SOCIAL DISTANCING: lessons from prison

SOCIAL DISTANCING: lessons from prison

As unprecedented as this pandemic situation is, whether you conceive it as highly intrusive or a mere inconvenience, a re-alignment to daily living which permits you to maintain your sanity is needed.

The goal is to isolate people so that the virus can run its course while we chase it down and remove its ability to replicate itself. At some point, we hope to see the last patient or person affected and see it off forevermore.

We don’t have a choice.

If we do nothing it would mean an overwhelming of our current medical resources with no guarantee the virus wouldn’t just keep mutating. Then, the whole round starts over again. The idea of catching the affliction and becoming immune could be a fleeting strategy.

The ideal solution is to let it die by not hosting it anywhere.

Of course, governments are falling over themselves to enact powers allowing them to get this done. Freedoms will be curtailed, if not voluntarily, soon legislatively.

It is your freedom I’m going to refer to here.

Specifically, you have no doubt by now been told social isolation is required. The Spanish Flu of 1918 (50,000,000 deaths ) and SARS (10% death rate) in the early part of the 2000s are our comparisons.

This time, no one is messing around. You are staying home.



A guy appears before a judge for a minor offense. Judge finds him guilty and sentences him to 30 days in prison. The convict pipes up, “30 days judge? Ha! I can do that standing on my head!” So, the judge calmly replies, “Is that right Mr Defendant? Well here’s 30 days more you can do standing on your feet…”

Case closed. Next!

Every kid going to prison for the first time hears about the dummy who doubled his sentence. It never gets old.

So how do you handle staying indoors or at home for up to the next 8 months or longer?

I’m reminded of the times I was in prison. I know, I know, already I’m referring to having to stay home as prison instead of the modern conditions most of us live in. For sure, the penitentiary or reformatory or county jail is not the same thing.

Regardless, there are many similarities depending on your frame of mind.

I tell you this because several times in my earlier years I was tossed inside. Most often, my life began to unravel immediately. Why wouldn’t it? Fact is my life was hardly “together” in the first place. Usually, I was apprehended and kept in prison on remand until I pled guilty.

The problem with doing time is all the stuff you had going on out there on the street either falls to shit or must be done through intermediaries. That is risky because the more people between you and your “stuff,” the higher likelihood of things going wrong.

Look, plenty of guys have done more time than me. I was lucky. Hell, I am lucky to be alive. But I bet each of them will agree with the things I’m about to tell you.

You might be like the newbie con whose life has imploded and he (or maybe she in your case) is still attached to the life they once lived (as good or as bad as it might have been).

In prison parlance, we call that, “shaking it rough.”

So, in case you are shaking it rough, here are my rules for doing time.

1. Forget about the outside
Nothing torments a new guy in prison more than to find his body is behind bars while his mind is still on the street. The first few months after going in he’s arranging visits and mail and phone calls trying to control the uncontrollable. It’s enough to drive him nuts.

The day I decided to NOT think about any of that was when I lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. I remember that decision like it was yesterday. I was walking through C3 range, it dawned on me and said fuck it… and I let it go.

It wasn’t like now I could enjoy myself. No. Not at all. But the difference was palpable. I probably stood two inches taller. And I laughed a little more.

The infamous ball-busting you see in movies like Goodfellas really happens. I never laughed so hard as I did in prison. At times, I felt a little guilty having so much fun. It’s all in how you look at it. You can laugh like that.

Plus, we have the internet. From home use any number of platforms like Zoom and Skype and WhatsApp and do calls all over the world. All videos and all, mostly free services so  you can ball-bust online as good as the old days. Fughetaboutit.

2. Make your cage a home
In prison, we didn’t have much so I learned to appreciate the smallest thing. Taking the environment where you will spend most of your time and making it work well for you is a critical step. Sure. happiness is a decision, but your environment is a BIG factor.

There’s not much you can do in a regional detention center but once you are sentenced to a prison, you can put some of your stuff in your cell. And you can barter with other guys to enhance your limited ambience. If you must be somewhere, (like a prison cell) and you have access to materials and have a say, why not make things as homey as you can?

Nothing gets wasted. A paperclip or a pin has a value. Take an old cassette player motor, a Bic pen tube, a hemming pin (or sharpened paper clip?), a splinter of wood like an eighth of a Popsicle stick thick and some ink from an art supply kit and a little scotch tape or thread and presto, you’re in the tattoo business. OK, maybe don’t try that one at home.

What could you do to set things up for a long-term stance at home? I bet there are many things. With the right mindset, you can make anything work. The trick is to focus on what you have and not on what’s missing

3. Embrace the suck
Sure, maybe you run a company or a department or some other “important” job which requires your expertise. How will the world ever operate without your wonderfulness? Truth is, it doesn’t matter. If it runs or does not run is no longer the question, at least temporarily.

This is the situation we are in and come hell or high water the powers that be are going to insist everything is shut down. And, there are NO bombs dropping outside. How nice is that?

Just as I couldn’t walk out of the county jail while awaiting sentencing or later, the penitentiary, you will be encouraged to NOT leave home.

By the time I got to the farm camp where I could walk away if I wanted, albeit for an illusory short term freedom while on the run and more time added to my existing sentence once apprehended, I got good at doing my time. See the parallel?

Embrace the suck. Do your time. Otherwise, you will shake it rough. You don’t want that.

4. Routines equal predictability
When you first get to the Big House, you do ten days or so in a newbie range. The only way you can communicate with the guys “in population” (who are there doing time already) is through a window overlooking the yard.

I was a common room man. Guys I knew reserved the job for me right while I was waiting to be transferred in out of the holding range. Once I adjusted (read: said fuck the outside), I took pride and care to set up my rudimentary environment with as much certainty as possible. This despite living with a bunch of killers and other assorted deviants.

This is a saviour… the habits that is.

I followed a daily routine with only slight variations on weekends for a Sunday visit and the odd Saturday movie night in the gym. Otherwise I did almost the same thing every darned day. I was up first and went to get food for the range. I used contraband and influence with the kitchen guys to make sure our range had lots of eggs and milk and other stuff.

While everyone else was at work (making license plates, etc.), I had the freedom (said loosely) to read, write, nap or hit the weights. After lunch every day I ate four pieces of toast with honey with a glass of milk, took a 20-minute nap and headed to lift. Like clockwork. I didn’t even have to think, just do.

Soon, one day blended into the next and I lost track of time. I didn’t check the calendar and just lived moment to moment, putting one foot in front of the other and appreciating only what had to be done next.

Eventually I felt like I was suspended in time, not aging, just… recharging. You are recharging your life.

5. Growing means not dying
You want to learn new stuff whenever you get some down time. Sure, you could take up welding or become a good chef inside. You can do that at home too. Speaking of kitchen crockery, I learned advanced crookery.

This including having an Ace lock gaffe made for me by the guys in shop. It was beneath me to ever use it when I got out… but I had one. Opened any pop machine or laundry room locks at the time.

I made a variety of contacts I could exploit later, dealers, importers, thugs. I learned the dissection of famous crimes from the actual participants and added to my knowledge about everything gangster.

It was decades ago. I’m not that man anymore, not by a long shot.

You will use your time more productively. I have faith in you. What’s something you can do? Learn a language? Write a book? Do your ancestry? That last one will pay dividends for generations. Bada boom!

6. Imagination is your best friend
The thing with not being able to go anywhere is it’s all in your mind. I read. You can read, right? I read James Michener among others, Hawaii, Chesapeake Bay, South Africa and was transported around the world. It was pure escapism. And I read other stuff too. I even read the bible. Where there are books, you can learn.

And I wrote, a lot. I couldn’t write worth a shit, but I had a letter per day going out and a letter per day coming in from my gangster’s moll on the outside — all in pink envelopes doused in perfume. Nothing gets the conversation going like the scent of a woman.

Remember the heroic lessons of psychiatrist Victor Frankl surviving the death camps. It’s almost embarrassing to compare that to this but the point is to honour what he taught us: you decide what meaning to give things. No one gets to take that from you. You are a meaning-maker.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” You can’t write anything these days without a Friedrich Nietzsche quote so there you are, one of his best.

7. Accepting others as they are
In many ways the “law of the jungle” prevails inside but there is ample opportunity to grow as a person too. Well, maybe “ample” is the wrong word.

What it does is force you to accept others as they are. You know why? Because at that point we are all in this together and no one is going anywhere. Familiar?

The hitman and the bank robber, the crime of passion murderer, the mob guys and the entrepreneurial cocaine cowboys, the dealers and the pimps, the bikers and thieves and the drug addicted, all of them are in the same place, with all their faults… and possibilities.

In such a predicament, it’s a good idea to suspend judgment and look for ways to survive and even support each other regardless of what brought you to where you are. You’ll avoid shaking it rough and do easier time.

8. Authorities are just doing their job
We called them screws. The prison guards unlocking and locking our cell doors or the access doors to various parts of the prison are just human beings like everyone else.

They work for different masters perhaps, the warden, society, a higher morality, their wives and children. But at their core, they are to a man (or woman in some places) just doing a life bit on the installment plan.

That means if you are doing less time (sentence), you have an advantage right? You go home one day.

See what I did there?

Often, we see freedom where there is none, and see a prison where none exists.

9. You can’t sleep away your time
The idea was you were “robbing the man” of his sentence over you the more you slept. This appealed to the immature nihilist in me. “Fuck them.” I thought, “I’ll sleep more than anyone.”

This meant I developed a BIG Valium habit for a few weeks trying to game my sentence. It was bullshit.

I was like a dog chasing its tail. It left me open to attack and caused me more trouble than it was worth. At the crux of all addiction is a quest to narrow focus. Truth is, I can choose my focus without any help.

Lucky. I figured it out fast. Time is time, just do yours.

Also, what if every addiction craving is just the universe demanding you be more powerful? What if not answering that call is a denial of your spirit? What if it’s just a way to stifle the voice for good in you?

Ever hear of a guy who is sentenced to a long term and has an epiphany at some point? Mutha starts to study and gets an education and eventually gets out and TURNS IT ALL AROUND. (I sort of fall under that category).

You know why we like underdogs so much? Because that is human spirit in action. It’s an irresistible force within each of us demanding we overcome. It’s the will to live and live more; it’s the best of us, the best of you.

How else might we answer such a call? Horace Mann said, “Be afraid to die until you have won a victory for mankind.” Do your part… however small.

Look after your sleep and your body.

It’s the Bodymind, not the Mindbody.

Locked in a cell, we’d use whatever is at hand to create our own gym. Heavy books strapped with a towel becomes a dumbbell. A stool and a bunk become a perfect place to do endless dips.

There are countless ways you can innovate to take your environment and turn it into something which will ensure you are tired enough to sleep like a baby soon after lights out. All health is predicated on sleep.

Which reminds me, lights out is always ten o’clock.

Inside or out. Good habits. No excuses.

10. Everybody gets out
In my country, almost every inmate eventually dies or gets out.

Sure, there are hoops to jump through. You might have to appear in front of a parole board to show you have taken an interest in your improvement as a human being. Courses, training, new attitudes. they all count. Outreach to the community is another way.

You could first get escorted passes, then unescorted passes, then maybe live at a halfway house while you find a job. Finally, full parole and a form of freedom.

It’s likely this current set of circumstance evolves in the same way. Expect there will be a staging back into normal life at some point.

That’s not now. Not yet. We’ll let you know. Did I mention there are no bombs dropping outside? Remember that. But you will be ready when the time comes. Stronger, calmer, more confident and assured. And, rested.

In fact, I was talking about this in one of my men’s groups last weekend. One of the fellas is a refuge from the Syrian war and talked about what it was like to be in your home where you normally think you are safe but only, some people are bombed and die there anyway.

We don’t have to worry about that kind of bomb. We must live in our houses and apartments for a few months. When you get out of prison, depending on the length of time you spend inside, things are different, a lot different, or almost incomprehensibly different.

A buddy of mine did 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He finally got the conviction overturned and gets out to no business and no wife and his only son had been murdered. He survived, found a strong woman to love and goes to work everyday. He’s the only guy I know in his 60s who is in better shape than me. He went in with no internet and came out to websites and email, and no family.

Trust me, you can do 8 months. You can do it standing on your head.

Things will be different. Nothing stays the same.

But you will be out.

Stay powerful, never give up

Christopher K Wallace (Wally)
Advisor to men, mentor at large

2019 all rights reserved

reach me here and we can talk/

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