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Anxious Beginnings

Updated: May 28, 2023

For incarcerated individuals, there are pivotal moments that leave a lasting imprint on their minds. Among these, the day of arrest and the arrival to prison stand out as traumatic events, etched in their memories. In this article, I will delve into the profound impact of the first day in prison, drawing from my personal experience and the stories shared by other men who have undergone this ordeal.

The Reception and Evaluation Process:

In South Carolina, the initial stage of imprisonment entails a process known as Reception and Evaluation (R&E). While R&E serves as a temporary phase en route to a more permanent facility, it is the moment of entering the dorm where one will spend years, if not decades, that carries immense anxiety and anticipation.

The Bus Ride and Pre-Arrival Tensions:

During the bus ride to the assigned prison, often accompanied by other men returning from medical or court runs, men exchange stories about the facility they are assigned to. This journey provides an opportunity to seek answers and alleviate fears, if one can find the courage to engage in conversation. Upon arrival, men are usually confined to holding cells for hours, awaiting processing. Once processed and assigned a cell, they are handed some paperwork, a mattress, and their accumulated belongings.

Navigating the Unknown Territory:

Stepping out of the operations building at Leiber Correctional, I found myself clueless about the location of my designated dorm, Cooper B-12. Struggling with my belongings without the presence of an officer on the yard, I made my way to the nearest dorm. The officer there directed me to Cooper, and just before darkness fell, I entered through its front door. It was near the end of the officer's shift when I arrived. As the officers examined my room assignment, they unlocked the door to B-wing with a jangling key attached to their belts.

The First Encounter and Roommate Challenges:

Stepping onto B-wing, I sensed all eyes on me as I searched for room 12. When I finally found it and pushed the door open without knocking, I was met by a man twice my age and nearly twice my size. Unbeknownst to me, my failure to knock was seen as a sign of disrespect. He expressed annoyance as he had been expecting one of his brothers to move in. I remained in that room until classification eventually relocated me to a more compatible roommate over a month later.

Anxiety and Dilemmas for the Young:

A close friend of mine, who entered prison at the tender age of 18, encountered a daunting situation upon arriving at his assigned room. Two men were already occupying the space and promptly told him to find another room. Imagine the anxiety he felt as a young man thrust into an adult world. Should he have alerted the guard, confronted the men and fought for his room, or simply set up his mattress in the hallway? None of these options were ideal.

Facing Hostility and Finding a Familiar Face:

Another friend of mine, incarcerated at 17 years old, recounted a story of walking into his dorm and being confronted by a group of gang members. They deliberately sought to intimidate him with disparaging remarks while he anxiously waited for the officer to open the door. Fortunately, one of the individuals recognized him and knew a family member of his. When the officer finally unlocked the door, this friend vouched for him. But what if that ally hadn't been present?

The Need for Enhanced Orientation:

These examples vividly illustrate the anxiety and immediate challenges that arise upon commencing a prison sentence. The first day of prison is etched into the memory of every person who has experienced it firsthand. Orientation is often overlooked or given little importance, with no thorough security checks or preparations for new arrivals. Individuals are thrust into an unfamiliar and potentially hostile environment, expected to navigate it without proper guidance.

The significance of this memorable day for those who have experienced it firsthand underscores the urgent need for a greater focus on orientation programs in prisons. The initial day can set the tone for years to come, influencing an individual's perception of their surroundings, other incarcerated men, and their own place within the system. Strengthening orientation programs would position the Department of Corrections to fulfill its rehabilitation mission effectively.

An enhanced orientation program should encompass several crucial aspects. Firstly, comprehensive information should be provided to new arrivals regarding prison rules, routines, and available resources. Clear explanations of expectations and consequences can help alleviate anxiety and establish a sense of structure.

Secondly, orientation should address the specific challenges faced by young men entering the prison environment. Educational workshops on self-defense, conflict resolution, and coping mechanisms can equip them with valuable skills to navigate the complexities of prison life. Additionally, mentorship programs that pair newcomers with experienced men can provide guidance and support during the challenging transition.

Furthermore, orientation programs should address the emotional and mental well-being. Providing access to counseling services, support groups, and mental health professionals can help individuals cope with the stress, trauma, and isolation that often accompany incarceration. Such support can contribute to reducing recidivism rates and promoting successful reintegration into society upon release.

It is essential to emphasize that neglecting the orientation process not only perpetuates problems for individuals but also has far-reaching consequences for the prison system and society as a whole. Insufficient orientation increases the likelihood of tension, conflicts, and even violence in prison. It undermines the potential for rehabilitation, perpetuates a cycle of incarceration, and hampers efforts to address underlying issues that contribute to criminal behavior.

By prioritizing and strengthening orientation programs, correctional institutions have the opportunity to transform the initial day in prison into a more constructive and empowering experience. Adequate preparation, guidance, and support can help individuals navigate their sentences, foster personal growth, and instill a sense of hope and purpose.

The first day in prison is a pivotal and unforgettable experience for incarcerated individuals. By recognizing the lasting impact, it has on their lives, correctional systems must prioritize the development and implementation of comprehensive orientation programs. These programs should address the unique challenges men face, promote rehabilitation, and foster a safer and more productive environment within prisons. By doing so, we can work towards breaking the cycle of recidivism and promoting positive change for individuals, institutions, and society as a whole.

Benjamin Case is serving a life sentence but decided in 2016 that he was going to start living in a way that honored God and his family could be proud of. He continues to write about the problems he faces and the solutions he creates.

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