Men Talk Articles - August/September 2016

Prison Survival Circa 2016

– © 2016 Harry Greenberg

The numbers of Americans behind bars are staggering. 6,851,000. One person for each 36 adults in the US, was under some type of correctional supervision at the end of 2014. In Hennepin County in 2011, more than 6000 people were admitted to incarceration facilities.

In many minority and inner city communities, going to prison is so common it is practically considered a rite of passage. And it is men who fill our prisons. 92.5% of the prison population are men. And given this historically high percentage of male incarceration, the Men's Center, which provides transitional supports groups for men exiting prison, should endeavor to understand what these men have been through. We should also familiarize ourselves with the barriers and challenges they face when they are released- and over 90% of people doing time as I write this will get out.

Which is one reason, among many, why what men endure to survive their prison sentence should concern the Men's Center. Many of our brothers who walk through our doors, have done time, and it's critical to understand the ways they have been affected by the time they see the light of day upon completing their sentence.

Above all else, prisons are maintained as secure facilities with little or no thought given to personal growth or reflection about life circumstances, that contributed to the initial sentence. Though often rehabilitation is touted as the main focus, it is punishment meted out through institutional policies that place security front and center. The prisoner's humanity evaporates as their assigned number reinforces their role as criminal and inmate. Prison personnel universally view them as cogs serving a specific function: to contribute to the daily task of a smooth running institution. Two additional elements that aggravate this scenario are racial inequities that have insured guards are overwhelmingly white and prisoners Black and the number of mentally ill inmates residing in our nation's prisons.

Imagine that ten times more people with a history of mental illness are living in prison and jails as opposed to state psychiatric hospitals. Needless to say there is little to no treatment (save medications which unfailingly produce numerous side effects as well).

Surviving prison can be seen through any number of lenses: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, environmental, and social. When I teach anger management classes at the Men's Center, I instruct participants that they have no power to influence external provocations, which, in the course of any human life, will always appear. Situations and actions by others enter our lives entirely without our consent. Yet at any moment we choose to will it, it is entirely within our power how we choose to react to trying and difficult situations.

In the world we know and experience, I believe the most disturbing, upsetting and regular occurrences that require fortitude, mettle and grit, exist to the greatest degree, in most prison environments. Imagine incessant yelling, commotion, lack of privacy, spending time with other inmates who are at the end of their rope psychologically and emotionally, all immersed in the harshness of an environment that thrives on brute force and arbitrary and capricious decisions. Throw in wholesale institutionalization, complete restriction of movement, lack of natural light, scarce medical and psychological services mixed together to create a cocktail of generalized despair that could easily overwhelm most healthy people's coping system

So how does one survive and cope with this onslaught of negative and mind numbing deprivations? Judging by the recidivism numbers, 26% (those that return to prison -according to MN Dept. of Correction), released inmates find the transition back to life outside the walls extremely challenging.

As you can imagine, there is no one way to survive prison 'intact' without psychological harm or degradation. Some people retreat into their own psyche, building internal walls to keep everyone out. Others cultivate a reputation of ferociousness and intimidation to allow them to maintain their own personal illusion of control within the pecking order of prison society.

The Prison Mindfulness Institute ( believes teaching mindfulness to inmates can be a very powerful tool in allow inmates to access adaptive coping behaviors. They have created a twelve session curriculum including topics such as Training the mind, Change, Inside out/ Outside in, Transforming Pain, Empowerment and the Art of Communication to name a few. People interested in mindfulness and prison work (including the author) have been trained all over the world to utilize this curriculum when volunteering their time in their local prison.

Being incarcerated is somewhat akin to serving in the military. It's next to impossible to understand if you have not experienced it directly. But we should endeavor to learn as much as we can about the stresses men locked up have faced, so we can better prepare ourselves to address their multiple needs when they are released.

by Harry Greenberg, a licensed therapist and facilitates anger management groups at the Men's Center. He has been to prisons numerous times-but as had the privilege to leave at the end of each day!