Notes from the inside: What I’ve learned in prison

Notes from the Inside
Illustration by Josh Carroll
Notes from the Inside features original writing by inmates serving time in Iowa prisons. Little Village editors have made only minor adjustments for style

I was asked to write on what I’ve learned in prison. I think I was picked as kind of a joke, but as I got to think about it…maybe someone has seen some changes in me.

I’m not big or really smart, but something I have learned is that I have a big heart, and even though I get dumped on a lot, I still bounce back. I don’t know if I can number or put in order all the things I have learned in prison—good and bad. One thing is prison is what you make of it. Life goes on with you being in prison even though time almost stops in here. When you’re out there, people tend to think the world revolves around them. You find out different in here. You miss your loved ones so bad and it hurts and you hope they don’t miss you that bad—because you don’t want to ever hurt your loved ones.

So I’ve learned to pass the time and not be selfish. I am growing spiritually, artistically, vocationally and intellectually. I’ve learned to live on a budget and live within my means. I’ve learned I can be independent, to be myself, and people like me. That is sometimes hard to say because before my charges, I know how people look at you on the streets once they find out you’ve been to prison. The news amps everything up, making us look bad, so I’ve learned not to judge people as bad. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s just who gets caught. That is what I have learned—I am a good person with a big heart, and I’ve learned who I am, and I like who that is.

— Brandon F.

I’ve learned that all humans make mistakes, and some are sentenced to incarceration. Some people are guilty and some may not be. I’ve learned there is a lot of injustice in the Iowa legal system starting with the arresting officers, then the courts and then the Department of Corrections. I’ve learned many Iowans’ constitutional rights are not fought for or upheld, either by a public defender or even by paid representative. Some work basically with only a plea bargain system. I’ve learned many convicted people congest the courts for some kind of magical solution to “get out of jail free” or for some lesser charge after they have been convicted. Many cases have been denied that should have been looked into further. I’ve also learned that the guilty get lesser time because they admit to a crime, which saves the court time and money.

[quote_center]Rather than thinking about myself and what others can do for me, I’ve learned to think of others first.[/quote_center]

I don’t really care why people are here in prison. I know why I am here, and they know why they are here. They know if they belong or not. I’m only stating my views on what I’ve learned here. I hope if you’ve committed a crime you get the help you need; if not, I also hope you get the help you need. There is no consistency in the law or the sentences imposed for breaking the law—violent, nonviolent—it doesn’t matter. It comes down to how good your lawyer is. Prison is not what citizens are expected to believe. It is a money pit for taxpayers. This is my opinion. And remember, everyone makes mistakes.

— Rick K.

What is prison for? If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have said, “A place to punish bad people.” Having spent some time here, I’ve come to understand that many are not bad; they have just done some bad things. Rather than looking with compassion—why did this happen and how can we help prevent it from happening again—men are just hidden away. And while this punishes the families that depend on that man, for the most part, prison is easy time.

What is freedom? That would have seemed an easy question to answer, “Getting to do what you want, when you want and no barbed wire.” However, if what a person wants to do involves some form of addictive behavior, or if the one who gets to go home at the end of the day views life as a drudgery, both have less freedom than the one in prison. Celebrate Recovery can help one find the truth that sets one free.

Who am I? The courts and media place a label on me, but are a few bad decisions in the past really who we are? It is usually the self-righteous who are struggling with some guilt and shame of their own, who want to label others to put them down so they can feel better about themselves. “At least I am not as bad as so and so.” How sad! There are those who continue to live out their label, they continue to lust and steal and stir up trouble, but others live as a new person ready to change and help others.

What am I here for? I am not asking about the crime or the sentence. How are you making use of your time? Are you just sitting in front of the TV and working on filling your belly? We have so much time and so little responsibility—why waste it? Rather than thinking about myself and what others can do for me, I’ve learned to think of others first.

I took time to learn to paint so I could teach my children that they can do more than they once thought possible. I learned to play guitar, not only to honor the Lord in worship, but also to make music with my family one day. I’ve also learned to write songs to share with them some new perspectives I have gained while being here. I have started to learn Spanish, to teach my children how to reach out to those who at first may seem different. On the outside, there were times when I was so busy and would take family for granted. Now I’ve learned how laudable they are. Now, everything I do is in connection with reaching out to them, encouraging them to rise above the brokenness of being separated from their father.   

— Tim P.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 181

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