Working in a correctional setting, I often find myself reciting my favorite quote by Viktor Frankl; “To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” The reason this quote appears to have such relevance when dealing with incarcerated people is that many of them see themselves as suffering. They are imprisoned, away from their families and often facing uncertain futures. Many become depressed, anxious, hopeless and unfortunately, suicidal.
When I speak with inmates who see themselves and their situation as depressing and bleak, I remind them that yes, they may feel like they are suffering, but that is life. A large part of life for most people includes a great deal of suffering. There is joy, and there is pain. I remind them that they are not the only ones suffering. They are incarcerated with hundreds of other individuals going through similar situations and millions of people around the world who are going through their own struggles.
I encourage them to accept the reality of it. Learn from it. Figure out how to use this suffering to become a better, stronger person instead of dwelling on it and allowing it to punish you even more.
There is a popular saying in prisons that goes, “Do time, don’t let time do you”, which means to use your time incarcerated to better yourself, to live life even in the bleakest circumstances and to not just be miserable and unhappy counting down the months, years or even decades until you are released (if ever). Have something to look forward to and remember that suffering doesn’t have to last forever. This situation doesn’t have to be permanent. People find ways to live good, happy lives even while imprisoned for life.
I ask every inmate I evaluate, “What do you have to live for? What are you looking forward to?” I want to know what will motivate them to not only survive the stressful environment of being in incarcerated, but also what will give them something to hold on to when they start struggling with depressing and negative thoughts.
Many will say they have kids to live for, or they’re young and have their whole lives ahead of them, or their family or goals they want to accomplish. These individuals tend to be much less likely to both get in more trouble while incarcerated as well as are less likely to attempt suicide compared to those who struggle with or can’t find a reason to live.
Lastly, I also try to help inmates to stop seeing themselves as victims. Many inmates think that they are being punished unjustly, or they keep getting arrested because they have bad luck. They blame the system, their friends, society. These inmates are more likely to deal with depression, suicidal thoughts and to become repeat offenders.
Instead, I try to help them see that things happen for them, not to them. Yes they got arrested and it sucks, but maybe this is going to save their lives by getting them off drugs, stop them from associated with that criminal element, teach them that they really do need anger management classes or that they really need to take their psychotropic medications. Hopefully this experience will help them reexamine their lives and make better choices.
When people see things as happening for them, instead of to them, they do time better, easier and even happier. They become inmate workers, earn GEDs and even college degrees while incarcerated. They tend not to look like the typical depressed, angry, bitter inmates that I encounter far to often.
The things I try to teach these inmates are invaluable to helping them survive being incarcerated and they can use it when they are released to hopefully live better lives and to not come back. It can also help all of us understand that we’re not special, things happen, life sometimes sucks, don’t take it personal, don’t dwell on it, learn from it and grow from it. It’s when we get stuck feeling down, victimized, hopeless, worthless and negative that we stop fully living life and start suffering though life. That’s when we start living in a prison of our own construction regardless of if we are incarcerated or not.