County Time “Does” Inmates
There is an expression common to inmates about the importance of how one chooses to “do your time, so your time doesn’t do you.” Inmates, particularly those consigned to long stretches of prison time, develop strategies to fill endless hours. While time may fly when one is having fun, time counted down stretches interminably.
Within state and/or Federal prison systems, there are hosts of ways in which inmates can productively or industriously fill their time. Many facilities offer training in trades, educational opportunities and/or full time employment, skilled or unskilled. With the exception of maximum-security institutions, facilities often include a variety of options for physical activity, structured and unstructured. These institutions offer opportunities for inmates to create a schedule, rhythm, and routine with which to pass their days.
County jails, however, are drastically different. Functioning essentially as warehouses, institutional opportunities for productive activity are severity limited. There are very few jobs available, and most of those occupy only a few hours. Lack of structured employment and/or educational expectations leaves a leaden weight of numerous hours hanging around the necks of inmates. The ball and chain of time chafes painfully as it is strenuously dragged across each day.
The combination of stagnant unoccupied hours and the pulsating anxiety of unknown fates provide a fertile breeding ground for toxic behaviors. Slights, perceived or misperceived, are ruminated over and agitatedly analyzed. Arguments are deliberately provoked; both among inmates and with loved ones via telephone. These conflicts may indeed speed the passage of wet, clumpy sand through each day’s hourglass for some participants. They inevitably, however, fuel increased anger and resentment in a population already overly prone to both. Behaviors and emotional responses that run counter to a productive return to society are perpetuated rather than reduced.
In other instances, chronic boredom inspires misguided creativity. Mischievous brainstorms expand to fill empty hours and multiply rabbit-like in imaginations ennui-fertilized. I have overheard extensive sharing of criminal war stories, as well as collaborative scheming toward future variations. I have also received good-natured lessons in how to “think like you’re in jail,” implying the inevitable mental shift toward increased surreptitiousness. Many rule violations themselves are essentially harmless; yet facilitate increased comfort with blatant disregard for rules.
In more neutral exploits, inmates while away the hours watching television, playing cards and napping. Those who are more industrious may read, write, draw, or complete various puzzles for slightly more mental stimulations. While close to “productive” activity, these pursuits are nonetheless essentially selfish. There are no external demands upon my time, any expectations, schedules or needs. As is the case with any routine in which one repeatedly engages, inmates indubitably become accustomed to this excessive self-focus.
The bureaucratic rigidity that excessively restricts activity, paradoxically serves to teach and reinforce behaviors that runs directly counter to the purported goals of incarceration. During the long months that inmates spend in a county jail, we are at risk of solidifying into ingrained habit the ways in which we pass our time. Prior to my incarceration, I was a professional and full time working mother. I was ceaselessly occupied, predominantly in the service of others, whether in significant or mundane activities. Now I have extraordinarily minimal responsibilities. I must keep my belonging orderly, make my bunk whenever I am not in it, and otherwise do as I am told. I have indeed set expectations for myself, in terms of using my time as proactively as possible. I engage in physical exercise daily, make efforts to stay abreast of current events, and challenge my cognitive faculties regularly. When opportunities present themselves, I listen to heartaches shared and offer support. I refrain from both napping and excessive television watching, I stay in constant contact, both written and via phone, with my family and other loved ones. I have availed myself with gusto of the scarce volunteer possibilities that have come my way. In essence, I expend heroic effort to shape the amorphous hours into constructive endeavors.
I read my paltry list of daily activates and am baffled at the notion that this circumstance in any way serves the greater good. Enforced idleness does not assist with efforts toward rehabilitation; In fact, the old adage that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” is exemplified hourly around me. Not all inmates succumb to bored temptation and engage in deleterious pastimes. There are those, internally motived, who work assiduously at self-improvement. Nonetheless, the institutional milieu instills mindless dependence. This lesson, osmatically internalized, further inhibits the skills and Herculean persistence required to successfully reintegrate into society as productive members.