Think about your life, what is important to you, how you spend your time. If it is anything like mine, it is focused on a close circle of friends, family, neighbors and co-workers: happenings on your block, in your town, at work. If you have kids, as I do, add school and homework and your kids' friends and activities to the list of how you spend your day.
Of course, social media has allowed us to keep in better touch with far-flung friends and family. But when you get right down to it, most people's lives even in this day and age are basically local, focused primarily on what is close at hand: on their community, in other words. It is simple human nature: we want what is important to us to surround us. Setting aside the fact that I am involuntarily separated from my children by 6,000 miles, and despite the fact that I spent much of my life abroad, my life is, and always has been, mostly local. My community, by choice, has always been close at hand.
Thoughts of what is important to me - friends and family and children: my chosen community - have been on my mind a lot lately. I've been struggling against the thought that I am about to lose them, lose my community, when in fact that is not the case. I will be separated from them, yes, but it's not as if I'm falling off the face of the earth.
Thoughts of my chosen community set me to wondering about how I will react to my new involuntary community, my prison community, will be like. Will it be like moving to a new town? Will I make friends? Will I assimilate? Will my life behind bars take such precedence in my thoughts and concerns that I will no longer even look toward the outside world, toward my real community?
I understand from former prisoners with whom I spoke that this is an issue - the issue of where you belong, how you fit in, what you care about - with which many inmates struggle. As in all aspects of life, your immediate surroundings exert an inexorable force over daily life, over what concerns you, what you focus on, how you spend your time. Assimilation - fitting in - is essential, of course. Standing apart in doomed defiance from any community is a recipe for disaster. But where do you draw the line? It's a real conundrum; one for which I do not have an answer. This is an issue I know I will struggle with; in fact, I'm struggling with it already.
While I understand that some degree of "fitting in" will be the magic key that opens the door to a successful experience (and yes, I do think of my time in prison as an experience that can be successful), I feel a tremendous resistance toward letting my prison life become my focus, my "real" life. I'm not exactly sure why this is. In part, I suppose, it feels as if doing so would be some sort of defeat, an acknowledgment that the system somehow got the better of me. Assimilation also seems to suggest that I will, in a sense, be letting down my real, permanent community - my friends, my family, my children - by letting my new circumstances, my temporary community, become my focus. I want to focus on what is important to me over the long run, and that is most definitely not my fellow prisoners or life behind bars.
All communities have some mix of good and bad, hopefully more the former than the latter. Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, the prison community seems to be the reverse: quite a bit more bad than good. I hear about aspects that I know I will really just not like: the onerous rules, the unjust prison hierarchy, the need to be constantly on your guard, the race relations that seem to guide much of life behind bars. Can it really be the case that I should not speak with someone just because he is black or hispanic? The very fact that this will be a primary consideration in this new community of mine grates against certain fundamental beliefs. In real life, if I found myself in such a situation, you would find me on the next U-Haul out of town.
Maybe it's this aspect - the very involuntary nature of the prison community, the necessity of passively accepting it without question or comment - that makes it so difficult to accept, that encourages me to resist. There's no U-Haul out of this town, no town-hall meeting where you can speak up. I know that I need to get beyond that, to accept the community as my own. I've done it before, when moving to a new country with foreign ways and customs. I know I need to find a balance that I can be comfortable with between my temporary community and my permanent one. I know that a successful stay through assimilation is not only in my interests but in the interests of my chosen community. But I suspect that it will be a struggle, a struggle that may very well play itself out on the pages of this blog.