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Prison Journalism: How have you changed as a person while in prison?

Jeffrey Shockley is a writer serving a life sentence in the State Correctional Institution-Fayette in Pennsylvania.


Image via Unsplash

I would like to first thank community for allowing this opportunity to communicate from beyond the region of South Africa. 

As simple as it might seem to answer the topic question of how have I changed as a person while in prison, it is a pretty profound question to answer. In prison or out of prison it is the duty of every human being to continue to grow and evolve, yes? 

My life before prison was not so much a troubled life; I was gainfully employed, maintained a relationship and was even a member of my community in good standing.

Behind closed doors however, it was a more disruptive environment saddled with depression, alcoholism and drug usage to self-medicate from unresolved childhood issues stemming from abuse, abandonment issues and identity crisis. 

I was raised by my maternal grandmother from the age of three in a predominately white but diverse neighborhood which stunted my Black education and Black identity. 

Coming to prison was a culture shock and by my speech and socializing more with white people it would be remiss to say that I was not readily accepted within the prison’s Black population. That is until it was discovered that I could write. 

Requests from my brothers to write letters to lawyer’s, girlfriends and wives became a means to socialize in a community I was familiar with and yet could not fully identify with because these Black people acted differently from the ones I was raised around. 

Time tends to take a toll on an individual and serving time in prison makes it that much harder to live. The endless constraints of being told what to do, where you can or cannot go. The constant threat of punishment as you try to live this life in honor of those I have caused harm to adds stress. What if the victim’s family member was in this prison? 

When I was younger I was the class clown, the jokester to make people laugh. Did not take accountability for anything I did. However, I did accept whatever the punishment was for whatever it was that I had done. 

Basically, I had a troubled past going in and out of [county] prison for things like unauthorized use of a motor vehicle; driving under the influence, breaking and entering of a business. All of which came back to haunt me when I received the punishment of a life sentence. 

As the comedian Kevin Hart says, “you gon’ learn today” and learn did I do. 

How I have changed or what I have learned is that I MUST LIVE FOR ME. In the past it was about who could I impress, make to like me, validate me because of the self-identity issues? Being raised by my grandmother I watched her being of service to many people and that is where I learned it from. 

Being a church lady it was nothing to wake up in the early morning hours to find her making fresh baked bread, or cakes or some other form of delectable treat for the church committee; a neighbor who needed, or some other organization that made a request for two dozen this or that. 

Grandmom worked as a Private Duty Nurse for several Jewish families which meant for the most part she lived-in; taking care of the elders of that family and the children, cooking and cleaning. Coming home periodically, weekends, to take care of me her 12-13 year old grandson. 

What control of my life do I have if my emotions are tied up in what others may think of me?

What goes on around me? Should I strive inside myself to be what everyone thinks I should be, will I know if I lose my identity to who I want to be in my own life? 

Prison has its walls and fences around it but the freedom I seek from a yesterday I once lived does not have to define me or confine me to some eternal grave of mistakes made. Will I forget what it is to be free inside my own mind behind time spent living for others who now no longer need me for me? 

Those so called friends never heard from again as the prison doors swallow you up, shutting you off from the outside world. 

It has been 24 years and I am much older than I was when I got here at the age of 37. Those who know me would say that I am more serious in my attitude, more mature. While the masses may confine their lives inside the prison I am looking beyond these walls and chain link fences to reach out to those who love me. 

Those I have hurt with my past deeds. 

I am willing to help whomever may need it but in prison that comes at a cost. People will sidle up to you and befriend you to get what they want that you have. So I had to become strong and confident. More self-assured as to who I am in this grand scheme of the prison industrial complex. 

One thing that has not changed with me is still being of service. The institution has provided an opportunity to be a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) worker and I reach out to the men in the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) helping those with mental health issues or just being an ear to those who need it. 

Prison has afforded me the ability to grow into a responsible individual and take an account of my past to lead a better life for tomorrow. Who among us is perfect? So I cannot say that I do not have some of the issues that have held me captive, however, I am able to reach out to some family and friends who love and care enough about me today that yesterday would have locked me out of the house no matter how hungry or dirty I was. 

The things I may have lost by coming to prison are nothing compared to the endless, priceless and eternal growth that otherwise may not have occurred in my life. 

The joy of a slow walk in the rain, or to sit and stare out the window watching a spider spin a web. To see the fluttering of butterflies wings, the things I did not take notice of in the past. Running around chasing drugs kept me blind to the beauty of life. Kept me from being the man I was born and raised to be. 

Such a transition was not easy and there are days today I question why and is it really worth it? To surrender your life to something beyond this plane of existence, when no matter what good you do is not always taken into consideration. You must look deep within yourself and know whose you are so that In God the strength to endure will be there. 

I surrender. 

Today life has such meaningful purpose for me and my soul that I want to live and give so much back. While we cannot make up for lost time, I can do today what is important in life and love myself so that I may love others and live in honor of those I have hurt. 

That is how I have changed as a person while in prison. 

The article was facilitated by Erin Parish from the Human Kindness Foundation (HKF).

The Human Kindness Foundation’s mission is to encourage more kindness in the world beginning with people in our prisons and jails.

HKF has published several books including: We’re All Doing Time, Lineage and Other Stories, Deep and Simple, and Just Another Spiritual Book and provide these books for free to people currently serving time in prisons or jails.

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