Prison: a Practice in Preoccupation

There’s a common joke among inmates who have been sentenced.  Joke might not be an accurate term.  It’s one of those things people say, that reminds you of the obvious, yet something that is often taken for granted.  It’s not one of those repeated phrases that inspires a desire to coldcock the speaker.  Real early in my term, before I was sentenced, I’d  be asked something like “how you doing?”  or “what’s up” and found my self saying such detritus as “living the dream, one day at a time.”  Then one day, during the scorching hot summer in a central California reception center, my celly said it to me, and I never said it again.  It sounded so trite and idiotic, and perhaps it was the combination of 100+ degree temperatures or his inability to program with a cellmate, but I never said that crap again.  The phrase I’m speaking of is “you’ve got nothing but time.”

That’s the one thing I had in excess, everyday.  The CDCR puts you to “work” or “school” or “vocation”, but all you have is time.  Hurry up and wait.  Lock it up for count.  Get in line.  Wait, wait wait and all you’re really waiting for is another day to come.  But that surplus of time does give a cat some time to think.  Sitting in a two man cell and bouncing thoughts between your cranial prison walls is actually a gift.  Especially since at that point, digital distractions are almost non existent.

I had what I consider to be, the fortunate experience of getting to spend almost nine of my twelve months in cell living.  You’re either going to be in a cell or a dorm.  Personally, I dislike dorm living.  But it’s a crap shoot either way.  In a dorm you are allowed to walk around, there’s usually some sort of “day room” where you can watch some television.  However, there’s no privacy at all, there’s always someone up in your shit, and depending on the dorm you’re in, it’s always loud.  In cell’s you get a modicum of privacy.  It’s also nice because it leaves you in charge of the cleanliness of the cell.  In a dorm, you can keep your sleeping area clean, but when you live with 199 other men, it’s impossible to manage any more than that.  However, cell living is only good if you have a good celly, or you are in a single cell, which is not a common luxury.  In a cell, it’s essentially living in a small bathroom with another guy.  A good celly can make or break your experience.

At any rate, in a cell, I had a lot of time to think.  I also had a great celly for a few months there.  He was a 75 year old who was doing his second term for murder.  It was on a level II yard, as lifers can’t go any lower than level II.  Ol’ Max had been down since 1985.  Let’s go back a little bit.

When I was in county, you often could hear a number of cats complaining about the amount time they had to do.  I distinctly recall a dude carrying on about having to do 90 days.  Any amount of time you have to give up to the government is shitty, but if you did a crime and got caught, unless you have a legal Houdini, expect to do your time and please don’t complain about it.  Ol’ Max really shed light on this for me having been down (incarcerated) since he was 45 and now an aging cat, who, in his words, is going to die in prison.  He still kept up with a positive mental attitude.  Can you even imagine spending 30+ years of your life in prison?  That’s a lifetime to some.

I was able to gain some perspective on many of the things I was preoccupied with prior to my term and upon my release, interacting with free people again, it’s the thing I noticed the most.  Especially that first day out.  I think you could equate it to a superpower of some kind like x-ray vision, or a superhuman sense of smell.  I thought of it as being able to transcend the bullshit.  I’d have a conversation with some random train passenger (it took me 2 days of to get home, thanks CDCR for housing me on the opposite side of the state from where I live.)  and be able to see their preoccupation.  I could reflect on myself prior to my term and see the things I was preoccupied with.

Preoccupation is a prison unto itself.  The saying “can’t see the forest through the trees” is a sort of testament to this.  The mind is a tricky place and it can start playing tricks through obsession.  I believe this is not just a side effect of our busy short attention spanned world, but also just an inherent bug in our brains programming.  I think the simplicity of survival in an institutional environment cemented this for me, but also Max’s philosophy.

When I opened my twitter, for the first time in over a year, I was slammed.  The main thing that stuck out for me was the uproar over Mad Max Fury Road riding it as a feminist overture.   I mean, really, did they forget Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome?  Apparently they did.   I picked that movie as a flick I wanted to see with my aging Pops once I paroled because we had so enjoyed the previous incarnations of the story and it looked like a pretty sweet flick.  We weren’t disappointed.   Max helped those hippies get their art car to burning man.  It was a lot more exciting than I imagine that free loving festival would ever be sober.  Add in a load of acronyms I didn’t understand and twitter felt about as foreign as the streets I was walking on.

All that said, even with my current goals, I’m still carrying the baggage of having spent the last year behind bars.  You can say I’m preoccupied.  I plan on seeking some catharsis by expounding on the lessons I learned while on the inside, mayhap even telling a story or two on the experience.  The lessons might seem readily apparent to some of you, but again, perhaps you will learn something.

Short story taken from the Spirit of Tao translated by Thomas Cleary:

The Poor Man and the Gold

A poor man decided one day to get rich, so he put on his had and coat and went to town.  

As he walked through the center of town, pondering the question of how to obtain riches, his glance happened to fall on someone carrying a quantity of gold.

The poor man rushed up and grabbed some of the gold.  He was caught as he tried to flee.

The magistrate asked the poor man, “How did you expect to get away with the gold, with all those people around?”

“I only saw the gold,” Explained the poor man, “I didn’t see the people.”


4 thoughts on “Prison: a Practice in Preoccupation

  1. Pingback: Prison: a Practice in Preoccupation |

  2. Hey Red … I had the luxury of being distracted most of last year … that luxury came back for a while but has recently decided she needed “some space”. First, glad you’re out (although I have not reference for being in jail/prison) and assume it’s better on the outside than the inside.

    It would be interesting to hear the thoughts and lessons of the 75 year old man – youth dismisses the old and the old just finally give up trying to help.

    Anyway – glad you’re back. Glad you’re writing.

    • Tin Man! So happy to see you round these parts. Thanks for reading. I’ll definitely be elaborating on some of the stuff Ol’ Max taught me. I got nothing on your distraction, but I do hope you’re doing well. And yes, it is better on the outs, but everyone has a prison of one sort or another that they are involved in.

  3. Pingback: A Time Where I Reflect on a Year Without Alcohol | Rojo

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