Notes from the Inside: Struggles behind bars

Isolation among others: As an inmate, people are around you every day, yet loneliness is a reality for many. -- illustration by Jacob Yeates
Isolation among others: As an inmate, people are around you every day, yet loneliness is a reality for many. — illustration by Jacob Yeates
Notes from the Inside features original writing by inmates serving time in Iowa Prisons. Here, Oakdale Prison inmates discuss some of the daily challenges they face.

One very big challenge in prison is the loneliness of being separated from my family. I feel, as an inmate, not being able to see the people I love as often as I really need to is the worst feeling in life. Inmates are allowed certain days and limited hours for visits. The distance between my family and where I am incarcerated complicates things even more. Add the cost of fuel to travel, taking time off work and just the time it takes (two hours) to get here—it is not a cheap visit.

There are so many things that limit how often I see my family and friends, but another big challenge for me is not being there to help raise or even watch my children or grandchildren grow up. Getting pictures is like a double-edged sword—I get to see how much they’ve grown, but there is so much I’ve missed. Phone calls are not cheap either (even though the Iowa Department of Corrections has lowered the cost), it still costs an inmate a day’s wages to call home for 20 minutes.

The loneliness is really hard to explain, because as an inmate there are people around you every day. In fact, it’s a challenge just finding some alone time away from people. I know that I need the support of my family for love and understanding. But most of all, I need someone I feel comfortable talking with no matter the subject.

— Rick K.


Another frequent grumbling is in regards to the injustice of the justice system. Many can tell stories of being let down by a lawyer, dumped on by a judge and abandoned by the Iowa Department of Corrections, a system which proclaims a lofty mission statement, “To advance successful offender reentry … ” But who sees any of that going on?

In a recent book club book, Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black, the following quote is found:

“Our criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed. Instead, our system of “corrections” is about arms length revenge and retribution, all day and all night. Then its overseers wonder why people leave prison more broken than when they went in.”

After a while the system can begin to wear you down.

You depend on the system to clothe you.

You depend on the system to feed you.

You depend on the system to entertain you.


Subscribe for daily news updates from Little Village


You depend on the system to provide you a job, whether you really have to work or not.

Rather than grumbling, waiting for someone else to do everything for us, maybe the real challenge is to wake up to the situation we are in—to see the hurt we caused in the past and to begin anew today.

— Tim P.


When I got here I had to adjust to life in prison, which was different than life on the streets. The people in here are in a bad mood a lot. They belittle those who are different from them, and they try very hard to make themselves look better than they really are. I try to not let my caring side show. Then maybe they will get tired of trying to get a reaction or put on a show.

I now look at things in a different light, and I don’t trip on the little things like I used to. Prison life has made me more aware of how things really are here. Before I might have tripped on how little we were being paid. Not anymore, because now I can’t say that I haven’t worked for anything less than $10 per hour. Now I work for $0.27 per hour.

I lose myself in my religion, workouts in the yard, writing letters to my family and friends. That way I am not letting them get to me.

On the outside, I had a harder shell because I could do things that we can’t do here, like getting away to fish. Or playing my games to get rid of the anger that builds up during the day. In here, sometimes I feel that I have given up. I don’t care about mail, phone calls or visits. But I should because those things help. That is my challenge. I have changed since being in prison.

— John S.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 171

Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV »


Harmony Festival

from Breathing Room Yoga
Cedar Rapids, July 17-18, 2021
Music | Meditation | Mindfulness

Tickets on sale now


Summer Programs 2020

Get 150+ local restaurants delivered to your door in the Iowa City & Cedar Rapids areas!

The Future is Unwritten

You look to Little Village for today’s stories. Your sustaining support will help us write tomorrow’s.


$10/mo or $120/year
The cost of doing this work really adds up! Your contribution at this level will cover telephone and internet expenses for one month at the LV editorial offices.


$20/mo or $240/year
$240 is enough to cover one month’s costs for sending out our weekly entertainment newsletter, The Weekender. Make a contribution at this level to put a little more oomph on your support and your weekend.


$30/mo or $360/year
(AUTO-RENEW) connects eastern Iowa culture with the world. Your contribution at this level will cover the site’s hosting costs for three months. A bold move for our boldest supporters!

All monthly and annual contributors receive:

  • Recognition on our Supporters page (aliases welcome)
  • Exclusive early access when we release new half-price gift cards
  • Access to a secret Facebook group where you can connect with other supporters and discuss the latest news and upcoming events (and maybe swap pet pics?) with the LV staff
  • Invitations to periodic publisher chats (held virtually for now) to meet with Matt and give him a piece of your mind, ask your burning questions and hear more about the future plans for Little Village, Bread & Butter Magazine, Witching Hour Festival and our other endeavors.