My primary fear in prison is not the time. It’s not getting stabbed. My fear of prison is becoming severely institutionalized.

I use the term “severely” because it is almost impossible to not be affected by prison culture and life after doing more than five years inside. There is the institutionalization that comes from a slave mindset, where an individual just wants to be subservient to the authorities of the prison in exchange for special privileges. I am a hard worker by nature, but I don’t work to gain favor, nor to kiss anyone’s tail. I work to maintain a sense of work ethic as I truly hope to gain my freedom one day and want to be able to hit the ground running. I am entering my early fifties soon, and know that I only have a few good years of hard work left in me and I would have to work hard if I want to have a nest egg set aside for when I can’t work twelve-hour days.

As the saying goes: “a body in motion stays in motion.” I don’t want to spend days sitting in a dormitory only to be released and find it hard to put in a good day’s work. All of this yapping and I still have not disclosed my exact fear of being institutionalized. I watch men come into the system with no thought of preparing for the eventual release should it come their way. I see men who entered the system in their teens, and now in their thirties, forties, and fifties have not taken it upon themselves to get their GEDs or improve their reading skills.

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When the reality of age finally sets in on them, they grow jealous of others who have made smarter decisions. They envy those who have utilized their time to better themselves. Sometimes that jealousy turns into malice, which is exhibited in the form of unfounded lies, malicious slander, and physical assault against the more productive inmate.

This may seem uninteresting to Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, but the tragedy is only seen when viewed from the lens of the community these men are returning to. Most of those men suffer from deep-seated insecurities and anxieties from past traumas. There’s no comprehensive psychological treatment or therapy available to these men other than mind-numbing drugs to keep them from getting violent. Now in the world, these men find themselves illiterate, unskilled, and socially destitute because of the massive leap in technological advances. Their insecurities only heighten when placed under pressure to produce and become productive, and they often resort to alcohol and drugs to cope with their shortcomings.

The people who suffer more than these men are the community who have to house, feed, clothe, and help them reintegrate into the schedule of life with work, etc. I once walked into a rich man’s home in Miami, and he had a huge fish tank in his foyer. In the tank were small sharks. I asked him what he would do when the sharks grew too big for the tank. In response, he explained to me that the sharks would only grow as big as their environment allowed. He stated that some of the sharks in the tank were nearly five years old, yet they were no more than two feet in length.

I don’t want to be so entrenched in the system that things like bleach, TVs, buffers, soups, cells, and minor things of no real value become valuable enough to raise Cain over. My fear of prison is being enclosed so long in the system’s “fish tank” that I stop growing mentally. I don’t want to be the big fish in a small pond inside, who, when finally released to the ocean, becomes a dwarfed guppy amongst whales because I stopped growing. A prison chaplain drilled it in my head that being in prison doesn’t mean that prison must be in me.

After nearly nineteen years of incarceration, I am in prison, but prison is not in me. I come from the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but I was blessed never to be petty. Institutionalization has a way of turning people into the pettiest of God’s creatures. I don’t want to become that.