The One Thing That Helped Me Survive Prison
Some inmates will tell you the hardest part of prison is being separated from your loved ones, being deprived of your freedom, or even being surrounded by violence.
While these were certainly all challenging, the hardest part or being in prison for me was not being provided with anything constructive to do with the time.
One goes through a series of mandatory appointments on entering the system. On my second day I had my appointment with the prison psychologist. We had a pleasant chat, and I told her how I had been getting therapy while on bail and how I thought it would be beneficial for me to continue with therapy in prison. She smiled politely.
"Everyone in here would benefit from therapy Damien," she said. "Unfortunately there's no funding for that. My job is just to access whether people are suicidal or dangerous. The good news is I think you're neither."
The following day I saw the services and programs officer.
"You've been assessed as having a low-to-medium chance of reoffending," she told me, "which means you aren't eligible for any of the rehabilitation programs we offer. You have to be assessed as medium-high or higher to participate in those."
"So in other words, you have to wait for me to get worse before you'll help me get better?" I said.
She smiled. "There's not enough funding to offer rehabilitation courses to everyone Damien, and besides, I don't think you'd get much out of them anyway. They're the kind of courses you pass regardless of whether you actively participate or not."
My final appointment was even more depressing.
"I'd like to make the most of my time in prison by going back to university and doing a master's degree," I told the education officer.
"Look, we just don't have the resources for studying at that level," he said. "We have an education room with computers but due to staff cuts I can only open and supervise that for two hours a week, and even then there's obviously no internet.
"Legally we can’t stop you from enrolling in university but with only a couple hours access to a computer a week and no internet there's not going to be any way for you to pass your units."
"What can I study then?"
"We pretty much just run basic literacy courses, which obviously aren't going to be of much use to you. We do have a first aid certificate running in a couple months though -- want me to put you down for that?"
While I was on bail, my friends asked me if I was scared about going to prison. I wasn't. I figured since I'd survived more than five years in the military, I could handle prison. If anything, I was only curious as to what it would actually be like.
Less than a week in though, and it became apparent I would be receiving no therapy, no rehabilitation, and no tertiary education during my sentence. Only then did the fear begin to sink in.
I wrote letters to friends and anyone I thought would write back to help pass the time. I started writing a novel. I kept a journal. I taught myself how to draw. I exercised every day. But with 18 hours a day in cells, that still left an awful lot of time to fill.
The prison library quickly became my place of refuge.
Well, it was called a library, but it would be more accurate to describe it as three shelves of books and a couple of desks to read at. There was no librarian. Ordering new books fell under the role of the education officer, and clerical duties were left to inmates.
The collections at every prison library I ended up seeing were poor, and in many cases, severely outdated. The encyclopedia set was from 1964. I wrote a sternly worded letter about this to the Minister for Corrections, and eventually we got a much newer set.
We were allowed to borrow one book a day. I'd always been a prolific reader -- teachers were frequently scolding me for reading in class at school -- and sometimes I found a book a day wasn't enough.
I'd spend several hours a day reading, trying to escape into worlds of fantasy and science fiction, anything to take me away from the isolation and constant violence, drug-taking and petty feuds between other inmates.
On weekends the library wasn't open, and I'd find myself approaching other inmates in my block and seeing what books I could borrow from them. In a way it helped broaden my horizons of literature. I found myself reading things I never would have considered, just because it was the only thing available.
Most of it I enjoyed as well. I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, finding comfort in someone else who survived the ordeals of the prison system. I found new friends in the characters of Robert G. Barrett and John Flanagan. I read War and Peace and the entire Bible, just so I could say I had read them; I thoroughly recommend neither.
All in all, I managed to read 63 books in my 10 month sentence.
I can't imagine what life in prison would have been like without a library. At best, there would definitely have been lot more boredom and desperation.
And then there's everything that comes with that. I've seen it myself first hand: the less there is for prisoners to do, the more they resort to violence and drug use. If I hadn't had anything to read, I wonder how long it would have taken me to fall into that downward spiral.