Even though I’d developed an impressive list of stupid, destructive behaviors by the time I was 42, I’d never spent a night in jail before my first night in a federal prison. But I knew to turn around to put my hands behind me through the slot in the door for the CO (I’d probably seen it on television). He uncuffed me, the slot slammed shut, he walked away, and I was alone.
For perhaps the first time in my life. Really, really alone.
My clothes had been boxed up to be mailed to my ex-wife’s house. The orange jumpsuit (yes, it really was an orange jumpsuit) fit me alright, as long as I rolled the legs up some. I had no belongings and nothing to read. I’d read that inmates were allowed a Bible or comparable book, but the Book of Common Prayer a former pastor had given me was sent back home with my street clothes because it had a hard cover. So I had nothing.
I took stock of my room (the word “cell” hadn’t yet occurred to me). I estimated it was 16 feet long, eight feet wide. Two steel bunks, a shower, a desk, an integrated sink/toilet/steel mirror. The ceiling was quite high, 10 feet or so. “So this is prison,” I thought to myself.
For some reason it startled me when I noticed that the door had no handle on it. I thought, “That’s funny, how am I supposed to get out of here if – -” Ohhhh, right. I’m not supposed to.
But what disturbed me more, oddly enough, was that my room had no light switch. I was at the mercy of whatever schedule governed the unit. A lifetime of miserable behavior had finally landed me in a real live prison, and this is what I was anxious about. It was as though none of the experience was real to me until I realized I couldn’t turn my light on or off at will. Some time around 9:00, I think, the lights clicked off. It had been an exhausting day, and I went right to sleep.
I was awake when the lights clicked on again at 5:00 (Well, it felt like 5:00. It’s not like I had a watch on). And a moment later it struck me: Hadn’t God turned the lights off every evening and then back on in the morning for my whole life? Without any intervention from me? Had I ever worried about that before? It dawned on me that for all I lamented my lack of control in the hours since I’d been locked up, I had never truly been in control in the first place.
Of all the lessons learned in prison, this was perhaps the most important: The belief that I was in charge, that I was in control, that I was running my own life in a vacuum apart from everyone around me – was a delusion. A lie I told myself. The fact was, I had been more in prison every day I spent on the street than I was in SHU at FMC Devens that morning. And once I fully surrendered the past, allowed all the spinning plates to come crashing down and accepted the opportunity prison would afford me, the real progress could begin.