Focus Forward

“Ain’t nobody gon tell me I cain’t watch my muthafuckin TV”, squawked my 60 year old, 125 lb. celly, as he stomped back and forth across the open space in front of our bunks. “I done paid for my TV and nobody betta not touch it. I’m a die ‘fore somebody touch my stuff”.

I stood there just beyond arm’s reach, amazed at this unjustified reaction to my request that he wear headphones when watching TV. How could he have survived almost 30 years in prison if such a common request made him flip out like this. He had to be joking, I thought. But as his temper tantrum continued it became clear that although his behavior was as ridiculous as a joke, his mental instability was very serious.

I try to spend as much time as I can reading, writing, and studying – which is difficult because I have a lot of interests and I tend to get distracted easily. So a noisy television five feet from my ear is a big deal. By not using his headphones my celly was harming the thing I cared about the most in this world: my future. I felt as though he was attacking a member of my family.

Trapped in the room until count cleared, I spent the next 25 minutes plotting ways to get moved and resisting the urge to smash my celly’s TV over his head then stuff him in the frame. I couldn’t stay in there with dude. He’d just moved in two days ago and he was already having a schizophrenic outburst. Not to mention the fact that I constantly caught him staring at me. How could I sleep around him? For the first time in my eight year bit I was planning to refuse to lock in, which would probably mean several months in the hole.

However, the issue wasn’t so much what I feared he’d do to me. Rather, it was what I feared I’d be pushed into doing to him.

Responding how I wanted to, how most anyone would have wanted to, was the worst option. I predicted (correctly) that staff would not move me, but if I went after my celly I’d injure, if not kill, any chance of getting work release or maybe even early release. What sense would it make for me to try to defend my future, my respect (or whatever else I choose to call it) if doing so put my future at risk and disrespected my intelligence and potential?

I had to let this fool win the battle so I could win the war.

Eventually, in order to move to a different wing (a worse one) I had to quit my tutor job, which was the first prison gig I enjoyed. Over the next several months, however, a number of good things happened that I’d have missed out on if I’d failed to look beyond the moment that night – and the weeks that followed.

When I get out I know I’ll have to take crap from POs, bosses and society in general. Everyone does, I’m not special. It just seems to me that with prison both behind me and always hanging over my head, it will be easier to accept the setbacks. Not only because I refuse to ever again get stuck between a crazy man and a hard place, but because I will have already endured arguably the greatest setback: years of incarceration.

TIP: Back to School: A Guide to Continuing Your Education after Prison. This reentry guide, funded and revised in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education, is intended to assist people in state prison planning to pursue or continue their education after release. It walks readers through the process of planning for and accessing education programs, including adult basic, GED, vocational, and higher education; provides instructions for accessing community resources, financial assistance, and other services; and offers practical advice at each step along the way in the form of testimonials from formerly incarcerated individuals who have realized a diverse array of educational achievements. The guide is designed to assist the work of correctional and community-based reentry staff as well as inspire and support people leaving prison to take advantage of educational resources in their communities. The 2010 edition of Back to School is available as a free publication upon request from the U.S. Department of Education’s materials distribution center. Please visit or call 1.877-4ED-PUBS and request item number ED005088P.