By Andrew

This article was included in the June 2022 newsletter sent out to prisoners we are supporting. Andrew, currently in Eastern Europe, shares his insightful thoughts on staying positive whilst in prison. 

Firstly, I must state categorically that I am not a medical professional and I hold no qualifications in psychology, psychiatry or any other branch of medicine. This article is based solely on my personal experience in prison outside the UK for the last two years.

I know it won’t help everyone who reads it, but I hope that some of you in a similar position to myself are able to take something from it. Maybe it will help you to better cope with your current situation or reduce the impact on your life after you get out.

When I first offered to write this article a year ago I had been in detention for almost a year but was still waiting for my trial, which had been postponed due to the pandemic. Now, my trial has been completed and I was sentenced to four years, which I have appealed against.

Unfortunately, unlike in England where the automatic release date is at 50% of the sentence, here I will have to serve the full four years if I lose my appeal.

It doesn’t pay to dwell on the “if I was in the UK” thoughts as you are not in the UK, so there is no point making yourself feel bad unnecessarily. I always try to find something positive to think about in every situation. In this case, I know that, if I lose my appeal, I will be free two years from now and I think about how quickly the last two years have gone. I’m not looking forward to it and I hope it won’t happen, but if it does, I know I can handle it.

The thing I realised very early on is that there is only one person in control of the effect prison will ultimately have on my life and that person is me.

I guess it would be fair to say that I have always had a fairly positive outlook on life and I’m sure that hasn’t done me any harm in my current situation.

The biggest problem I have found with being in prison, and I am certain this holds true wherever you are in the world, is that most of the time there isn’t much else to do but think. Even if you distract yourself with every available activity during the day you are still alone with your thoughts at night and, if your thinking is wrong, you are in for a lot of long, lonely nights.

Something I decided to do almost right from the start, and I hated myself for doing it, was to not think about my family most of the time. I kept no photos on display to constantly remind me of what I was missing. This was a self-preservation decision that enabled me to live only in the present moment and just think about what was going on around me.

I told myself I was ‘compartmentalising’. My life on the outside had been put on hold and I was living in an alternate reality.

Whenever I thought about my family, especially my children, it made me very sad and I used to pretend to be asleep to hide my tears. At that time I wrote “happy is sad” at the top of a page, intending it to be the title of a poem but the title was as far as I got because the happier the memory I brought to mind, the sadder I became and I just couldn’t handle it.

At that time, I didn’t have any communication with my family and when eventually I was able to speak to my wife, there was so much to talk about and so little time available that we didn’t have time to get emotional. But the first time she put my daughter on the phone we both broke down and were unable to say anything. After that I decided to act like I was just working away from home and I would see everyone again soon. That way we have been able to have normal conversations without really thinking much about where I am and when I’ll actually be home.

It is a well-known fact that the prison experience changes a lot of people.

It doesn’t change everyone, and I made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to let it change me as I’m quite happy with the way I am. To help myself stay the same I sometimes think about things I used to do and I imagine myself doing them now, just the same as I did them before.

For example I close my eyes and picture walking into a pub, my local, ordering a drink and striking up a conversation with whoever happens to be at the bar. It doesn’t always have to be the pub, I often imagine popping into the Co-op and picking up a pint of milk, or picture myself putting petrol in the car. The most important thing is to always exchange a few words with someone and notice how they treat you the same as they did before.

When I’m out, I never intend to give anyone a reason to say: “you weren’t like that before you went to prison.”

After I lost my fight against extradition, I looked for a few things to take with me. I’ve never been a big reader but a book with the tag line “From Stress to Strength” caught my eye, so I decided to take that with me. When I finally dug it out in my cell one day, I saw that the book is actually called “A Practical Guide To CBT” by a couple of psychologists called Clair Pollard and Elaine Iljon Foreman. CBT Stands for ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ and much of the book deals with ways to overcome phobias, anxiety and depression.

Although I didn’t have a need for the help provided by the book, I found I was able to relate to the content. I already had experience with visualisation, meditation and self-hypnosis, and the rest of it was just good common sense.

The main reason I mentioned the book is because I’m about to quote three lines from a page that’s made up a large part of my strategy for staying mentally strong in prison. It is referred to as “the serenity prayer” and it goes like this:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

If you aren’t religious don’t think of it as a prayer but as a formula for your thinking.

I have found that one of the hardest things to cope with is a feeling of total helplessness, especially when my family are going through situations that I know I would be able to help with if I was there with them.

It is very frustrating and if you keep beating yourself up over it, your mental health will begin to suffer. So, as hard as it surely will be, you must learn to accept situations you can’t change, for your own sake. You aren’t letting anyone down, they know you would help if you could and they understand you don’t have a choice in the matter. As I said, it won’t be easy, but if that is the only thing you take from this article I know I will have helped you.

What you think about and the way you think it are the two most deciding factors in how you spend your time in prison, and how it will affect the rest of your life.

Some thoughts are just not constructive and it is best to avoid them. Unfortunately, sometimes these are the thoughts that persist in coming into your head and avoiding them may seem impossible. Before we can effectively banish these thoughts, we have to face up to them and deal with them. Here are some methods that I have used successfully.

Some things that make you angry or frustrated may be related to people or events on the outside and are beyond your control or influence. When you want to tackle thoughts like these, break them down into smaller specific thoughts about an individual person or even a certain thing that person does.

Now write down everything about this person and their behaviour. Go into as much detail as you can about what is bothering you and how it makes you feel. Now write down what you would like to do or say if you could and how it would make you feel after you have dealt with it. Now destroy the piece of paper: tear it into pieces, flush it down the toilet, get rid of it.

There’s no need to read it again. You have got those thoughts and feelings out and you don’t need them anymore. In future, if those thoughts come again you can tell them to go away as you have already dealt with them. When another thought makes you angry or frustrated do the same with that one and remember, the last thing you write should be about how much better you feel having dealt with it.

Prison doesn’t have to ruin your life and depending on how you use your time inside, maybe the opposite could be the case and you will end up achieving things you would never have found time to even start on the outside.

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

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