Then I Woke Up: “PEP Talk” From a Prison Cell

by Daniel A. Rosen |

I had a dream recently, one I’ll remember for a long while. It was so vivid that I woke up with a start at 4am in my prison cell and wrote it down. Don’t mistake this for some embellished morality tale or apocryphal fable – it really went just like this:

I was running, propelled from behind by a force I couldn’t control. I approached the edge of a rocky precipice with great momentum and was unable to prevent myself from hurtling over the edge. Though it was a long way down – perhaps a couple hundred feet or more – I remember being unafraid, knowing somehow the fall wouldn’t mean my end. Just before the dry ground of a vast desert rose to meet me, an impossibly lush tree embraced me in its greenery, cushioning my landing.

I then spent the whole night racing back up a plateau at top speed, somehow not winded. When I got to the top, I understood that I’d been serving time through the long night, and that now my sentence was finished. I came upon a gathering or celebration of some sort and jumped in the small pool at my feet with all my clothes on; my dog jumped in after me and licked my face.

When I got out of the water, I walked into an auditorium where everyone I care about was gathered. Someone yelled: “Dogpile!” and they all jumped on top of me gleefully. It was overwhelming, but I told myself to just breathe. A sense of calm and peace filled me, even trapped under the press of dozens of people. After it was over, I got up and thanked them for letting me feel the literal weight of their love. I told them I’d felt it during the long night of my incarceration, and it’d kept me going. And then I woke up.

In prison, you’re surrounded constantly by negativity, whining, arguing, shouting, cursing, fighting, racism, bigotry, misogyny, chaos, and dysfunction. Damaged and broken people inflict their pain on everyone around them – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Complaints about the conditions of confinement masquerade as conversation. Many are quick to take offense or easily angered, and the spectre of violence is always lurking in the background. Competition over scarce resources (phones, tables, showers, food, space, anything really) leads to nasty arguments that sometimes escalate to fights.

Against that backdrop, I came to a decision about halfway through my incarceration that I couldn’t do my time that way. I saw too many embittered souls being eaten alive by rage, and it wasn’t a good look. I told myself that I had a choice, and that I wouldn’t let this place drag me down into anger and bitterness – though it’d be much easier to give in to those prevailing currents.

I promised myself to at least try not to allow negativity and complaining into my thoughts and conversations, or my phone calls and visits. Difficult as I knew it would be – and it’s been even harder than I anticipated – I resolved to try to cultivate and practice three things every single day: Positivity, Empathy, and Patience. When I remind myself of this, as I do often, I like to think of it as my little prison “PEP talk.”

I won’t pretend to always succeed; I often fall short and have to start over the next day, redoubling my efforts. The stress here gets to you sometimes. It’s easy to fall into what I’ve come to think of as “SIN”: Selfishness, Impatience, and Negativity. Those are the default settings for many people in here, and they’re really counterproductive ways to spend time. (And of course I don’t mean “sin” in a religious sense – rather, to mean a fault.) Keeping a journal helps to examine those moments of failure when I allow some variation of these errors to take charge of my thoughts.

And if I’m being honest with myself – selfishness, impatience, and negativity were awfully prevalent in my life even before prison. I let these things casually dominate my thinking and actions all the time out there, even though I had a very good life. I was always rushing through things, impatient about whatever was next and anxious about the obstacles that stood in my way. I rarely enjoyed anything, stressed myself out about the future, and then hurried through it when I got there. I almost always assumed the worst, that things would turn out badly, catastrophizing constantly. And I didn’t worry too much about other people’s needs or feelings, or try to put myself in their shoes. I mostly did what I wanted, and didn’t think about the consequences for others.

So prison was a real wake-up call. Jail first, really. Because here, truly you are just a number, and no one cares about whatever silly little problem or frustration you’re having. And I found myself suddenly with no control of anything at all. The privations were startling. But I’d made terrible decisions that led me there, and the state resolved to limit my agency for a while and instead make decisions for me.

I felt aggrieved, victimized, and sorry for myself early on. But that unproductive approach dissolved over time in the presence of others with real hard luck stories. It became painfully clear to me how much better off I was than those around me – after all, I had some resources, a family that cared, a good lawyer – far more than most, really.

Service to others – a jail job teaching GED classes to mostly young Black men from the worst parts of D.C. – also took the place of selfish concerns and helped me change my point of view. I found myself amidst inmates who had none of the advantages I did, whose stories broke my heart and convinced me of my obligation to improve the the system we were all caught up in.

It didn’t happen all at once – I won’t claim a singular moment of conversion like Saul on the proverbial road. But I did experience a few moments of clarity – the cold steel and cement of a jail cell has that effect, I suppose – revealing to me the extent of my selfishness. I came to accept that I alone was responsible for my circumstance, and that I was a long way from becoming the person I wanted to be.

It wasn’t that I’d never faced adversity before. When I was a teenager, my father went to prison for drugs and embezzlement; he died in an accident when I was just 20. I coped in high school by escaping daily to my girlfriend’s house, and later by moving across the country, chasing career success. I ran from my problems instead of facing them, and for a while it worked.

Then, in my 40s, I faced unexpected failures – in my professional life, in the hard work of marriage, in my health with a cancer diagnosis – and I didn’t handle them well. The cumulative stress sent me careening off the rails, and I ran from it this time too. I made some very bad decisions and took refuge in various forms of escapism that were ultimately self-destructive. This time around, running didn’t work too well. Prison was the end result.

Patience and Impatience

Cheryl Strayed wrote that “Acceptance is a small, quiet room” – and when I read those words in my jail cell they had an immense impact. I was, after all, sitting in a small, quiet room – but finding it difficult to accept my circumstances.

When you’re locked behind the door of a cell, you’re no longer in control of your own life. And the quicker you can accept that, the more at peace you’ll be. When you find the patience and forbearance to accept all the small indignities that your surroundings will afford, you’ll be a lot less angry. And those six words helped me find that.

It’s a lot easier to be impatient when nothing happens on your schedule. The CO won’t open your cell door, breakfast is an hour late, the showers are full, outside recreation is cancelled for the third day in a row – prison is full of this kind of dysfunction. The ones who accept that they have no control of these events and patiently adjust to reality are a lot less angry. And the ones who have a fit over every little thing that goes wrong here are a lot more common.

I’m not by nature a patient person, but prison has shown me the folly of impatience, and taught me just to breathe and let it go when that short-tempered, restless, irritated little gremlin that can’t abide delay rears its ugly head.

Empathy and Selfishness

“I walked in here alone, and I’ll walk out of here alone,” inmates will often say. Usually, they repeat this when engaged in some sort of selfish behavior that puts their needs above those of another inmate. It’s almost an ethos or part of the “inmate code” – every man is on his own here. And while you can’t get too attached in a place like this, where anyone can be moved or transferred, never to be seen again, it’s still not healthy to think like that. Our obligations to each other as human beings don’t stop at the gate outside.

“Worry about yourself,” I’ve been told by staff when asking for books or supplies or forms on behalf of another inmate. I looked at them like they were nuts. As prison officials promoted selfishness, I ignored them and pushed for what I thought was right on others’ behalf, writing request forms time and again for those who couldn’t find the words to ask for what they needed.

Beyond my fellow inmates, being here has finally made me realize how little thought I gave to others in my life. The actions I took that landed me here have had so many consequences for everyone around me – and especially those closest to me. I remember sitting in my jail cell early on, and just being hit like a ton of bricks by the realization, finally, of what my wife must have felt while I was abandoning the life we’d built together. I don’t think I’ve ever had as clear a recognition as I did at that moment of what someone else must be feeling. And it hurt; I understood the depths of my selfishness, and I bawled like an infant.

Positivity and Negativity

At the end of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” the protagonist realizes that the words “Thou mayest” are perhaps the most important phrase in the Bible. I finished the book in my jail cell and these words affected me deeply. “Thou shalt” is a command – but “Thou mayest” means we have a choice. And I finally understood the choices I had every day – to do the right thing, to be grateful for all that I have. But at a more basic level, to just see the good in things, and not assume the worst outcome. I’ve spent so much needless worry that way – and I’ve learned that the worst can happen to me and I’ll find a way to survive it.

I had so much in my former life, and yet I was deeply dissatisfied at a fundamental level. Now I have very little – though still more than many others here – and I’m a lot happier. It’s a decision, I’ve realized, and a matter of perspective or approach – as cliché as that sounds. A place as stark and devoid of beauty as prison will throw this into clear relief. Because if you can’t find joy in small things here, you’re going to be miserable. And many are, of course, but I found I couldn’t live that way anymore. Not once I realized I had a choice.

2021 is, as we say here, “my year” – meaning I’ll get out of prison before the calendar flips again. I know everyone around the world is happy to see 2020 in the rearview mirror, and looking forward to better things this year. Digging out of the hole of a pandemic, restoring a government concerned about real people’s challenges, and reckoning with racial and economic inequality are all on the agenda – and none will be easy.

I had another dream that seems relevant, just a few nights ago. In that dream, I’d had some kind of petty argument with someone – I’d let slip an unkind word, and he took it badly – the situation was ready to escalate to violence. To a friend nearby I said: “Now I have to either kill him, or ignore him.” My friend shook his head and reminded me: “Or you could just love him.”

I remember being stunned by the truth of it. For the second time in as many weeks, something sacred had reached into my sleep to lift me up. When I awoke, I resolved to do better once again, on a new day full of possibility.

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