I was in prison in Honolulu, Hawaii during the early years if the 21st century. Life behind bars challenges you because you have no stress. Stress can be a good thing when it is in the form of challenges you have the power to conquer. Stress is harmful when you are powerless to control your situation. Of course, you are powerless to free yourself, that is the big picture. Our lives are full when we have lots of “small picture” challenges. We have no obstacles In prison. All of our basic physical needs were met in a no frills fashion. There is nothing we have to do to survive. There’s just a vast nothingness between the present and our release date. Boredom due to the lack of stimulation is soul crushing. Imagine being stuck at the first level of a video game forever. We move on to the next level BC we want to introduce moderate stressors into our environment. In prison we could spend all day staring into space and we will still be fed, sheltered, clothed. Little was required of us inmates in Honolulu’s only prison facility for women. Prison is for people who have been sentenced to over a year incarceration for their crime (s), whereas jail is at the county level, or island level if you are in the Hawaiian archipelago. Each island has a jail for both men and women. Jail is for people who are sentenced to less than a year, along with people who are legally innocent but cannot make bail. Prison is place where people stay awhile and have to figure out how to deal with what cannot be changed. Unlike other prisons, no one at the island of Oahu’s women’s prison, the Women’s Community Correctional Center (pronounced Double U triple C) was required to work or take the very few classes the prison offered. Little was required beyond standing for headcount nine times a day. When you are overwhelmed with stuff to do as a free person, you imagine how nice it would be not to be stressed out all the time. In reality, when you get to the place where there is nothing to do, you could slit your wrists from desperate boredom. If we women were to have any stimulation we had to make our own fun. When I was in prison for 20 months I reminded myself that “bored people are boring.” I created writing projects by interviewing the other women about the circumstances that brought them to be with me in prison. I offered my services as an educated woman and former middle school teacher by teaching GED classes. I helped the other women with their paperwork/grievances and did not ask them to give me a portion of their commissary. I re-read some classics, and found new faves. I reinforced my love for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and discovered “Gone With the Wind.” Both books were so great I experienced a bit of mourning when I finished them.
Another copng strategy was to constantly look for any injustice committed by staff, or mistake on their part. I pounced on the misdeed with written grievances and once, a lawsuit, determined to right the wrong for myself and the women who would come after me. The corrupt prison system provided me with endless battles to wage. I had a reason to get out if my bunk, leaving the hard plastic mattress-type pallet behind for a spot at a stainless steel table and stool. The weapons of my warfare were scattered around me on the table top—law books, paper, pencils. The familiar items gave me comfort.
I wanted to improve conditions. This motivation was genuine, but it was only part of what drove me.
I was bored.
Moreover, I was ashamed of wasting the education that college classmates said I only received BC of affirmative action. I hated myself for proving that every resource it took to allow me to earn my prestigious degree were resources best used on someone else. I was desperate to demonstrate that I had belonged at Harvard, no matter how grim my present circumstances. I called myself an inmate advocate to show a world that was not paying attention, that I could still use the gifts other black people had died to give me. Besides I had a mean streak a mile wide that I liked to express. I became a bully the only way a friendless nerd can—the mighty pen. My personality was an odd mixture of bitterness, negativity, a tendency to complain without ceasing and a heart to help anyone who needed assistance without losing patience and without mentioning what I had done for them. I never understood the mystery of how to get along with others and I am sure people would be surprised to know as disagreeable as I was a lit of the time, I pined for friends. Perhaps my good qualities kept me from making enemies but they were not strong enough to outweigh my unfavorable traits. I was as alone as I had always been, be it Harvard or handcuffed. People did not seem to hate me or love me. Even in prison I was forgotten by my peers and clung to my novels as I had in middle and high school. My life in prison was defined by anger, boredom, and obsessive focus on solitary projects of my creation, especially writing and exercise. Other women occupied themselves with new same-sex relationships. (I never had a girlfriend. Maybe lesbians also found me unattractive. I am not gay but the occasional flirtation would have broken up the monotony!) My coping methods to deal with life behind bars looked different from my fellow inmates but underlying my incarceration-activities-of-daily-living were the same pain, shame and isolation from which everyone suffered.