some for him. I can understand how embarrassing it may have been to him to ask me, so I never talked to any other inmate about it. That was just between me and him. Another guy was really frustrated when he felt he was unfairly forced to work a job that two inmates should have been doing. I helped him write a grievance that was sure to stick, and he got his job back (after some issues) and got help, and his self esteem back.

I have helped a lot of guys during my incarceration, as I have also received help, but there has always been others who weren’t out to get help, they were out to get stuff from people. Those are the guys that refuse to change, those are the guys that will manipulate others, those are the guys that will manipulate society to get what they want. Those are the ones that refuse to change.

For guys like that…there IS no middle ground…because there is no desire to change.

And in that, maybe we have discovered where exactly the middle ground resides.

Perhaps the “middle ground” isn’t physical at all, like some plot of land. Maybe the middle ground is the area inside of us, the heart and mind. It’s there where an inmate truly decides what he desires to do, whether for good or ill.

Those deepest parts of an inmate are not subject to us to know, for who can know the thoughts of any man, let alone a man in prison? Yet it is this same place where in inmate has to make a decision to either change or not. To embrace the necessities needed to make it in a free world, or to embrace the institutionalization of prison.

Now does that mean an inmate cannot defend himself if someone tries to take from him…not exactly. Every man has a right to defend himself, even in prison, but more often than not, inmates carry that mentality not because it has happened, but because it might happen. And note as well, this isn’t a belief of being tough, it’s a belief of fear. Fear of losing something, and a desire to protect what has yet to be lost.

Prisons create a lot of images that inmates embrace when they have no real need to. For example, there is a very unwise idea that when you go to prison, you ought to do like they do in those old westerns. You go find the biggest, toughest person in the bar, and pick a fight.

Uh…don’t do that in prison. That can get you killed.

There is the idea that an inmate has to “make a name” for himself the moment he gets in prison, and some believe violence is a way to do it. For others, they want to make a name by the “games” they run. There are lots of ways to do it, which may feed on the idea that inmates, like everybody else in the world, want to be respected.

And in many ways, that is what some inmates believe is the crossbow to the bolt. The believe it is necessary to embrace the idea of being violent because it protects their belongings, and ultimately, their self respect. Odd, that it seems to be about respect FOR inmates, when some are not willing to GIVE respect.

So, is there a middle ground? Is one side right and the other wrong? Well, as a guy who has only an opinion based on my life, I would say that neither side is wrong because both worlds (prison and society) are so different that often times one cannot understand the other. It’s kinda one of the reasons why I blog as much as I do, to try to create some doors of understanding. But I agree that society has a right to expect inmates to change, because they need to if they are going to enjoy the benefits of living free. At the same time, inmates have a point in that the prison world they live in is nothing like what the common person lives in. Even in minimum security, it can be tough…it is still prison, regardless of the security level.

But to me, the middle ground is neither in society nor in the prison, but in the mind and heart of the inmate. If he is going to change, it has to start there. The middle ground is what the inmate truly believes, and his desire to WANT to change. A person outside of prison can tell an inmate that he needs to change, but if it is not in his heart, he will not. That is because in his mind and heart (the middle ground) he has made his decision.

No different from an inmate in prison, surrounded my negativity, but chooses to at least try to read a chapter in the Bible a day. In his mind and heart, he knows the surroundings and negativity of prison, but is making an attempt to be determined to find a better way.

And get his folks, neither of those instances is permanent, rather temporary, perhaps further proving that the middle ground is indeed not physical. A guy can do his best to hang in there while in prison, but once released, might get overwhelmed by the pressures and burdens of trying to make a living, and could slip back into negative feelings and emotions. He might have had the best intentions, but his trials might set him back. Even a guy that may have determined not to change his behavior while in prison could change for the positive once he gets out. He might have a very supporting girlfriend or wife, or his family rallies around him, or he goes to church. Any number of things can change a negative attitude to a positive one, and reset that person’s mind as to what is really important in his life.

The middle ground may well be the continual shifts of what we as inmates want, and what as EX felons, we see in society. Could we possibly say this is simply adaptations? I mean, a guy that did 10 years in prison may well have a prison mentality the first year, but would he still have it 5 years later, or would he not be adapting to society?

This place, this middle ground, can be very different from one inmate to another, because it defines what he or she really wants in life. But I kinda have to think that the life we want (or believe to be conditioned to) is reinforced in our heart and mind. Personally speaking, this is an ongoing development, even as a guy that has been out since 2001. But I do believe that the more a person seeks positive and encouraging support and help, it will eventually lead that ex felon (or current inmate) to absorb that feed and hope for better days. This is why you are so important to his rehabilitation, you have the ability to reassure him that he can make it, that he can continue to dream, that he can have faith in better days.

That makes YOU part of that middle ground too.

And it does not matter if you have been trying to instill hope for 2 weeks, but he is still resisting. Keep feeding him encouraging thoughts and beliefs, he needs to hear it from you. Even when it seems like you are not making progress, you have to continue to stay in faith. Nobody plants an appleseed and gets an orchid in a few days. A lot of that growing takes place when you don’t see it. No different with encouragement.

So remember that guys, and don’t give up…wow, I have typed 10 pages, so I better end it now. Email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com or make a positive comment. Ask about my books or how to support my site. Until next blog….


Entry filed under: girlfriends with boyfriends in prison, God and prison, inmates, jail, LostVault, mothers with sons in prison, prison, prison abuse, prison blogs, prison books, prison cards, prison food, prison jobs, prison mail, prison pen pals, prison support sites, Prison Talk Online, Prisonbid, rehabilitation, son in prison.

#137 Prison release: freedom or bondage (retro) #140 The Hierarchy of Inmate needs (retro)

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