Jail: The Final Frontier
Jail can make or break you. While in jail, I found a new level of peace and self-sufficiency, so I guess you could say that it made me. Penitentiary is another word for prison, and it is fitting because all you do is think and repent. The word “penitentiary” at its root means to think and repent. That is basically all you do while locked up. You lay around and think about what you did wrong. You have one set of clothing that smells, a yellow cup, and an orange spork. You get three crappy and questionable meals a day. It is terrible, but it gives you time to reconsider where your life is going, and I think that is the point.
I got locked up because I set a shower curtain on fire. I was angry with my living situation and having mental issues, so I acted out. While in prison for this heinous act, I researched the meaning of arson on the law library computer. The charge was arson originally. So I did my homework. It took me awhile to get up the guts and take responsibility to actually research but after being in jail for several holidays, I decided to take things into my own hands. The law library computer helped me realize that the fire I started was too small to be arson. Plus, no one got hurt. So I suggested to my public defender that it was more of a summary offense of dangerous burning. She must have brought this to the prosecutor’s attention; and, to my surprise, the prosecutor agreed. I could not believe it. That gave me a ton of confidence. From now on, I will never sell myself short and will always persevere. Soon after, I was released.
The whole experience was a huge wake-up call. I could have gotten locked up for years, but it ended up being only one long, terrible one. I could have been labeled a felon and never been able to vote again. I only realized this after I got out. As I said, I had started the fire because I felt trapped in a bad situation and was out of my mind because of it. Even so, I had been going to school online at the time. I was planning to become a priest. Seminary would be my ticket out of the situation but that was years down the road, and I was impatient. In my eyes, things were happening way too slowly in my life. That is another thing I learned in jail – patience. At the time of the crime I committed, I was hearing voices and feeling persecuted and paranoid. There are a lot of people that have that problem, or similar ones, in prison. They get locked up for something they did while they were not in their right minds, and they get worse while bouncing around the system. It still haunts me how many people who are mentally ill end up locked up or homeless. Someday I will help make this a thing of the past. The system needs to be more understanding and empathic. I want to help it get there.
One of my dreams because of my experience is to visit and counsel murderers. They get cut off and forgotten about by society. They never get forgiven. That in itself must be terrible and heartbreaking. They are spending their lives locked up with little to no chance of ever getting out. I know what that can feel like, and I was only locked up for a year! I mean, even if these lifers ever do get out, their whole lives will have passed them by, and they will most likely be beyond despondent. I want to be the person who cares about their situation and forgives them. I think my Christian background could help me make this a reality. And, I know it is a right and noble thing to do in my sometimes too large heart.
My unique perspective, based on my troubled childhood and how I kept ending up in mental institutions and jails and occasionally homeless, makes it impossible to stand by and do nothing. Personally, I have run away from home a couple of times. Jail made me reflect on all this and realize that I can affect a change, both in my life and others. It made me take a step back and actually consider myself and my situation in a more critical, and serious light. It helped me to stop judging myself and just observe. I started to compile some obvious, and much-needed realizations, and one of the main ones was that what works best for me is all that matters. That is what I so desperately needed to build on, so I could help others by sharing my experience and help them find out what works best for them. It is a two-way street.
While in prison, there was nothing but time to reflect. I realized that it was time to change and that it was feasible to do so because I was in a somewhat secure environment with nothing to do but make that change happen. Lots of times we would spend days stuck in a cell with just one other stranger/criminal as a cellmate. The only thing to do was stare at the wall and try to be friendly with him and not make him angry. There was nothing to worry about besides this because neither of us was going anywhere for an indeterminable amount of time. I slowly ascertained that was also where my life was going and had gotten me – nowhere. The uncertainty that came along with this insight was brutal but necessary. Thus I took that down time to start to build a foundation within my mind that would help me make a sustainable change that I could enact in reality, if and when I was released. But I had to start that change while behind bars, so I would be ready to continue to grow when definitively free and in the real, outside world.
While reflecting on all this, it began to dawn on me that the whole situation was no one’s fault but my own. I used to blame my parents or society’s stupidity but now, after spending time locked up, it finally occurred to me that the onus has to fall on one person – me. I must take personal responsibility because if I don’t, then who will? So, I developed better habits and established a new philosophical and psychological foundation for myself. That foundation is something I am still working out and growing on. I started going to church while incarcerated and felt a more real human connection in that setting. The other prisoners became my brothers. In the past, I used to think that kind of connection was fake or a myth of some sort. In jail, I had no choice but to talk to and interact with people. When I was eighteen, I got locked up for a week. I remember that during that time being locked up I was able to, believe it or not, work on my social skills considerably. However, I went back to isolating when I got out. This most recent time when I was locked up, I was down for an entire year. I missed birthdays and a Thanksgiving and a Christmas, not to mention an entire summer. I was locked up in July and got out the following July. The time I had in there gave me time to realize a couple of things. I realized that we all need each other, that no man is an island, and that it is okay to have friends. I learned how valuable a tool social skills could be. After all, it is the essence of human existence – man’s ability to interact with others and the environment around him or her. Again, relationships are a two-way street.
I made a lot of friends while locked up. In fact, on the day I found out that I was getting out, everyone cheered. They were genuinely happy for me. I had successfully made connections with people. That was a major hurdle I managed to get over. All in all, jail, despite the terrible reality of it, was a good experience for me. I grew a ton and established some momentum that will hopefully carry me into a much brighter future with bigger and better things on the horizon and new people to share it with and better more lasting connections with them. Jail taught me many things, but the most important thing I learned was to connect with others, and to take time to reflect on decisions you have made or will need to make in the future. Now that I have come through this ordeal, the future is bright indeed; and I will not let this second chance be in vain.
Jason W. Tapscott
Jason W. Tapscott is a writer and poet. He was born in a little town in Colorado called Lamar and currently resides in Philadelphia. His favorite things are his niblings, Liliana and Damien, and his cat, Pokey. His goal is to travel overseas and to visit all 50 United States and Puerto Rico.