Chris DankovichPrison is sometimes quiet. But it is never still. Peace is not the same as silence, and even then, silence is rare. Noise is constant, finding “meaning” in your days is elusive, and coping with stress in prison proves difficult. 

Combining the awareness and, often, hypervigilance needed to navigate through sometimes-dangerous waters is exhausting. That’s the baseline. But things quickly can get worse from there. In addition to violence, exhaustion is the main reason why the average lifespan of someone spending the majority of their life in prison is roughly fifty-two years. And the only one you can blame for what you’re dealing with is yourself… but you also want to figure out how to deal with these feelings, how to push through your situation, and how to survive physically and with some semblance of your ‘self’ left behind (and maybe even to end up with a better ‘self’ afterward).

How do you find peace amongst the chaos? How do you overcome the deprivation, occasional depravity, stress, loss, guilt, depression, loneliness, isolation, and the breaking apart of everything you know? What can I recommend to someone just coming to prison, or who has a loved one going to prison? What can you do even if you’re not in prison but deal with any of these situations?

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POOR WAYS OF COPING WITH STRESS IN PRISON

Heroin, chain-smoking, extortion, and face tattoos are some poor ways of coping. Some of the main ways of dealing with the overwhelming-ness of years in prison are to either mentally escape, self-medicate, or take control of as much as is physically possible. There is a huge drug trade in every joint, and a large amount of violence originates solely because of the testosterone-drunk feeling that many men gain through feeling in control of others. In the jungle, the lions on the highest perch, and the gazelles who find the patch of fermented fruit, often seem to feel the least amount of stress.

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HEALTHIER WAYS: OUTWARD WAYS OF COPING

There is a reason why so many prisoners are in such good shape. Exercise, particularly weightlifting, burns away stress, instills confidence, and reduces feelings of fear. And when you can lift the equivalent of another person over your head or two refrigerators off the ground, you feel more in control without directly taking advantage of another person. But there’s a cultural push in prison to lift extremely heavy weights all the time, which isn’t healthy and leads to common injuries (which I’ve suffered myself). Like everything, there’s a balance that needs to be found.

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INWARD WAYS OF COPING

Religion, creation, education, and meditation are inward ways of coping. You can calm the mind without drugs, find some meaning and purpose despite being confined to a cell, become a more capable and understanding version of yourself, and find some beauty and peace in the little things. Belief, art, learning, and focus are strengths you can develop that aren’t hampered by prison walls (at least not completely).

Religion and the creation of different kinds of art (e.g., honing natural drawing skills, learning to paint from another prisoner, music, and poetry) are large aspects of life for a sizable subculture of prisoners. Studying religious texts, group worship, and finding a freeing mental “zone” that comes with creating something from scratch can make you forget that you are in prison for a moment. Unfortunately, prison religion sometimes can be only “prison-religion”, but, in the meantime, the effects can still exist.

Don’t miss:  Chris Dankovich’s Dad on Raising a Son in Prison.

Learning and meditation are practiced less often but can be more profound. When I say learning, I’m not referring to just rote education… though that isn’t all that common either. Real learning inside prison involves learning about yourself, others, and communication. This kind of learning ventures into psychology and comes from the observations necessary to survive in a hostile environment. But sometimes this kind of learning comes from wanting more for yourself and those around you. It involves expanding your awareness of different lifestyles, recognizing the larger world that surrounds your street or city, and empathizing with others different from you.

Meditation and mindfulness are spreading in prison, though these practices haven’t reached a level that could be described as “common”. They’re not always known by meditation and mindfulness, and they’re practiced in varying forms. For some, it involves prayer beads. Others iron a prison uniform for hours (not the favored form of meditation for those in line behind them). Some take time to sit peacefully with closed eyes and clear their minds. And some of the best advice I’ve received comes from old hippies: “be in the moment, not in the past or the future.” It also comes from the Alcoholic Anonymous truisms of accepting what you cannot change and going one day at a time. One of the most calming exercises I’ve learned is to close my eyes and review the entire day, moment by moment, stopping when there is a hole until I remember and reach the now… and then focus on a clear mind in the “now” for as long as possible.

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Prison has not been good to me. It is tiring, exhausting, and does exactly what it is designed to do. I got myself here, and I push forward to get through. Some days, it is harder than others. Some moments I can find peace and calmness. Often, I learn new things and search for ways to create, pushing myself to physical exhaustion. But these tactics can only take you so far. At times, walking around the prison track, or in my cell, the stress threatens to overwhelm me. But I often am able to vanquish these feelings by speaking these words to myself, “I’m right here, right now.” I then look around to find something beautiful (even if it’s just one of my tattoos). For instance, two days ago as I did this I saw a wildflower blooming in the grass in the prison yard. Yesterday, I looked down and saw a four-leaf clover popping out from the side of the track. It was like a momentary reinforcement of what I needed. And when I don’t have those things of beauty, I sometimes carry a small cord knotted ten times in my pocket. When I need a bit of calm, I repeat that I have or will find what is needed to overcome whatever issue I am experiencing in the moment. I repeat this ten times. Or I slowly count out ten things for which I’m grateful. My problems don’t always go away instantly, but I find myself in a better state of mind to deal with them or develop the peace I need to recharge.

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Those in prison deal with different things at different times and for differing lengths of time, but one thing that we share is that we only have what is within ourselves to find some calm. Some are better or more experienced in it than others, and I’ve met men who’ve managed to stay sane through over fifty years in prison. I’m no guru at mindfulness and often struggle with it, but, at moments, despite seeing razor-wire and having lived in a cell every day for sixteen years, I can sometimes find peace, calmness, and a second of joy in the beauty of the moment… and I hope that you can too.