Usually, when I tell people about the years I spent in prison, that I went in at sixteen and got out at twenty-five, they of course seem surprised, but I always get the feeling that they’re reining in their facial expressions, like the most natural part of their response is that one second after my revelation. After that split second, it’s like their faces go blank and they switch to ‘autopilot.’ They’ll nod plainly, look at me with a serious and friendly face, trying their best to ensure that their reaction is as reaction-less as possible. It’s like when a stray dog approaches you, and it’s barking. You don’t want to make any sudden moves that might startle it, because it might attack, but you don’t want to express any form of fear either. Then I get a generic response that’s designed to sound compassionate and curious, but not intrusive. Then they’ll switch the subject to something we would normally talk about. Their unnatural response seems to say, “It’s just a regular day, and we’re here, chatting about things we normally chat about, like the friends that we are, and I’m not suddenly scared of you because that would be weird, right, I mean, after all, I’ve known you for a while and never once felt threatened by you, and I still don’t, nope, not at all, not in the least bit, no sir-ree, not me, uh-uh, I’m still one hundred percent comfortable around you.” After I share my past, those first few seconds are always weird and awkward, and they tell me plenty, but there are some things that I want you to know.
First, I’m sharing my past with you because I feel comfortable with you. I feel that you know enough about my character and personality that this new information wouldn’t place me in a negative light. I’m telling you because I trust you and it’s okay if you jump back, literally, and shout, “Oh crap! Are you serious? Wow.” And I know you’ll likely have questions, which is fine too. And that is mostly why I wrote this post. I know you have questions.
It’s okay to ask questions. I know there is this idea in your mind about the prison experience that’s based mostly on Hollywood depictions of prison life. I know the thought of prison fills your mind with violent images, and yes, the prison experience will invariably contain its share of violent moments and/or memories, but many convicts, I think, are okay with sharing their experiences of incarceration. Some of them even want to tell their stories. To some, the sharing of traumatic experience is therapeutic. To some, their personal prison story is not an acknowledgement of failure or a boastful tale of past illegalities but a chronicle of survival. To some, their prison narrative must be told. It says, “I’m here. I lived too.”