What’s Happening With The Blog?

Posts on this blog have never been very frequent, mostly because of my failure to recruit regular contributors. But, for the foreseeable future, posts will be even less frequent. I’ve begun working on a nonprofit newsletter called The Community. Our mission statement is to foster a productive, motivating sense of community among those interested in the prison system, especially Wisconsin’s, and those sympathetic to the increasingly notorious need for smarter criminal justice policies. While we get it off the ground and better established as an  operation I will be focusing on The Community at the expense of theinnervoice84.

Please check out The Community on our website at http://www.thecommunitywis.wix.com/home and sign up to be put on our emailing list if you like it. Of course, we’d love your feedback – good or bad. And if you know of or come across anyone or any organization that would find The Community to be a helpful resource or just an interesting read, please refer them to it.

In the meantime, I will post submissions from myself and others as often as I can. Keep boxing temptation. Keep giving life a hug for me. Thanks for reading.


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New Free Resource for Criminal Justice

TheCommunityLogo

The Community is a non-profit newsletter devoted to fostering a productive, motivating sense of community among those interested in the prison system, especially Wisconsin’s, and those sympathetic to the increasingly notorious need for smarter criminal justice policies.

There is an official website, available at http://thecommunitywis.wix.com/home.  On that website, you can send a message the newsletter editor, view copies of the newsletter, and view other resources that will be made available periodically.

 

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The Closer

This is the second half of the previous post (The Setup), which focused on the importance of mentalities. It’s not necessary to read that post before reading this one, but in order to overcome our harmful habits it is necessary to fully understand the power of our mentalities. At the same time, no matter how expert we are on the power of our mentalities, it means absolutely nothing if we don’t address our habits. One without the other is like flesh without bone – or vice versa.

Mentalities are the soil from which our decisions arise; every choice we make, good or bad, begins there. Habits, in turn, are what we do to keep that soil healthy and productive – or weak and destructive. Just because someone strongly believes in oral hygiene doesn’t mean they’ll embrace the types of habits (flossing at the same time everyday, not eating in bed at night, etc.) required to fulfill the potential of that belief: clean , healthy teeth and gums.

If this need for structure seems obvious, why do we constantly neglect it? Particularly when it comes to cancerous mental habits, such as negative thinking, playing the victim and even gossiping. Why do so many of us not engage in the relatively small habits that give us the best chance to fulfill the potential of correct mentalities? It’s the will power scam.

Arguably the biggest misconception in regards to achieving a goal is that success depends on will power. For some people and against some desires will power is mighty and temptation is therefore manageable, like Shaq vs. a wolf. For most of us though, will power is average and temptation is enslaving. Of course, with better mentalities and habits we can strengthen our will power, but never enough to trust it on its own. The best defense always is to reduce the need for will power as much as possible by limiting our exposure to activities that provoke and, more importantly, fuel the types of temptation we’re least capable of resisting – which will be different for each of us.

A good example of will power’s weakness and how we commonly set it up for failure is when we keep hanging out with people and at places that bring out the worst features of our human nature. The best example of will power’s weakness however, is the gullible way we routinely react to what we think and feel.

As human beings we will forever experience deceitful thoughts and emotions. But instead of mindlessly buying into them, we can step by step train ourselves to slow down and respond with self-control. For example, by practicing resisting the urge to react in any way (curse, tense our faces, etc.) to the dozens of petty frustrations throughout the day (dropped something, slow people in front of us in line – the list is endless). Or, by practicing playing devil’s advocate with, instead of entertaining, our often reactionary negative thoughts (“Maybe this is just a misunderstanding”, “Wait – let me not jump to conclusions here, “I’ll be fine; nothing’s ever been as bad as it seemed” – again the list is endless). Research has found a dominant yet largely overlooked connection between our most basic habits and the quality of our lives. When we pay attention to the root causes of our actions we discover the same thing.

Consider the following from You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought by Peter McWilliams:

A lot of negative thinking, depression, frustration, and illness stems from people thinking they want something they don’t really want. How do you know what you really want? Whatever you are actively involved in getting, that’s what you really want. If you think you want something and you’re not actively involved in getting it, you’re probably just kidding yourself… What you want – what you really want – is what you are making real through action. If you think you want something but you’re not doing much to get it, you have three choices:

1. You can go on the way you’ve been: Kidding yourself and pretending you really want this thing that you don’t really want – or aren’t willing to do the necessary work to get. This causes frustration (“Why can’t I have what I want?”), hurt (“I never get what I want”), resentment (“Other people get what they want, why not me?”), and unworthiness (“I guess I don’t really deserve it”).

2. Give up the goal. Realize it’s a nice idea, and if it were in the next room, you’d probably go get it. It is, however, not something you really want more than other things you are actively seeking (including through lack of effort).

3. Do whatever is necessary to reach the goal. Eliminate from your schedule activities that support goals with lower priorities than the one in question. As you move toward your goal, certain mental, emotional and physical objections will be raised. No matter what complaints your mind, emotions, and body fling at you, if you know you need to do it, do it anyway.  Gently, lovingly – but firmly – teach the objecting parts of you (through better habits and mentalities) that you have a new goal, a new priority, and that your actions will be in alignment with achieving that goal.

Most people choose No. 1 by not choosing and they go on seeing things the same harmful ways and experiencing the same unnecessary suffering and failures.

One of the many great points in this excerpt is “Gently, lovingly – but firmly – teach the objecting parts of you that you have a new goal, a new priority.” So many of us have given up on being anything better than what we tell ourselves we are or, more importantly, what we let others words and actions tell us we are. Again, we simply don’t understand the weakness of will power and the largeness of small steps and minor habits.

Over the course of my bit, especially the past 20 months developing, implementing and for the most part running a mental health program with my co-worker, I’ve often encountered contradictions between my habits and goals. Making them match up instead means remaining mindful of the billions throughout history much worse of than me in order to combat the dishonesty and wickedness of me complaining. It means keeping conscious of the fact that I could be, and sometimes am, the very people my ego tempts me to hate and judge. It means staying active in positive endeavors and away from negative people. But when negative people and unfortunate circumstances can’t be avoided, it means embracing them as opportunities for self-improvement: mental toughness, problem management, etc. It even means monitoring seemingly trivial habits, like my tone of voice and facial expressions, especially during disagreements, so as to strengthen my emotional restraint. Most of all, it means pursuing these and other goals in small steps, as small as I need to keep myself progressing and motivated.

If we live in a gated community we’re probably good just closing the door. But if we live in the slums, we need to invest in some good locks, a security system, bars on the windows, and a pit bull or two. Likewise, because many of us struggle with personal obstacles – mental health issues, learning disabilities, poor impulse control, anxiety disorders, lower intelligence, etc. – we have to do and avoid more than others to succeed at our goals, whatever they are. Maybe we just want to feel better about ourselves or work a simple 9-5 and chill on the weekends. That’s perfectly fine. Goals don’t need to be grand, front page news endeavors. They only need to matter to us enough that we’re sincerely motivated to make them “real through action.”

I’m not at all implying that our personal obstacles and even external factors, such as poverty and discrimination, are not real problems. They undeniably are. However, it truly never ceases to amaze me how much the quality of our lives – peace of mind, self-control – is determined by our mentalities and habits. I see this constantly everyday in the way guys choose to do – or kill – their time. Those who frequently complain and lose their composure have a much less mature view of life and people and they more often engage in behavior that corrupts their souls. Whereas, those who fit the opposite description tend to heed the experiences and advice of those they admire, who’ve achieved the same goals they hope to achieve. They take small steps. The don’t depend on will power.

Keep boxing temptation. Give life a hug for me.

TIP: Your local Chamber of Commerce offers a wealth of employment info and may be the best source for finding out which employers are felon-friendly. And individuals hard-pressed for a job should check out local auto detail shops, which are generally very willing to train.

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The Setup

In my job facilitating a new Coping Skills program the past year and a half, I’ve spent a significant amount of time trying to help guys better deal with incarceration and life in general; preparing and doing group presentations; reading dozens of books on change, personal betterment and managing/motivating others; and listening to faith-based, primarily Christian views on hardship, while incorporating much of all this into my own life. During the last few months of 2013 in particular, my co-worker and I dedicated ourselves to developing an effective, sustainable structure that other facilities will be able to easily adopt. Ultimately, all of this material revolves around improving and maintaining one’s quality of life, an issue largely misjudged as complex that I’ve realized actually comes down to two simple things: mentalities and habits – a one-two punch. (For several reasons I’m going to focus solely on mentalities here and address habits in the next post).

By mentalities I’m referring to the way we view life and everything in it. More specifically, I’m referring to our expectations and what we believe is right or wrong in any given situation. I could also use the word attitudes, but attitudes are associated more with behavior, whereas mentalities are more deep-rooted.

In order to genuinely understand our mentalities we must first understand where they come from. Look at the following picture of a woman staring off to the side (if you’ve done this before please bear with me).

woman_young

Now look at the picture below.

woman_both

What do you see? Probably a fairly young, attractive woman with a petite nose and gentle face. But what if I told you this is actually a picture of a sad looking elderly woman with a large nose and long chin? Look at the following picture.

woman_old

Now look at the second picture, again… Can you see the elderly woman? Her nose and eye are the younger woman’s chin and ear, and her mouth is the younger woman’s necklace.

This exercise eloquently demonstrates how we don’t see reality so much as we see what our experiences have conditioned us to notice and concentrate on. By first and only looking at the picture of the younger woman we were unlikely to see the elderly woman in the second picture, even though both are equally present. In the same way, if we were socialized to (mistakenly) see others and bad luck as the causes of our problems and (mistakenly) see ourselves as limited in dealing with problems, we are unlikely to (accurately) see all of the evidence of our ability to overcome any obstacle – to do something about them or get the hell over them, as I touched on in The Power Within, Part 2.

Life constantly gives us reasons to at least question our mentalities. This is especially true for the overwhelming majority of us currently incarcerated, who’ve been mis-educated in fundamental ways – from lack of schooling, dysfunctional upbringings, or both. Add to this the frequent mental health issues, stress, anger/rage, sadness, etc. we experience and it’s as if life were literally shouting “Wake up Mothaf…!” Instead, we continue holding tight to familiar mentalities, never challenging the primary sources that nourish our suffering.

Habits are the building blocks of our quality of life; they determine how well or poorly our peace of mind/contentment is sheltered from hardship. Mentalities, however, are the foundation; they determine if and for how long that shelter exists.  For example, the view that oral hygiene is important will not result in healthy teeth; but without such a view there’s virtually no chance we’ll engage in the daily activities necessary to have healthy teeth. And the number one obstacle to change we face is not some terrible habit or genetic characteristic – the cowardly, that’s just how I am, excuse. Rather it’s a mentality: that we’re somehow not human.

This mentality is not about us being aliens or demons. It’s about the foolish belief that we do not have the same weaknesses and strengths that every human being is born with. In regards to our supposed lack of human weaknesses, the foundation is arrogance, which causes us to comically overestimate will power. Look no further than our lives. Whenever we get caught doing something dumb we’re quick to own up to our flawed nature – I’m only human, everyone makes mistakes.  But we repeatedly fail to extend this understanding of our humanity to the area of our lives it’s needed most: preventative measures – to limit our mistakes.

We’ve been operating with our false ideas and learned reactions for years and decades; they’re hard-wired to our physical existence. No matter how mentally strong or determined we are, we cannot expect to remove them, especially not soon, without help. Human nature and temptation are simply too strong for naked will power – which I’ll better explain when I address habits.

The false belief in our lack of strength, on the other hand, results from a lack of confidence caused by lies. (House of Healing by Robin Casarjian covers this issue very well, particularly for people with criminal backgrounds.)

Negative emotions are almost always lies employed by our egos to distract us from the beauty and harmlessness of reality (“to hate and fear is to be psychologically ill. It is, in fact, the consuming illness of our time,” H.A. Overstreet). These lies, such as fear, along with our human tendency to focus on the negative more than the positive are what cripple our confidence. The key is to force ourselves to focus on not only our achievements, small and old, but those of other members of our species; and to not forget that negative emotions, when ignored, fade into the background and eventually disappear. What isn’t true depends on our ignorance for survival.

All men are NOT created equal. We are, however, all created human, which guarantees that our actions and most of our feelings are determined by our thoughts. Thus, the first and arguably most important step, in light of the potential it has for our quality of life, is for us to exercise a mentality like that expressed by the Roman playwright Terence:  “I am a man and nothing human is foreign to me.”

We are both weaker and stronger than we imagine. Remaining mindful of this creates a smooth transition to other accurate mentalities and, most rewardingly, good habits.

Keep boxing temptation. Give freedom a hug for us who can’t.

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Free Gas!

During these past 11 years in prison I’ve never received a major ticket or been to the hole (segregation). If there was a time when it was likely to happen it was during the first half or so of my bit when my tolerance was less refined and I was more willing to take risks. The last several years I’ve been more and more focused on my future, such as personal development, education, and getting involved in primarily outside causes. As a result of these efforts I was recently in the process of getting a two-year job commitment as a tutor at a minimum security institution 75% closer to my family. After four years I’ve been here long enough to get transferred and I was trying to wait until November-December to make a push for it. That way I could complete the two-year limit on my current job facilitating a relatively new Psych Services program I’ve been integral in developing and implementing. However, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for guaranteed placement in a much better facility an hour or less away from my loved ones. Needless to say I was excited.

Imagine my surprise when they popped up at my cell to take me to the hole pending an investigation. For what? Solicitation of staff and drugs. I-I-I’m sorry, could you repeat that shit.

Because the teacher at the minimum, in making her decision to try to get me the job down there, relied largely on the recommendation of the outgoing tutor (my former celly), suspicions apparently have been aroused as to the relationship between him, her and me. This in turn somehow led to questions about my possible involvement in several recent drug busts here and at other institutions – never mind that there is so little connecting me to these events that it could be totaled in the negative (e.g. -1 piece of evidence).

Even if I’m not charged or found guilty, some of my property has surely already been “lost” or broken (as is common with hole transfers); instead of the cellmate I’d been gelling with for well over a year, I’ll have to play the celly lottery (which is like the regular lottery but with lower odds and losing is much worse); and I may soon lose my job (30 days absence policy), have to pay for my rented textbooks because I’m unable to return them on time and miss the deadline to apply for a nearby tech school that would save my family $600 or so this fall for tuition. The fuel tank for my motivation to not only never return to prison but thrive upon release has been brimming for sometime now and everyday life behind these walls pours in more.

Don’t let the overflow go to waste; please take some.

I’m not going to disrespect anyone’s intelligence or the severity of billions of others’ hardships by presenting my one-sided case or painting myself as a sympathetic figure. You likely have no knowledge of my trustworthiness and character beyond these posts – which could be a front for all you know – so, I can’t expect you to genuinely take heed to my experiences. Besides, maybe you’re too strong, smart, lucky or connected to ever get caught up in the types of troubles I and many others have. No doubt, though, you have and will again get yourself in some trouble and no doubt it’s been and will generally be for the same reasons everyone else has gotten themselves in trouble throughout history.

This post isn’t about the ridiculousness of my presence in the hole as I wait for them to get to the bottom of this hillbilly fishing expedition where they’ll find nothing but an empty soup can. It’s not about the sad and very real possibility (based on their past and not uncommon actions) that they’re so determined to catch something they’ll hold up that empty soup can and say, “well, looky here, it’s a big Kahuna,” and convict me of one or both of these serious charges. This is about the little risks we take everyday – weaknesses we ignore, good habits we neglect, lazy and emotional decisions we make – that quickly devolve into chaos, important people leaving our lives, incarceration and even death. I didn’t do anything to warrant being put in the hole, but by committing my crime I subjected myself to the paranoid whims of a dictatorship. Were I free I’d have many effective ways to take my mind off of or defend myself against such headaches.

When I committed my crime I honestly believed my actions were not only justified, but necessary, per street code. Of course, that was a long time and much immaturity ago. The majority of us currently and formerly incarcerated people sufficiently know better now, if for no other reason than our personal understanding of the misery of incarceration. And those who’ve been here before are statistically much more likely to return. So readers don’t have to know me for my cautionary tales to fuel their struggles against old, harmful mentalities and habits. Everyone’s just trying to figure out the best way to combat the appeal of those little risks and temptations that present themselves every day if not every hour. For me, that means focusing on only the good in my life and starving my pride/ego. Those, however, who’ve achieved what we want (whether celebrities or regular folk) are the best source of info for combating the risks and temptations in our own lives.

Because I’ve done nothing even remotely wrong I should feel confident that this will all work out in the end and maybe I’ll still even get to go to minimum. But I’ve lived under the DOC’s short-sighted reign for far too long to be so naive. What I do know is I’ll be fine no matter what they do; I’ll be damned if they get my peace of mind too. I’ll just keep meditating, studying, visualizing the ecstasy of freedom and embracing the powerlessness of the hole as its deprivation and schizophrenic loudness attempt to swallow my sanity.

Picture yourself here the next time those little risks start whispering in your ear. Let the image fuel your strength.

Keep boxing temptation. Give freedom a hug for us who can’t.

TIP: GENESIS is an organization that provides housing, self-supporting employment and programming based on Christian principles. GENESIS is also looking for mentors willing to work with currently incarcerated and recently released individuals. For more information go to genesisinmke.org or call 414-344-9880

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Solution-Minded

In 2010 I was sent out of the maximum security institution, where I’d spent the first six years of my bit, to a medium four hours away from home. For some time I’d been hoping to leave – initially for greener rec yards, but eventually out of disgust over the complete absence of programs, educational opportunities, sports leagues, music activities, etc. that were offered at that max. In my mind, however, nothing could be worse than coming here. Hell, I would have preferred the Supermax, which was only half as far away, plus I’d get a single cell.

For about a week after I learned that I might be coming here, and then learned that I definitely was, my body rejected my usual positivity like an immune system reacting to an incompatible donor organ. Almost everything received a biased and critical review. Even after my emotions settled and my spirit recovered I was still unhappy about being here. But that didn’t matter. The relevance of any experience does not depend on how we feel, but rather on how we perceive and respond. Of course, this depends on our attitudes/mentalities.

Despite how I felt throughout this process of being moved I was able to remain grounded. I generally try to maintain a strong attitude through a concept well-expressed by the Serenity Prayer: “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Although, I don’t always succeed.

I used to, and to some degree occasionally still do, have serious difficulty accepting the things I cannot change. In prison, as in society, luxury confines free will. Because we don’t act in line with sober judgement, but in order to preserve privilege, we constantly fail to notice the advantages of new circumstances. What do we expect when our vision forward is so heavily shaded by images of the past? “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.”

Keeping our heads up breeds good fortune – not only in physical benefits but by disabling negative thoughts and emotions, which are virtually the sole source of stress and discontentment. Countless times during the literally thousands of basketball games I’ve played, I’ve seen dudes get mad and give up on a play because they didn’t get the ball when they wanted it. Then, when the ball is passed to them a second or two later it goes out-of-bounds because they are busy pouting about not getting exactly what they wanted. And countless times I’ve seen dudes (including myself) miss an easy shot, then let the rebound bounce inches away from them because they have their heads down or are looking off to the side in frustration as if the other team is going to feel sorry for them and give them another chance at the same shot. So many of us do the same thing in life; we let disappointment and misfortune blind us as great opportunities pass by well within arm’s reach.

I try to stay solution-minded by engaging in preventable measures, such as meditation, gratitude, and reviewing my daily actions, remarks, and body language. This way when “shit happens” my mind is more likely to jump over negative thoughts and emotions (anger, revenge, regret, sadness, etc.) and get right to focusing on how I can address the problem or move on. I’ll have more practical, constructive info on this topic in my next post, but if you have any strategies that work, please share them. Leave a comment or e-mail me and I’ll share them in a future post. After all, this is meant to be a community blog; each of us building up one another through the universal wisdom of our specific journeys.

Keep boxing temptation. Give freedom a hug for us who can’t.

TIP: If you’re interested in criminal justice reform you may want to check out the following blogs: thecrimereport.org; and lifesentencesblog.com. These blogs are written by professionals involved in the creation of a smarter, more effective justice system and are updated much more often than this blog.

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The Meaning of Imprisonment

By Ernie Drain: One of the Winners of the 2012 Yale Law Journal Prison Writing Contest

I’d like to thank my son for his encouragement as well as my mother for laying the foundation for my intellectual curiosity and training.

Being incarcerated in prison means tucking your life into your back pocket for a while. It means taking your slumber on a bunk bed for the first time since childhood. If your incarceration is the end result of a mistake you made rather than a criminal lifestyle you were leading, then it means becoming acquainted with an unfamiliar and wicked subculture. It means showing your pride the door as the staff begins to emasculate you. It’s the choice between answering to a pejorative or going to the hole for disobeying a direct order.

It’s being appalled at the number of grown men who enjoy watching Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. It’s anger management classes, group psychotherapy, undercooked rice, indirect pepper-spray shots and petty politicking. It’s sleeping the day away in an effort to push time forward. It’s accepting responsibility for the acts that brought you here and learning to purge yourself of anger and resentment. It’s questioning the morals of inmates who befriend child predators. It means standing in line for the privilege of performing a bowel movement. It’s being made to stand in ninety-seven-degree weather in order to receive your medication. It means locking everything you own in a small steel box and hoping that no one smashes the lock when you go to dinner. It’s understanding too late, the difference between the priorities of a man serving three years and a man serving a life sentence.

It means physically fighting for your reputation—which means that you care what other inmates think of you while professing that you don’t. It’s listening to the details of another inmate’s deteriorating family life when you couldn’t care less. It’s suddenly realizing that you have a deep affinity for Mark Twain’s political commentary, Norman Mailer, and the New Yorker magazine.

It’s forgetting what real ground beef tastes like. It’s spending your whole life running away from an African-American stereotype only to smack face first into it. It’s letting down your ancestors. It’s the process of mental self-devaluation.

It’s earning sixty cents a day and enduring a lecture on work ethic from a twenty-dollar-an-hour C.O. whose most strenuous task of the day is reheating his coffee. It’s watching the C.O.’s own low self-esteem ooze from every demeaning word he speaks to you. It means watching the staff eat food that was meant for inmates while the state deals with budgetary problems shrinking the portion sizes of the food delivered to those inmates.

It’s holding out hope that your life can mean something, that a talent can somehow be discovered, nurtured, and appreciated, even as your gut is telling you that your life is unredeemable. It’s looking forward to an early release while walking into a fierce headwind of potential obstacles that threaten to detail that goal. It’s knowing that at any moment, a philosophical debate can turn into a fist fight. It’s wearing the anxiety that comes with that realization like a winter coat.

It’s trying to make peace with the world while going to war with yourself. It’s thanking God for the small things like seventy-five-degree days, pizza bagels, quiet and mail, hash browns on Sundays, a soft pillow, Dove soap, the few staff members who treat you like a human being, and the ability to write a cohesive sentence. It means trying to walk up the down escalator. It’s the extreme rationing of hygiene and food products. It means constantly reminding yourself that this is not a place to make friends.

It’s picking and choosing very carefully which of your rights to fight for to avoid becoming a target of C.O.’s, staff, or administrative personnel. It means adopting the new first name of “inmate” or “offender.” It means hiding your own emotional desperation and only exuding power and confidence. For some, it’s grouping up and planning the next caper or sharing imagined war stories from the streets. For others, it’s making sure their names ring bells on the yard, going too far in an effort to gain favor with dim-witted thugs, getting their security level raised and getting shipped out to a more restrictive joint.

It’s the total absence of pure joy. It’s having your exuberance replaced by momentary relief from anguish and paranoia. It’s the intoxication of denial. It’s searching for familiarity and finding none. It’s mandated nudity before an anonymous person. It’s imagined authority and real tyranny, unnerving ethos and unavoidable conflict.

It’s a lesson learned, never to be forgotten.

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