Doing Time Invisibly

Our prisons are a reflection of our society.
—Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky

Each day living in prison makes a person realize one’s invisibility. As Ralph Ellison wrote in Invisible Man, invisibility makes you feel as though you do not exist and are safe. When something is needed by another prisoner or there is an opportunity for a guard to reprimand you for doing something wrong, then visibility becomes a handicap.

Every day as one walks through the halls of prison, there is a sense of tension. This sense is always a looming presence. Constantly throughout the daily prison experience, people are dealing with problems. These may be as simple as not having any money in the commissary, being afraid, being sick, feeling lonely, or not having any cigarettes. Then again, it may be something as serious as the death of a person close to your heart with no ability to be present at the funeral. Daily struggles involving family, friends, and lovers add to the hopeless state of being invisible to oneself. No longer being able to deal with the simple but important interactions between other human beings, invisibility has a detrimental effect on one’s psyche.

However, the shroud of invisibility can disappear and the aura of reality come speeding to consciousness very quickly. This can happen when another convict, civilian, or guard sees you do something wrong. The same officer that you may have said hello to 100 times (although he or she never responded) is now demanding an answer and your attention. A convict who has never spoken to you even though you have said good morning or hello many times, is now upset because you stepped on his toe or were on the phone when he needed to use it. Now you are no longer invisible but recognized in this lonely existence. I say lonely because although there are hundreds of people around you each day, there is little contact or conversation. There may be a hitting of knuckles or some other jailhouse gesture to signify recognition and some type of connection, but that is the exception, not the rule.

To emerge from prison without the psyche being affected is impossible. Studies have shown that prisoners incarcerated for crimes and prisoners of war suffer psychological trauma. The goal each day is to stay alive. That is why learning the prison routine and nuances of prison life is very important. Something as simple as using an empty toothpaste tube as a spoon is a learning experience. In addition, understanding the prison administration’s function is important in order to have a strategy and develop a plan of survival. Prison is designed to take away a person’s identity, break the spirit, and eliminate a person’s understanding of who you are. Every form of psychological manipulation is used to let a prisoner know that you are considered nothing but a number. Individuality is taken away so that every person in green (the color of clothes issued to all New York State prisoners) can be easily recognized as a "nobody."

Generally, the prison atmosphere is one of suspicion, with everyone having his or her own problems and concerns. A comment made in confidence may end up causing problems later on. Therefore, few prisoners confide in one another. In addition, because prisoners are transferred with no prior notice, most never get close to another prisoner so they don’t have to go through the feelings of loss. A person may have known someone for years, exercised or shared meals together, then all of a sudden they are gone. This can be devastating, yet it is common. As a result prisoners have a tendency to stay by themselves.

Some people’s spirits have been broken by circumstance, and the spark of the Divine that makes each of us human seems to be asleep. Many find themselves sustained in psychiatric units, mesmerized with prescription drugs. Likewise, the ability for most prisoners, especially those who are young, to share their deepest feelings is frustrated and leads to anger and hate. No wonder young people have an "I-don’t-care" attitude, making the repressed feelings within. We must learn that whatever troubles our spirit has a direct relationship to our physical being. We must begin to share what we feel in our hearts. We cannot put a Band-Aid on our feelings.

Prison life is about routine: each day is like the one before; each week is like the one before it, so that the months and years blend into each other. Anything that departs from this pattern is upsetting, for routine is the sign of a well-run prison. Routine is also comforting for the prisoner, which is why it can be a trap. Routine can be a pleasant habit which becomes hard to resist, for it makes the time go faster. Losing a sense of time is an easy way to lose one’s grasp on life and even one’s sanity. Time slows down in prison; the days seem endless if idleness and inactivity are allowed to be the master. Even when busy, time each day seems to go slowly. What might take a few hours to accomplish in the real world beyond the walls may take months or even years to accomplish on the inside. Minutes seem like hours, yet the years sometimes seem like minutes. Before you know it, you can’t figure out where the years have gone.

Very often while walking through the halls of prison, a person may revert back to one’s upbringing, not thinking about the present place of confinement. Many times I will say "Good day," "Hello," or "How are you?" to an inmate, civilian, or guard, just as a normal habit of being a social person. It is a stark awakening to be completely ignored. So many times I want to say to myself, "Don’t waste your breath speaking to anybody but those you know." It is a major accomplishment to keep oneself from being hardened and callous in everyday prison life.

Invisibility has left a person like myself realizing that in prison we must constantly work on looking within ourselves for that sense of self and the importance that we possess. For many, the psychological effect of invisibility takes its toll, and someone preparing for release must be counseled in this area, otherwise the overwhelming sense of being invisible when released can cause a false sense of friendship and understanding with people. For many, having had no responsibility behind the wall, it is difficult to suddenly be faced with decision-making tasks. Asking others who seem friendly for help can be a trap.

When first released, most prisoners are starved for social interaction. Prison makes most people have a feeling of insecurity, and the walk back to a sense of self is a long, slow walk towards visibility. We must come to understand and embrace our sense of Spiritual being-ness, not just our human experiences. This is an attitude we must embrace if we are to understand what is really important.

Amazingly, there are some who have taken the time for deep introspection while incarcerated and have found a deeper meaning to life. Society may learn from prisoners if they are willing to get past the stereotypical view that prisoners are nobodies. This is no easy challenge. It takes courage and the belief that we are all very special and of equal value, no matter what our culture, gender, or ethnicity.

John Mandala

John Mandala is clerk of the Sing Sing Worship Group in Ossining, New York.