How I Got Through 25 Years In Federal Prison

Editor’s note: This answer originally in Quora, in answer to the question, “Prisons: How do you deal with the monotony of serving a long-term prison sentence?”
We have republished the answer with permission from its author.

I suppose it’s normal for some to think that monotony would set in for a man serving a lengthy prison term. That wasn’t the case for me.

In 1987, when I was 23, my judge sentenced me to serve a 45-year sentence. The length of the sentence seemed too severe for me to comprehend. I knew that I qualified for the possibility good-time credits, but even administrators awarded them all, the sentence would require that I would have to serve 25 years. It was too long to contemplate. To put the term in perspective, someone would have to imagine that he would go into prison today, on December 3, 2012, and he wouldn’t get out until December 3, 2037.

Since I hadn’t been alive for the length of time that my judge expected me to serve, and since I’d never been confined before, I couldn’t believe that authorities would lock me inside of walls and bars for so long. It didn’t make sense to me. Although my crime didn’t involve weapons or violence, I was convicted of trafficking in cocaine and understood that my conviction would require me to serve a long time inside. Still, the thought of spending 25 years in prison seemed like overkill.

To make it through, I deluded myself with thoughts that the sentence was serving some sort of purpose. The judge must’ve imposed it to make a statement. After I served a few years, when journalists would turn their attention to other matters, I expected the judge to make a downward adjustment and quietly let me out. I intended to do everything within my power to build a record that would warrant the reduction.

With those expectations, I didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on monotony. Quite the contrary. I had to work hard every day because I expected the judge to be watching. The onus was on me to change.

When I began serving the term, recklessness and irresponsibility characterised my life. So while inside, I decided to replace those two vices with the virtues of discipline and responsibility. With that end in mind, I focused on steps I could take to make my transformation self-evident.

Since I couldn’t think of a quarter century inside, I focused on the first 10 years. During that decade, I wanted to earn a university degree. That sounds easy enough, but high-security penitentiaries are not quite the same as universities. On more than one occasion, I had to walk through puddles of blood. I had to stay focused through lockdowns, mass violence, and the deafening noise of hatred. There wasn’t any monotony.

By the time I finished my first decade, I earned both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. My foolishness had worn off, too, after a decade, I understood that my judge didn’t have any intention of reducing my term. I was in it for the long haul.

The good news was that I’d developed some skills during that first decade that would carry me through the remaining 15 years I was scheduled to serve. The key to avoiding monotony was to work toward clearly identified goals. As long as I knew the goals that I wanted to achieve, I could always move forward, knowing precisely what I would have to do the next day.

The highly disciplined adjustment that carried me through the first decade would empower me through the latter portion of my sentence. I used that strategy not only to reach academic goals, but also to reach professional goals, to reach fitness goals, and to strengthen my marriage. It removed the question of monotony, replacing it with an enthusiasm and zest for each new experience that life would bring. I wrote about it all in Earning Freedom, the book that tells the story from my arrest on August 11, 1987 to my release on August 12, 2012.

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