Overcoming Suffering While Incarcerated

Overcoming Suffering While Incarcerated

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.

Finding Purpose: The Difference 5 Years Can Make

When I worked at an inner city high school, my main goals were to prevent teenagers from getting into trouble, dropping out of school, producing children and hopefully to give them tools they can use to become successful adults.

It wasn’t always easy. At times it was frustrating and even disappointing, but I showed up each day motivated and inspired.

Many of the teenagers were like I was when I was their age; lost, unmotivated and trying to figure out where I fit in. I had no one to talk to or guide me. I wanted to be that person for them.

There were times we cried together, we laughed together, even got angry with each other.

We cried over the sudden death of parents, the shooting deaths of cousins and friends, even a couple of suicides. We laughed because sometimes we had to laugh to keep from crying. We got angry with each other because I challenged them and in return they challenged me.

There were disappointments as well. Students I worked so hard with and who made so many improvements fell victim to peer pressure and ended up in trouble. Some dropped out of school, some got kicked out school.

One school year, five of the girls in my program got pregnant and I blamed myself for not protecting them better. Four of the five ended up dropping out of high school. It took my mentor at the time to remind me that I am not responsible for other people’s actions although I felt completely responsible at the time.

Mostly there were successes.

Students that were on the verge of dropping out or getting kicked out of school actually graduated. Students who had gotten a reputation as bad kids learned to control themselves and were no longer getting disciplined left and right. Other students that were labeled emotionally disturbed learned to control their emotions and behaviors. Some of the toughest, most defiant teenagers ended up being positive leaders of their class.

It was the best and most rewarding job I ever had because despite the stress and frustration that came with trying to motivate teenagers deemed unable to be motivated, there were so many emotional rewards.

I saw students who never thought about going to college asking me for help with college applications.  Young men who once preferred to steal from others asking for help with job applications. Teenagers who so many thought had no future, were actively thinking about, planning and taking positive actions towards their future.

Fast forward some short years and I now work at a corrections facility. I have the same stress as I did working in the high school, only without the emotional rewards. Instead I deal with adults and juveniles who are where I was trying to prevent the kids I worked with from going.

In the jail the population I deal with is mostly those who have or claim to have a mental illness. Unfortunately most of them are manipulators and sociopaths. They don’t really want to change and most of them won’t. They want to use the system and society to get whatever it is that they want and will lie, cheat, steal and even kill to get it.

Of course there are those with severe mental illnesses. Some of them I feel should be in a treatment center and not in jail. There are homeless people that I feel like never should have been arrested in the first place. Those people I understand. Those people I will work hard for every minute of every day.

Sadly, 90% of the people I deal with are sociopaths. They will pretend to be mentally ill if it will prevent them from being housed in a certain area of the jail, make the judge or their family feel sorry for them or possibly reduce their sentences. They are not mentally ill.

It’s frustrating because I feel like part of my job is to help people realize they can change for the better. Most of these people don’t want to change. They want to get out of jail so they can go back to robbing, stealing, smoking meth and being the type of person you wouldn’t want to have to deal with.

I’m talking about child abusers, child molesters and murderers who either sit across from me crying, wanting me to feel sorry for them as if they were the ones victimized, or they couldn’t care less because they’ve already been institutionalized and going to prison for 10 or 20 years doesn’t mean anything to them.

Last week I sat across from a man who is accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child with an axe and all he could do was cry about his stomach hurting and the poor medical attention he feels like he’s receiving. I was disgusted, but of course I couldn’t say or show that so I just listened to him complain.

My main job is to prevent inmates from committing suicide and to offer mental health treatment to the mentally ill. My job is not to necessarily treat or expect anyone to get better. We don’t do counseling here at the jail because most people are only here for about 45 days before getting released or sent to prison and most people here don’t want counseling.

While to some degree that should be less stressful, it’s actually more frustrating because I like to consider myself an agent of change and would like to see people evolve into better versions of themselves.

Working in a psychiatric setting, I saw patients get better and get released. Working in the high school, I saw teenagers grow and change into capable young adults. Working in the jail, dealing with adults who have been in and out of the system most of their lives and juveniles who have already succumbed to the thought that they will be criminals for the rest of their lives, I don’t get to see much if any change.

Sure, I would like to think I have saved some lives here. I would like to think that I have reached some people and they will go back out into the community and be responsible. I don’t really know how much of that is true. I would prefer to be able to say that I’ve cut down on the number of people being re-incarcerated, or increased the number of people who got out and got jobs, got off of drugs or did something to be a positive citizen.

Sometimes I still think about the students I worked with over the years and hope none of them ever have to experience being incarcerated, but I know some of them have because  I ran into one of my students here, 2 years later, an adult, incarcerated for stealing a car and running from the police.

I was disappointed. Not even at him, but at myself because I had worked with him so hard to prevent this. I had to once again remind myself that I am not responsible for other people. I just really hope I planted a big enough seed in the others that I will never have to come across any of them again behind bars.

So if I look happier and healthier in the other picture, it’s because I was. I felt like I was making a difference and actually saw the fruits of my labor. Sure the pay was horrible, but at the end of the day I usually left with a genuine smile on my face.

You do have to create meaning and purpose in your life and that goes with your job as well. You can’t just do a job for the money because if you lose the job, you lose the money and what would it all have been for? So I do look forward to coming to work to make sure that no one kills themselves because of lack of mental health treatment; to make sure that those who need mental health services are receiving them and that I’m educating anyone I can on mental health so that they will understand when a mentally ill inmate is actively hallucinating or in a psychotic state, that it is not just an act.

I always say that only 10% of the people I deal with in jail are truly mentally ill and the other 90% are faking in order to gain sympathy or favor. It’s that 10% that give my work purpose.