Prison is a womb or a tomb.
Those seven simple words got my attention in prison, prompting the beginning of a journey into personal rehabilitation that has changed me forever. It has been my personal mantra and it represents what incarceration could be.
Where the phrase originates is unclear. Over the years, I have added on to it in many speeches to say:
Prison is a womb or a tomb. You can come here and learn to live or you can finish dying, but you better make a choice because if you don’t…the choice will be made for you.
The weight of the message always rests heavily on my conscience. For some, as it did for me, it triggers an internal struggle. They will have to confront the reality that they— and they alone—are responsible for what they do in prison and that if they do not take control, someone else will.
This is difficult for many to reconcile. Prison is often seen as a static place where certain elements are unchangeable, such as segregation or violence.
But it does not have to be.
In my experience, there are three categories of offenders: Convicts, Inmates, and Anomalies. Where one fits in depends on how they do their time.
Convicts embrace the aggression of prison and maintain the negative “us vs. them” attitude while upholding segregated culture. Those willing to uphold those values earn more “respect.” Prisoners are predator or prey; Convicts reinforce this belief through a willingness to continue predatory behavior. They believe that nothing better is possible and prison is only a tomb.
Inmates spend a great deal of their time “laying low.” They fear predation and are most susceptible to manipulation and conformity. They do what is required of them by staff and nothing more, under the belief that once they get out, they will do better. Prison can be a womb for some, just not them, so they avoid it becoming a tomb.
Anomalies are unlikely outcomes in a system that has seemingly succumbed to the bifurcation of predator and prey. Neither predator nor prey, they refuse to interact as if others are either. They embrace positive change wholeheartedly and spend their prison sentence as an opportunity to be reborn and emerge as a better self.
For them, prison is a womb.
At any time one can move from Convict to Anomaly; it’s matter of choice, of choosing to do things that are in one’s own best interest, of making choices that will lead to a better life not right now, but post-release as well.
After all, successful reintegration into society is supposed to be the goal of modern incarceration. With national recidivism rates hovering above 80 percent, according to a nine-year study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it would appear as though an offender acting in their own best interest is a rare occurrence.
So the question, for me, becomes how do we get more Anomalies and make them less anomalous and more normal? I believe the part of the answer lies in reentry.
Offenders spend their time in prison isolated from the community; even the most supported individuals feel the strain and trauma of disconnection. Those who get far less communication from loved ones on the outside feel the effects even more. This can go on for years, often a decade or more.
The feeling that we will not be accepted back into the community despite having rehabilitated, changed and reformed ourselves is a difficult obstacle to see around without a formal or widely accepted process.
I first learned about the idea of a reentry process in a paper written in 2003 by Shadd Maruna and Thomas LeBel, entitled “Welcome Home? Examining the ‘Reentry Court’ Concept from a Strengths-based Perspective.” The authors point out that courts ceremoniously strip an offending person of societal freedoms and status, replacing them with an assigned number and a set of restrictions meant to quell one’s “offending” nature.
They go on to point out that an offender may benefit greatly from that same ceremonial nature occurring when we reenter society, having completed our societal separation.
If offenders currently incarcerated knew that acceptance awaited them if they used their incarceration wisely, we would have a lot more Anomalies. Having something like a reintegration ceremony would also signal to the public the offender’s relabeling and reinstatement back into the fold as a person, and provide an initial reason to accept them as such.
Thinking of myself and my peers, it would be nice if the same judge who ceremoniously ordered our detention also ceremoniously ordered our freedom. But it would mean more if it came from the community itself.
What if the community presented the reformed individual with a certificate that marks this acceptance? Maybe with a set of required steps that must be taken upon release to “prove” oneself worthy of such esteem, of acceptance? The idea alone provides hope, at least.
Hope is future based. Hope moves mountains. Hope inspires the weary and downtrodden to keep going. Hope overcomes the “impossible” and chooses to instead see “I’m Possible”.
Prison can absolutely be a rebirth. Why not celebrate it?
Ruth Utnage, a trans-woman incarcerated since 2012 at Monroe Correctional Center in Monroe, Wa. is scheduled to be released next year. Ruth writes for her blog Humanme.org, a platform used to showcase the rehabilitated. She welcomes readers’ comments and suggestions, You can write to her at: Jeff Utnage aka Ruth Utnage # 823469 C-601-2, M.C.C.-T.R.U.,P.O. Box 888, Monroe WA 98272. Or thru Jpay (prison email system) using:Utnage # 823469.