Friendship in Prison?

These are some of the friends I made in prison. We all participated in a Bible study together.

These are some of the friends I made in prison. We all participated in a Bible study together.

Can you make friends in prison? Should you make friends in prison? These are questions I get asked often regarding the five years I spent in Federal prison. The short answer is yes, you can and should make friends in prison. Of course there are different types of friends no matter whether you are in prison or on the street. I had just a couple of guys I trusted to speak with about family and other important issues. We had a deeper relationship and encouraged each other during down times and challenged each other when we needed it.

There was another set of friends I spent time with in activities like Bible study, working out and attending church services. These were good guys and ones I enjoyed being with, but didn’t usually know as well as my closer friends.

There’s another degree of friendship I would call acquaintances. These were guys I knew and would associate with if the situation called for it. We had a nodding friendship but it was fairly superficial. These were probably most of the relationships I experiences in prison. It is difficult to trust others in prison at is best to keep a healthy caution when interacting with others.

Finally there are the friendships formed out of necessity. One example of this is when i entered population at Tidewater Regional jail. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a racial divide in jail and prisons. This was very much the case at Tidewater and when I entered the pod of 40 men I was directed to the “white” area where I met various guys from white supremacists to drug traffickers. I learned quickly to just do my best to fit in and not draw a lot of attention to myself. This is where I picked up the below-the-radar and no-drama philosophy that sustained me through my 5-year sentence.

So, yes, you can make friends, but you need to be discerning about those with whom you choose to foster such a relationship.

Journal Entry – 3/29/12 – FCI Elkton – Feeling sad today…

From my prison journal (18 months in):

Feeling sad today about not getting letters and visits from many of he folks who stayed in touch the first year or so. It’s not that I feel neglected or rejected. It’s more that I miss the connections and relationship that come with communicating with them. I am grateful that they still care and pray for me. I am confident most of the still do. Maybe when I get down to Petersburg, VA it will pick up. Or, maybe God has another plan. 

Prison, like life, is a series of ups and downs. A real roller coaster ride. There are periods of peace and periods of stress, loneliness and sadness. This day I was probably feeling a little sorry for myself. Writing it down helped me put it in perspective and realize that even if no one writes me, I still have God. We all desire relationships, that is how God made us. There are times where I felt alone. When I did I would try to pick up my Bible or some other faith-centered book and try to focus on my relationship with God. I also prayed a lot and would pick up the phone and call Lisa as well. I am so grateful for Lisa and her support of me during the 5 years I spent in prison. She did her own time in her own prison of separation. I’m so grateful we prepared for prison with counseling and continued to practice being open and honest in our communications. It sure made the time more bearable and was a huge factor in keeping our marriage together. I strongly recommend using whatever time you have prior to prison to strengthen your relationships.

Parents in Prison

One of the saddest things I watched in prison was the disintegration of a family. It happened far too regularly and to people of all ages, race and background. One of the goals we have with the Paul Project is to help people maintain their relationships through the prison experience. It is possible. But it takes honesty, work and communication. This article ( highlights the struggles inherent in having one or more parents in prison. For me one of the stats that is most destructive is that close to six in ten incarcerated parents had no personal visits from any of their children in 2010. 84% of parents in federal prisons are held over 100 miles away from their last residence, and 43% over 500 miles away. I saw this first-hand as I spent 5 years in two different prisons and met men who were hundreds of miles away from their families, making it impossible for visits. This i one area I would like to see changed in the Federal system. I would like to make it a requirement that you can’t be placed further than 100 miles from your home.

Christmas in Prison – Part II

PRISONERSI spent five Christmases in prison and each one was emotional and filled with joy, regret and hope. Joy for what Christ did for me in coming to earth to save us. Regret for all of the people I hurt over the years I lived so selfishly. And hope for the future, that God has a plan for me, to give me a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). Most Christmases in prison were spent watching TV, reading, calling Lisa and other family and in worship. I found it was better to be busy and focused on the positive. I would also give small gifts to the few friends I made in prison. They weren’t much, a t-shirt, a candy bar and a card, but it helped us to feel a connection to something bigger than ourselves. I also tried to anonymously give a small care package of food and toiletries to a brother in need.

My calls to Lisa were both joyous and sad. It was nice to hear her voice and know she was still supporting me. But it was tough hearing her and other family members celebrating without me. I just prayed for their joy and peace. It isn’t about me anymore. In my previous life it was ALL about me. In prison, I learned the joy that comes with putting others first.

This year is my first Christmas out of prison and for that I am so grateful. I think about those still in prison (and their families) and pray for them to find peace and joy in the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas!! (Luke 2:1-20)

Waiting is the Hardest Part

prison-cell_1552105cThinking back on those 9 months we had between when I was first investigated and my sentencing words like awful, horrible, painful, fearful and agonizing come to mind. We had no idea what to expect and no one to tell us what we could do to prepare for what was likely going to be a fairly lengthy prison sentence. So how did we handle it? Not very well, to be honest. We did the best we could with what we had, but looking back and knowing what we know now, we could have been so much more productive. The worst part was the waiting for the inevitable. So what can you do to make the most of the time prior to incarceration? Here are a few tips. There are many more to follow in future posts.

1. Don’t lash out at those you love. There are going to be times when the stress is almost unbearable. You’re going to feel like you’re ready to explode with fear, anger and anxiety. Don’t. Instead, find ways to reduce your stress. Work out, run, pray, attend church, seek counseling, read, etc. Do all you can to focus on building up you and your loved ones. This may seem like the darkest time, and it may well be, but it is not the end. We got through it and so can you.

2. Congregate, don’t isolate. The worst thing you can do is isolate yourself away from the world. You may want to just shut off the lights, crawl into bed and sleep away the wait. Fight that urge. Get out and do something, anything. Go to the mall, church, a movie, the library, anywhere with people. Isolation breeds fear, congregating breeds hope.

3. Plan ahead. Once you’re in prison you won’t be able to easily manage your finances and other affairs. Take this time to get them in order for you and your family. In prison the most you will likely make is less than $100 per month (a few make more, but it is the exception) so you won’t likely be able to send money home. Do you need to sell your home? (We did). Do you need to down-size? Do you need to sell a car? It will provide much comfort and peace to make these decisions now rather than to wait until you are in prison and your family is left holding the proverbial bag.

4. Get healthy. Prison life is taxing. The food leaves much to be desired, the beds are steel, the facilities are usually spartan and health care makes medicare look like a platinum Obamacare plan. Use whatever time you have prior to prison to get into shape. Lose weight. Tone up. It will not only make your time more productive and help you stay out of medical, it will also help you walk a little taller and feel more confident if/when you are confronted physically.

5. Strengthen your faith. There are many temptations in prison. Preparing spiritually will help you overcome those challenges and avoid the troubles that go along with succumbing to temptation. Connecting with a church, a pastor and others who have a strong faith with also provide you with a support group with whom to communicate during your sentence. Phone calls, letters and email are a huge lifeline for those in prison. Mail call is the most popular time of day. Just one letter can sustain you for days if not weeks. Building relationships before prison can help you feel connected even as you do your time apart from your loved ones.

I read a great quote recently by Rev. Frederick Langbridge –  “Two men look out the same prison bars. One sees mud, the other sees stars.” The better you prepare for the prison experience the more likely you are to see stars instead of mud.