Having a friend is prison is one of the strangest, saddest things. Whether your friend is male or female, guilty or innocent, it’s usually quite unexpected and horrifying to find out your friend is going to be incarcerated. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, your friend, and most strikingly, the United States’ prison system.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate out of any other country in the world (More than Russia and North Korea combined). The incarceration rate skyrocketed in the early 1970’s at the start of the Drug War, keeping people behind bars for an absurd amount of time for having so much as a gram of marijuana. At a time when marijuana is legal in many states for medical and recreational use, it is becoming more and more ridiculous and embarrassing to have this problem in this country. The mass incarceration issue disproportionately affects people of Hispanic and Black races. The United States of America wouldn’t be where it is today without slave labor, or the start of Capitalism. Slavery is still legal today, but only within the walls of a prison. This opportunity has further enabled unnecessary incarceration and the rise of private prisons, or prisons owned by corporations, so that they may make money off of the prisoners rather than spend tax money on them.

Michelle Alexander says it best: “Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the drug war, and enormous financial incentives have been granted to law enforcement to engage in mass drug arrests through military-style tactics. Once swept into the system, one’s chances of ever being truly free are slim, often to the vanishing point. Defendants are typically denied meaningful legal representation, pressured by the threat of lengthy sentences into a plea bargain, and then placed under formal control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole. Upon release, ex-offenders are discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, and most will eventually return to prison” (The New Jim Crow 16-17).

At any rate, here are 10 things you will learn when you have a friend in prison:

1) Everything is not what it seems.

Whether you see a news channel mess up your friend’s age or read an article that’s very biased and mostly incorrect about your friend, you will notice that what you see on TV is not real. You’ll see someone you’ve known your entire life slandered on local TV, on Facebook, by other friends who don’t know him as well as you do, and by complete strangers. At first it will hurt, but you’ll stop trusting people as much as you used to.

2) Your relationship with your friend will change – a LOT.

Perhaps you were really good friends with this person, but now, since the incident, you’ve grown apart. You wrote to him/her once and you figured that was enough. You forgot about him. Or maybe you’ll write to him a whole lot, visit him, and become closer with his family. Maybe your relationship will get stronger. Either way, you’ll question everything: Am I writing enough? Should I visit more often? Am I visiting too much? Should I give his/her family money? What more can I do to make this awful situation better? When will this nightmare be over?

3) You’ll try to relate to everything your friend experiences even though you have NO idea what s/he is going through just so s/he doesn’t feel so alone.

They made a friend? Cool, I made a friend once.

S/he is reading a book about rock climbing. Okay, I like rock climbing. We can talk about that.

S/he played soccer in prison with the other inmates. Oh, you love soccer! That’s great. Remember that one time, when you…?

Oh, someone got stabbed in the cell next to him/her? Uh, ….I’m really happy that didn’t happen to you. Please be careful.

4) You’ll get offended whenever people say mean things about other incarcerated people.

Even though another incarcerated person is most likely completely different from your friend, you always wonder, “what if?” What if this person is kind and likes big fluffy dogs like your friend does? What if this person was just in the wrong place at the wrong time? How does this person’s children feel? Having a friend in prison humanizes criminals in a way the media will never portray. You don’t look at the other inmates as monsters. You see them as people, like you see your friend.

5) You’ll learn a lot about the legal system.

Not only will you research your friend’s case and similar cases to your friend’s, but you’ll learn about what happens on the inside of a prison, what an appeals process is, probation, etc. You’ll learn the difference between a county jail, maximum security prison, and everything in between. You’ll learn about mandatory minimums, what a DIN number is, and what kind of people visit the same prison your friend is in. You’ll definitely think about becoming a lawyer at least once because the United States justice system really is fascinating…and quite frightening.

6) You’ll think of him/her often in regular spaces, remembering that s/he hasn’t experienced the “real world” in years.

Walking through a Target, taking public transportation, playing frisbee on the lawn with friends, going to a graduation party, or attending a concert are all things people don’t experience while in prison. After your friend has been in prison for multiple years, it’s hard to realize that they don’t know what the real world is like anymore. S/he doesn’t know what new inventions such as a hoverboard (ahem, a glorified segway) is, or what it looks like. They haven’t interacted with dogs, walked in a park, swam in a pool, hugged anyone but their visitors once a week (depending on the prison and amount of visitors). Many prisoners never get a single visitor.

7) You’ll care less about what people think of you.

If people look at one of your closest friends as though they’re a heartless monster merely because they end up in prison, it’s easy to care a lot less about what people think of you. If they cannot see the humanity in your loved one, why worry about what they say about you? It’s a bittersweet realization, but you end up keeping your closest friends and throwing out the ones who do not try to understand.

8) The sharp realization that this could happen to anyone, including you.

You’re a little more careful about driving under the speed limit, or how many drinks you have before you get behind the wheel. You stay the hell away from illegal drugs. You don’t take as many risks. You warn others not to make similar mistakes. You don’t live your life in complete fear, but the reality that you very well could be in the same situation as your friend if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time is constantly on your mind. You wonder who will visit you in prison if this ever happens to you.

9) You’ll learn to swallow your pity.

Your friend doesn’t need you to pity them. Your friend needs you to remind them that s/he is still a human being since in prison, she’s treated like just a number. You’ll think of ways to share your real world experiences with him/her and to keep them in a positive mood. It’s mind over matter at this point and any little smile helps.

10) You know that if you two can get through this, you can get through anything.

The prison system changes people, whether they be friends, acquaintances, family members, or the prisoner herself. You’ll most likely respect your friend even more than you did before because you find out they are so strong. You know they’ll be there for you if you were in the same situation, and you know that you’ll do anything in your power to stop this from happening to someone else.

I understand that this is a fairly taboo subject and it may be shocking for a lot of people. Understand that I have extensively studied the judicial system through sociology at a college level. However, my post has left out a lot of important information about racial disparity within the prison system, the history of enslavement within the U.S., current events, and so forth. This is not what this post is about and if I have enough demand to write further about it, I will. If you would like to learn more, I highly suggest you read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow which you can find for sale here or at your local bookstore. Please research what your representatives and candidates in the upcoming election are doing to eradicate mass incarceration in the United States. It’s one of the biggest problems we face and barely anyone talks about it.

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