Stress in Prison


This essay was originally published by The Beat Within, a justice system writing workshop.

On a day-to-day basis I try not to let the stress of my environment and circumstances overwhelm me. There are highs and lows, and some days are far better than others. After nearly twelve and a half years of incarceration, I have become numb to a number of things: extreme violence, racism, isolation, and the lack of love to say the least. However, my insensitivity to these things has since been replaced by some of the biggest stress factors of all. These factors include the gradual loss of my identity, the possibility of dying in prison, and losing the ones I love while incarcerated.

It all started upon my initial arrest. I was stripped of my personal belongings, clothes, and then put in a jumpsuit that didn’t belong to me. In fact, it had probably been worn by someone else who found themselves in my situation. Then, my name was combined with a number that represented a long line of people who had been arrested before me. I am much more than this jumpsuit and county jail number, I thought to myself. And when I was sent off to prison, that county jail number was replaced by a new number. It is a number that I must repeat to myself to receive mail, to see a doctor, and sometimes to eat: “my name is Ballard, and my number is V-53410.”

I’ve come to learn that I’m not alone in the stress that I have become accustomed to dealing with; there are hundreds of incarcerated men and women who share these concerns. As I struggle to redefine myself in this new age prison industrial complex, I’m reminded every day that my identity is under constant threat. Those in control want me to believe that it is an identity, which no longer belongs to me. I can never allow this to be true; my identity is mine alone, it’s unique, ever growing, and it can never be bottled up or contained. Still, I stress about it.

Another contributing factor to my stress is the possibility that I can actually die in prison. Since being in here, I have lost count of the people that I have known who have died. This includes guys who have committed suicide, who have been murdered, and who have died due to natural and terminal illnesses. For me, the frightening part about this isn’t just worrying about what’s on the other side, it’s being chained to a bed with nurses around who don’t care whether I live or die. Bear in mind, this is in the absence of those closest to you. Imagine for a moment what that would feel like. How would you feel not being able to say goodbye to your mother, father, son or daughter?

With each passing day I am also reminded that my life isn’t important as those who have been entrusted to detain me. This bothers me deeply because my life and the life of all people matter; I breathe, bleed, smile and cry just like them. Life is truly sacred, and the life of one man or woman should never be depreciated due to their condition of confinement. I try to tell myself that “Death is inevitable wherever you are,” but still I stress about it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t just stop there. If you happen to die in prison, and no family member can afford to bury you or claim your body within a certain period of time, the state will cremate you (put you in a fiery furnace). Can you imagine what it would feel like to die a slow death, knowing that you’re not going to have a funeral? Would this affect your self-esteem? Would your attitude about life still be the same?

Next, the harsh reality of losing your loved ones while incarcerated is inevitable. If you think that it can’t, or won’t happen, think again. Take a brief moment to reflect on those who are closest to you right now. Is it your mother, father, sister or brother? By far, this is one of the most painful things an individual will have to experience while incarcerated. The death of my father in 2001, took a huge toll on me. Just a year later I was arrested for 1st degree murder. However, at the time, I was fortunate enough to make his funeral.

With my mother in her second bout with cancer, I know that she’s living on borrowed time. I don’t think there is a day that goes by where I don’t think about her. Moreover, I think about my absence at a time when she needed me most. This includes lending her a hand when she needs one, and being able to make her funeral if she passes away with me still in here. My mother has been “my rock”, one of my main supporters throughout the duration of my incarceration. This absence on my behalf, leaves an empty feeling deep within my soul; it’s a feeling of insignificance and helplessness. If you find yourself in a similar situation, take a moment to think about the person or group of people who are most dear to you.

Losing those I love and hold dear to me is something that I try not to think about every day. Nevertheless, it’s an unavoidable thought that no man or woman in my shoes can escape; at every turn it is there. Although I’ve watched most of my latest loved ones grow in photographs that have been sent to me over the years, they are dear to me because they represent the future of my family. It is a future that I have been far removed from for over a decade. Losing them would be equivalent to losing a part of me. They are young, energetic, and have promising futures. I tell myself that they will be okay, but still, I stress about it.

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