“The Real Prison” by Stephen LaValle


“This essay is part of the “Telling Your Story” program in which prisoners recount profound memories from different stages in their lives. The audio version of this essay was read by a member of the Prisoner Express staff. “


Prison is not the way people think it is. I found that only prisoners know the real prison. The real prison is loneliness that sinks its teeth into the souls of people and is emptiness that leaves a sick feeling inside. It is anxiety that pushes and swells and is uncertainty that smothers and stifles. It is frustration, futility, despair, and indifference.

The real prison suppresses, deadens, and crushes. Its walls seem to close in on an inmate. It makes life without meaning and without purpose. It is all that and more. It is being incarcerated without even notoriety: without the traditional storybook plot and intrigue.

The real prison is never portrayed on the screen. The real prison is where people struggle fervently to find the answer to themselves. It is the place of routine where at times, living is a weary task. It is a place of hopelessness.

Prison is the mute drama of the people who have been paying debts for five, ten, twenty, even fifty years and know their debts will never be paid in full.

Too much of the real prison is sordidness, indifference, and disappointment. Crowded in the confines of corrections are people who have been in so many third-rate motel rooms, in so many cities, in too many smoke-filled bars, on too many skid rows, with too many days without beauty, and too much darkness without light.

The real prison is much more formidable than stone walls, steel bars, and gun towers. It almost shouts its contempt for its fumbling and groping humanity. It listens unhearing and unheedingly to the cries of the damned.

Prison is cold, harsh, and merciless. It is the place of many “reasons,” many “causes,” and many “failures.” It is the place of hundreds of untold stories.

The real prison is the empty feeling that gnaws at a man who waits with anxious anticipation for letters that never come and the visitors that never arrive. It is the place of despair for the youths committed to it for the rest of their natural lives: the youths whose futures have been taken away.

The real prison is the place filled with the regret of men who took lives in moments of anger. Once the moments of passion were spent, they began paying for their crimes and have paid for them in a thousand different ways.

The narrowness of a cell that crushes, that bears heavily, speaks of the real prison. The strains of familiar songs on the radio that stab and torture memory are part of prison life. The emptiness of the days and the loneliness of the nights are repeated endlessly.

The real prison? It is the prison only those who live within its walls will ever know.

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