The Lifer's Life

Current State of Prison Life and Culture

Right now, prison culture is often based on a violent code of antisocial in-house rules. Survival requires adaptation to this culture. The majority of prisoners, those without a Life sentence, don't run to the fray, but don't actively steer from it either. They're resigned to what they see as an inevitable number of riots and disruptions. Inwardly, they're still willing to strive for positive goals, if given the chance in a different environment. The years roll by, though, and that hope to reform slowly dies, as the disciplinary infractions pile up, the chances for education for slip by, and the resolve fades into a haze of drug use. At their release date the front gates swing wide open and leave them wholly unprepared to meet the challenges of the real world. With no support system and no job skills, parolees are unable to change their situation. This learned helplessness began in most cases early in life with poverty and violence, and was only reinforced by prison, where the negative culture stifled any sense of personal agency. The inevitable result is recidivism- more crime and reincarceration.

Hardened Lifers and the Reformed Lifers' Transformation

In every prison, Lifers are the transmitters of prison culture, exerting an influence far greater than their relatively few numbers would imply. Hardened Lifers push the destructive prison culture that is a central factor in recidivism. They recruit young new prisoners to fight over patches of sand and concrete, to avenge small slights, real and imagined. Initiates are schooled in prison mayhem and imbued with the nihilistic dogma of those who've lost all hope. The sad thing is, hardened Lifers don't have any real meaning or purpose to what they do. They surrender to the whirlwind of madness because they know no other way to cope with their inner despair.

Sometimes though, Lifers do become reformed: long years of perpetuating negative prison mores, followed by years of bitterness, regret, and loss, and then, possibly, an awakening to the value of life and how to live it. This growing into maturity ... it's not automatic, not endemic to the infrastructure of prison. Rather, it's often due to personal circumstances that force individuals to reevaluate their lives. Those who do, invariably try to extend the positive changes beyond their own immediate being.

How Reformed Lifers Influence Prison Culture

Despite their low numbers, reformed Lifers have impressively managed to build positive programs in isolated pockets throughout the nation's prisons. These programs are voluntary, led by reformed Lifers, and encourage other prisoners to participate in activity clubs, sports leagues, religious groups, self-help classes, musical bands, and arts collectives - all in prison, and all in a cooperative spirit. In some places, reformed Lifers work together with the local community to raise funds for charities, refurbish toys and eyeglasses for disadvantaged children, and reach out to troubled youth about life decisions. This commitment to reform, this striving to do good instead of harm, is a courageous stand by reformed Lifers in the face of prison culture.