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One of my favorite episodes of The Office is titled, “The Convict,” and it features Michael Scott (Steve Carell) finding out that a new employee at Dunder Mifflin has a criminal record.
The funny thing is that I watched the episode well before I actually went to prison, and I watched it again after I was released. Watching it a second time, my perspective had shifted, and it affected how I felt about the episode.
When I watched it before prison, it was just a funny scene with Michael Scott wearing a purple bandana. After my incarceration, I noticed just how wrong he was about prison inmates.
Of course, Michael Scott is an idiot, and the gag is that he has no idea what he is talking about. I noticed the absurdity more when I had something to compare it to. Fun fact: I now have a pillow in my house with “Prison Mike’s” picture on it, and he says: “The worst thing about prison was the…was the Dementors.”
This silly anecdote was one of the first things I thought about it when I saw today’s blog topic. I guess it was because it got me thinking about how I saw things differently after getting home, especially when it came to how prison and the criminal justice system is portrayed in pop culture.
Today’s topic isn’t just about my perspective on before and after prison. Today’s blog topic is: How does prison change a person?
In this blog post I will cover the following topics:
Prison, like every other major life experience, has the capacity to change a person in a variety of ways. These changes can be both beneficial and detrimental, and they can vary depending on each person’s unique prison experience.
Where someone is in their life when they enter prison plays a major role in how the experience affects them. Other factors include the crime the inmate committed, the length of sentence, the prison’s security level, programming available, and the support of family and friends.
What we take away from any situation depends in large part upon our mindset, and prison is no different.
I asked inmate Mistie Vance — who has been in prison for ten years and is up for parole next year — about how prison has changed her, and she said the following:
“For many people such as myself, prison is a life saving experience-the catalyst necessary to implement changes in thoughts and behavior. Sometimes in life we find ourselves caught in a cycle of negative mindsets that lead to poor decision making and unhealthy associations. If a person becomes incarcerated at a time in their lives when they realize that change is necessary and they are ready to make those changes, prison can be an opportunity for growth unlike any other.”
Mistie told me that for her, prison has been the most positive experience of her life when it comes to change. She told me that after a lifetime of trauma, she was a very broken and lost individual.
“I made so many bad decisions that I couldn’t seem to find my way out of the life I had created in order to get to the life that I so desperately wanted,” explained Mistie. “My need to find love and acceptance eclipsed everything else in my life, and after a while I became someone even I couldn’t recognize.”
Mistie says that she looks at prison as her “land of opportunity.” She says that she went in as a caterpillar and will one day emerge a butterfly. She also made it clear that prison has helped her find her way back to God, and to see the purpose behind the things that she has gone through in her life.
Thanks to all the spiritual, physical, and educational opportunities at the prison, she has been able to grow in every aspect of her life, healing from the trauma of the past, and finding a strength that can only be born of adversity.
She says she’s learned who she is and what she believes in. She knows how to do what’s right, not what’s easy. She’s also learned how to embrace the person that she is, regardless of the opinions of others. In essence, prison has helped her become her true self.
Unfortunately, not all changes that can occur in prison are positive. Due to the level of violence in prison, many people become a more hardened version of themselves. At best, everyone is at least somewhat more guarded and aware of what is occurring around them.
Some become aggressors, showing out so that they won’t become targets, while others try to stay under the radar in an attempt to avoid unnecessary confrontation. Prison is definitely an environment in which survival, whether on a physical or just emotional level, is a constant struggle.
Prison is also a place where a person is able to portray themselves as being whoever they decide to be. Many of the women Mistie has encountered in her ten-year incarceration have been a fictional version of themselves — someone they have pretended to be in an attempt to get attention or gain sympathy.
Since most people don’t know who a person was on the outside, it is easy for individuals to become whoever they want to be. Many people actually have more popularity, respect, and self esteem in prison than they do on the streets. They feel like they are somebody. There is a big difference in becoming the person you want to be while incarcerated, and just pretending to be someone you’re not.
Some of the ways that prison changes a person is with their daily habits and routine. For example, a person who has spent several years sleeping alone in a bunk may not be comfortable with sharing a bed with another person, or possibly even sleeping in a bed at all.
After having decisions made for them for so long, inmates may have a difficult time making decisions or be overwhelmed by having choices after having such limited choices for long periods of time. This is what inmates call being “institutionalized.”
On the day I was released from prison I went to Walmart, and I stood in front of the toothpaste section for ten minutes because I was overwhelmed by the choices.
Also, being able to relate to others can be difficult for awhile, as institutions don’t allow the same freedoms in interpersonal relationships. Touching and other intimate gestures aren’t allowed, which causes many individuals to shut down that part of themselves for emotional preservation.
If you have a friend or loved one in prison, the best thing you can do for them is to encourage them to embrace the experience. Be positive and supportive, as everyone needs a healthy support system.
Remind them that you don’t have to love everything they have done to love them as a person, and acknowledge their feelings because we all deserve to have our feelings validated. Try not to over personalize things if the person who comes out of prison is not the same as the person who went in.
For better or worse, with a little time and a lot of love, they can survive it and move on.
Do you think prison would change you for better or for worse? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Interview with WERDCC inmate Mistie Vance in Vandalia, MO
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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