Maturing in Prison

It’s a long road, from childhood to adult, and certainly not an easy one. It is all the more difficult for incarcerated people. I’ve watched others grow up in prison, grew up here myself, and I’ve observed an arch or series of milestones people seem to pass through on their road to adulthood.

Youngsters, 18, 19, 20 years old, who show up here fresh from county or transferring in from juvie all have one thing in common. We’re angry. I say “we” because I know I was one of them, still am in certain respects. I remember feeling so worthless, scared, desperate to be left alone, needing so badly to be held and told it’ll all be ok. And behind all that, rage. Nobody could tell me nothing because I was a “grown ass man.” I thought I could do everything myself, completely ignoring all evidence to the contrary, like not eating or showering for a week. Nevermind my nonexistent self-esteem which made attempting anything new an exercise in futility. I didn’t need anyone. I was an island. An impenetrable fortress. I would have random crying jags every day and wakeup from a dead sleep screaming every night. Hell, still do.

Having experienced this, seen this over and over and over in the people around me, I have come to relate immaturity with selfishness, self-destruction, and self-delusion.

The first step in moving out of this is realizing someone, literally anyone, cares about oneself. That they see a version of oneself worthy of being cared for.
When the self looks into the mirror of another’s uncomplicated love and sees oneself as they do, it breaks that self in a good way. This might happen a dozen times before it sticks, or might only take once. It’s once it sticks that life becomes difficult.

There is no need for skill or effort as long as one is embracing the low road. This is a part of the reason so many people who are total messes can so easily convince themselves that they have their shit together. But once one starts climbing for the highroad, life gets hard.

I remember spending winter in bed three years in a row. I got up for meals, and occasionally to go outside, but otherwise, I was immobilized by that gulf. Between what I was and what I could be.

I had so much drama in my life from wanting to be a good person, but having no idea what that means. This is the point in time that everyone is the biggest shitshow they will ever be. This causes anyone who has their life together to not want anything to do with them at exactly the moment when they need to be mentored the most.

This is usually the point in time where people will start signing up for random programs not knowing what they are, and not knowing what they need. It is in this stage where “jailhouse conversions” happen. People are desperately searching for anything which will give them a sense of purpose and they will latch onto religion as a substitute for self worth. I’m lucky in that I already practiced Wicca and I picked up Buddhism when I was in this stage. These beliefs gave me the tools I needed to grow. I’ve seen people get to this stage and last in their new found faith up until they are faced with a choice where what they want to do and what their faith says they should do are radically different. I do not know what causes success or failure at this point, but one of three things happen:

1) the person loses their faith and returns to square one with more self hate than ever.
2) the person starts on a cycle of making strides and backsliding in such a way that tricks them into thinking they are growing when really they never get past the same point.
3) they dig deep and successful set their ego aside to do the right thing.

If one does the third thing, growth happens and one begins to be less of a mess. If they repeatedly make the same choice over and over, then other people who already have their life together will usually take notice and start helping.

I wasn’t so lucky. It took 5 years for me to get the support of others after I got my shit together and caused me to be stagnated for quite a while. I wasn’t able to learn the lessons of asking for help and trusting others because I didn’t have people around me who were trustworthy. Every time I gave someone a little trust, they broke it. Thankfully, I didn’t give up. I eventually found some people who held my trust and didn’t betray me.

Of course, the work didn’t stop there. It never stops. It circles back around perpetually with ever more subtle versions of every lesson. Once a person reaches this point, a person continues to be mature as long as they keep doing the work. If they stop, then they begin to stagnate, decay, and lose their hard won maturity.

It seems to me that once a person reaches their 15 year mark this happens for a while. The sheer amount of time spent locked up causes them to question the point of all the hard work it takes to resist all the toxic institutionalizing norms we are surrounded by. It was so easy being a mess way back when, and being a grownup is so tiring, exhausting, seemingly pointless. Especially for those of us without a release date. The thought of “I’m gonna die in here so what’s the point?” has no answer. It simply comes down to what kind of person does one want to be.

I have done 13 years so far, and I am planing on putting in for clemency at my 16 year mark. Which means, if I am not an exception to the pattern, I will be smack dab in the middle of an existential crisis while I’m fighting for my life and freedom.

Discovering and holding on to one’s maturity while incarcerated is a long difficult road, but so far I’ve found it’s worth it.


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