Locked Up: 5 Important Life Lessons I Learned From Being In Prison

by Mansal Denton

Between the stabbings, beatings, tattoos, guns and drugs, my upper middle-class world was turned upside down.

The face tattoos frightened me, despite being commonplace in prison.

A person who has not spent time in prison may assume it is a cesspool for criminals. Spending six months incarcerated has shown me that people in prison aren't totally evil.

Many seek redemption for their mistakes and consciously work to become better men. Some hardened criminals were far wiser than I judged and they taught me a lot about living righteously.

From age 17 to 20, I stole historical documents and sold them to fund my college education in Europe. When I was arrested, I was first faced with denial, fear and anger.

As three and a half years on “bond” (freedom pending acquittal or conviction) continued, I slowly accepted and acknowledged my wrongdoing and the pain it caused the victims, my family and the community.

Yet, no amount of preparation or understanding of myself and actions could ready me for the chaos of prison.

Shocked and awe-struck, I observed quietly, listened and most importantly, learned.

I learned not just about how to survive prison, but how to thrive in life as a man.

1. Letting Go

Everyday life is filled with attachments to things, people and perceptions. Letting go is often one of the hardest challenges to face in life.

Validation, affection and approval are hard to abandon, but mental toughness is letting go, relinquishing and giving way to all of the things the ego would like to attach to.

In prison, it is harder to let go. Letting go of power and freedom is gut-wrenching. It feels like there's nothing to do but dwell on the things you could have or should have done.

There are no clocks, but this is for the best because 10 minutes feels like an hour.

The mind spirals downward out of control until worst-possible scenarios become tense, anxiety-ridden realities. Breathing becomes shallow, chests tighten and thankfully, someone snaps you out of it before it becomes too upsetting.

Contrasting my experience were many prisoners who lacked basic education, but were among the wisest people I have ever known.

Most let go of their attachments and managed to enjoy the simple pleasures of prison life. They embraced their new realities and relished television shows, playing chess or reading murder mysteries.

There are so many variables and happenings that are completely out of our control. Letting go of the things that are out of our control is the only way to derive happiness from within, regardless of our environments.

It is easy to tell when an inmate had let go. His face would be calm, breath full and smiles or laughter were always close by.

Today, I still find it hard to let go of things. I wanted to mend a broken relationship for weeks after she broke things off. Entering the grocery store where she worked created tension in my chest as my heart began to race. In just writing this, my hands are becoming clammy as I sweat in 45-degree weather.

Yet, I can always look back with inspiration to those men who faced years of incarceration and still decided to let go.

We really have little control over the external world despite what we may believe. We have control of ourselves and our actions, but the world and our surroundings are largely outside of our power.

Being in prison and stripped of all power and control makes this truth more apparent.

2. Self-Acceptance

When I speak to an attractive woman, my hands sweat, my shoulders slump, my words jumble and my body language conveys that I neither accept nor love myself.

Going to prison forced me to accept myself in a different way. I hurt others and paid for it, but I had to forgive myself and accept my motives.

The acceptance of what is is the precondition of change. Denial leaves us stuck. Acceptance is a huge part of healing and growing as a man; being aware of the emotions that cause improper actions and accepting them are the most important steps toward redemption. I stole for a woman because of my own insecurities as a man.

Many prisoners had come to a place of self-acceptance for their past deeds. While some claimed to have been “framed” or guiltless, those who had the most respect and status in prison were those who acknowledged their deeds and took responsibility for them.

Unsurprisingly, the men who accepted their faults were the ones who seemed less likely to commit immoral acts once freed from incarceration.

Acceptance for crimes committed is only one part — in prison, the way one acts can mean life or death. Considering my upper-class upbringing, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I couldn't “act” like other inmates even if I wanted to do so.

Paradoxically, my proper use of prepositions and verb tenses was welcomed as being a “real n*gga,” as other inmates used to say.

3. Responsibility

Other people dictate a prisoner's life. The people you sleep next to, the work you do, the schedule you follow and the food you eat are all out of your control. Despite that, there is always a responsibility to the self.

An elderly man named “Old School” read the bible, Charles did 400 push-ups a day and “J-Real” brainstormed business ideas. Organization and cleanliness were more important in prison than I ever found in the free world.

My routine consisted of waking up with my neighbor around 4 am to eat breakfast. I saved a bottle of milk and other protein for later.

Afterward, I went to work at the library, where I sought history, philosophy and classics that could expand my consciousness and understanding of the world. Finally, I would come back, eat, work out as best I could and read more before bed.

Without other inmates taking such self-responsibility seriously, I don't know that I would have done the same. It was inspiring to see other men clear in their purposes, no matter the situation.

There is always the responsibility to yourself to grow as a human and strive for something greater. The definition of growth and self-responsibility may be different, but the awareness and consciousness behind actions is the key.

What's the best use of your time and what enriches your life most? Sometimes, it might be to relax and enjoy your relationship with another in presence and compassion. Whatever it is, be aware and conscious of it.

4. Being Emotional And Authentic With Men

I experienced how emotional outpouring was understood and accepted in prison; I cried twice while behind bars.

Once, upon receiving pictures of my family, I put my blanket over my head and felt the salty tears flow down my cheeks. My neighbor patted my back, “Head up, bro.”

I talked hardened men through difficult situations, and through it all, I have learned that being emotional and open with men is okay and actually healthy.

In prison, one develops a different and very specific type of bond with other men. For many, the physical danger leads to a bond closer than in the free world. Because time seems to move so slowly, the emotional stress of missing loved ones is amplified. Everyone faces the same reality, which makes it easier to be open about emotions.

I've learned there is no reason why those emotions shouldn't also be prevalent in the free world, with the men and brothers I love.

5. Gratitude For Others

In prison, there is a lot of time to think. For inmates, life in the outside world feels like it stands still; somehow, we believe things will go back to the way they were as soon as we are free.

For family and friends who are free, the world keeps on moving. It moves at a pace that is incomprehensible to someone who is incarcerated.

The first reaction is to become angry at loved ones and friends who can't write or speak on the phone as often as we would like.

Surprisingly, most prisoners recognize that people in the outside were suffering for and with them. People in the free world stood behind them and gratitude came in many forms.

Some wrote long, heart-felt letters. Others drew elaborate artwork and created special patterns that expressed gratitude. We recognized the sacrifices of others, but I sometimes neglect this practice in the free world.

There are so many people who show love and support on a daily basis, sometimes the same people who provided support while I was in prison.

Being conscious of this and expressing authentic appreciation — inside or out of prison — will help any man maintain healthy and meaningful relationships.

Prison Takeaways

Hardened men with teardrop tattoos and gold teeth taught me more about life than my books on Buddha, meditation and eastern philosophy did.

Even though I learned a lot while in prison, every day in the free world is a learning experience. I'm constantly amazed how much I still have to learn.

Dating one girl recently taught me more about myself and my motivations than my stay in prison did; in fact, it helped me recognize the deeper reason I went to prison.

Letting go and self-acceptance were major takeaways from prison, but I still struggled to implement them with her.

Remembering the life lessons I learned from other inmates is not always easy, but they are inspiring and helpful. If prisoners can manage to uphold those characteristics from a rotten prison cell, it's possible for me to do the same in the free world.