The paths we take

Bak, Julian



The Paths We Take by Julian Bak I never dreamed in a million years that I would ever become a prisoner. Who does? I also never dreamed that I would one day become an alcoholic. These certainly aren't things that people aspire to be one day. It's certainly never an answer you hear when you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. I have no claim to a horrible childhood. Though some very unpleasant things happened in my childhood, there are many people in this world who have much worse childhoods than I did. My father was abusive towards my mother. He was an angry drunk and a drug addict who died in a motorcycle crash when I was 7 years old. I was also sexually abused by a family member when I was young. I don't mean to downplay the severity of these traumas because, of course, these are not small things, but many people suffer worse and don't grow up to be criminals. My criminality is a result of poor choices. I had many opportunities to make different choices and I didn't take them. I cannot tell you the rest of this story without being completely honest with you. I've taken enough treatment programs here in prison and I've been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous long enough to know that we don't start to get better until we start to tell the truth. In 2016, I was convicted of possession of child pornography and sentenced to 9 years in federal prison. In the 12 years leading up to my arrest, I was also a severe alcoholic. I'd like to make very clear right now that I do not blame my drinking for my criminal behavior. People have asked me over the years if I think I would have committed my crime if I had been sober. The answer is yes. I still would have done it sober. To what extent is debatable; being intoxicated lowered my inhibitions and altered my judgment but I cannot say in good conscience that being sober would have prevented me from offending. My proclivity for that material was a result of a warped mind from years of sexual abuse, low self-esteem, and abandonment issues. But these reasons do not excuse anything. There is no excuse for what I did and I'm glad I got caught. There is no telling how much worse it would have gotten and how soon my drinking might have killed me. I was drinking, on average, a liter of vodka per day for well over a decade and I don't know how much more my body could have taken. I feel that coming to prison saved my life. It stopped me from perpetuating the exploitation of children, it stopped me from drinking, and it started me on the path to getting the help that I needed. I am lucky that I ended up in a prison that happens to be in my hometown. I never had to do the prison airlift, or spend any time in transfer centers, or ride on a prison bus, and I certainly never had to do time in a county jail. Given the horror stories I've heard about those places, I thank God every day that it wasn't part of my experience. No, my path to prison was just a van ride across town. Amazingly, I was allowed out on bond after I was indicted and was released to a halfway house. I lived there for 13 months until I was sentenced and allowed to turn myself in. That same halfway house is where I will be released to. When I get there again, I strongly suspect it will feel like a full circle moment. Life in a low-security prison isn't anything like I thought it would be. I was afraid of getting beat up for being gay or being a sex offender or both. My mother was afraid that someone would make me their "prison bitch" but thankfully, it isn't like that here. Upon my arrival, I looked around and didn't find nearly as many gang members and thugs as I thought I'd find. There are maybe a few here that have earned their way down to a low-security place like this, but most of the gang-related convicts go to high-security penitentiaries. What I did find were sons, dads, husbands, brothers, grandfathers, famous people, ex-law enforcement officers, mama's boys, and highly educated people, among many others, all of whom were unexpected. It never occurred to me that I would find such people or that I would make friends with such people, but I did. There are some knuckle-heads that I wish would stay locked up forever but, for the most part, there are a lot of decent people in here who just made bad choices. We definitely deserve to be punished for what we did but I believe that many of us are not irredeemable. That, in a nutshell, was my path to prison. Every single person I'm in here with, and every person in all prisons everywhere, had their own path to prison. It is interesting to me that we all have our own paths that all led us to the same place. Prison is where our paths cross, but each one looks extremely different and no two are exactly the same. When each of us leaves here, our paths continue on and most of the time, they never converge again. Some paths are rockier than others, some are more winding, and some are more treacherous. I try to be respectful of that when I pass someone I don't like in a hallway, or the loud idiots across the room won't shut up. They have their paths, and I have mine. I respect their right to it and expect the same in return. It isn't always easy but I know it's necessary for my own sanity. I don't care what anyone says, prison changes you. Whether you want to admit it or not, and no matter how much you think you're trying to not let it; it changes you nonetheless. In my opinion though, each one of us has the power to decide for ourselves how we will let it change us. I believe this doesn't just apply to inmates either, but to staff as well. Many people are changed by this experience unconsciously. Some realize after a time that they've changed, but others never realize it at all. There are other people though, people like myself, who knew early on that they can decide for themselves how this experience will change them. It isn't easy. It's a matter of being willing to put in the work it takes to take steps toward positive change. There are many ways a person can do that in prison if one looks for the opportunities. Some people pour themselves into their jobs. Other people become super-programmers and take all of the self-improvement programs they can. Some people immerse themselves in a faith tradition. I personally have tried to balance all of these things to diversify my experience here. We all do what works best for us even it that means just sitting around all day and doing nothing but watching TV. I try not to judge people too harshly when I see them doing this; it is just how they like to do their time. I don't appreciate when other people tell me how to do my time, so who am I to tell other people how to do theirs? I could never just watch TV all day though; I'd go crazy. I'm doing what I can to maximize my potential for a very successful reentry into my community and I don't do that by sitting around watching TV all day. Prison has made me want to be a better person and not live the way I did before. I see prison as the ultimate second chance and I have no intention of squandering it. Many people in here have different ideas about what institutionalized means. We know it of course from the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The character Brooks, an old man who'd been locked up for 50 years, was said to be institutionalized because he literally knew no other way of life besides living in that prison. His friends predicted he wouldn't make it on the outside and they were right. Some people in here joke that just because we wait for guards to unlock doors without checking to see if they're already unlocked means we're institutionalized. Maybe in d way they're right. At the very least, I think it means we're conditioned. But I'll never forget the day I overheard a group of guys talking amongst themselves and I decided for myself what the real meaning of institutionalization is. One guy in particular was talking to his buddies about how he had been in and out of the system since he was 15 years old. He spent time in juvenile detention and his criminal justice career (it must sadly be called) roller-coasted from there. He talked about time he served in county jails, state prisons, and here he was in a federal prison. This guy was easily around 40 years old and while listening to him, it struck me that being in and out of the system for the last 25 years or so was all he had ever known his entire adult life. I couldn't help but wonder how many people there are in here and in prisons everywhere who are just like him. In my opinion, when a middle-aged person has spent more of their life locked up than free; when they know no other way of life, that is what it is to be institutionalized. I thank God every day that that doesn't have to be my path. I have made a different choice, and I continue to do so, every single day of my life. I have to admit that, as prisons go, life here at Englewood isn't that bad. Not for me anyway. Many of my fellow inmates will disagree with me on that, and I respect their opinions. It certainly isn't like those scary documentaries about hard-scrabble places like San Quinten you see on A&E. Unlike places like that, there are no lifers in here. Most guys come to a low-security place like this because they either don't have much time left on their sentence or they didn't have too long of a sentence to begin with. Compared to a lot of other guys, I have it fairly easy. I'm still in my 30s, I'm in good health, and I'm fairly good at adapting to my surroundings and focusing on being thankful for what I have, instead of complaining about what I don't have. I have wrapped my head around the fact that I am here as punishment, and this isn't supposed to be fun, easy, or comfortable. And the guards certainly are not here to be my friends or to accommodate me. They are here to turn keys end see that I stay relatively safe and alive. That is their only obligation. For these reasons, it has been fairly easy for me to get along here. I credit being in recovery from alcoholism for empowering me to focus on positivity and gratitude, and it's this focus that further empowers me to see the bright side of things, most of the time. It also helps tremendously that I had a relatively easy path on the way here, both literally and figuratively. A lot of my fellow inmates, however, are not as lucky as I have been. In fact, many are quite the opposite of how I described myself. They're old, in failing health and can't get the proper medical care they need, and their experience in the system has left them angrily bitter. When I hear some of their stories, I can't say I blame them for having a very different opinion of this place, of the system in general, and for that matter, of our government. That is just their path, their journey, and once again, I respect that. When I look back on the path I've taken so far, I see many places along the way where one different choice could have turned me bitter and hateful too. Luckily, things didn't go that direction. I have everything I need, I've never gone without food, and I have been afforded some wonderful opportunities here to better myself. I take advantage of these whenever I can. Not only do they keep me very busy which makes my time fly, they help me improve myself in many ways that are going to help me when I leave this place. They'll help me deal with my problems in pro-social and constructive ways that don't hurt other people or put a drain on our society; they'll help me find employment and pursue higher education; and they'll help me live a much better life once I leave this place so that I can be a productive and contributing member of my community once again. The things I do in here have already put me on a path to a much more meaningful and happy existence. As long as I continue to choose this path, I will be able to one day put his place and this life behind me for good. It's up to me, I hold that power, and it's a really good feeling. I don't want your takeaway to be that everything is sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows though. There are enough unpleasant things about this place that remind me that it is still a prison. On top of obvious things like not being able to leave, not being able to see my family, and being surrounded by a lot of razor wire, there are other things that sharply remind me that I am a prisoner. There are the pat-downs, the shake-downs, and the lock-downs, for starters. Then, except for a precious few individuals who care and are trying to do what they can to help us improve ourselves, callous case managers, counselors, housing unit managers, and other staff are blaring reminders that the system doesn't care about you. Their job is to get you in and out and, most of the time, you really are just a number to them. They don't care about you or your family; they don't care about what you're doing to better yourself; and they don't care what your future plans are. They just want you out of their office as soon as possible. Seeing perimeter cops patrol the fence reminds me that they are armed and ready to shoot me if I ever get the wild idea to climb a fence. And if we ever do climb a fence, it is drilled into us that we will get years added to our sentence and we will be sent to a much more unpleasant place if we think we have it so bad here. Thankfully, most officers I come in contact with are decent people just doing their jobs. For me, the indecent ones are few and I am able to do a good job of avoiding them. It seems lately like they've been dealing with the worst officers in ways they deserve, such as actually removing them from their jobs, which is nice to see for a change. A lot of the meals aren't very tasty and definitely aren't healthy. The heat doesn't work very well in the winter and we're cold a lot. The bunks are uncomfortable and I long for the day I can have a queen-sized pillow-top mattress again. The water temperature in the shower is never steady. I've grown accustomed to considering all of this as just part of the punishment. There are fights, prison politics, entitled jerks who think they own everything and bully people around, fighting over the TV, and other childish nonsense. Then there is the serious stuff like the occasional stabbing, assault of an officer, inmates getting pepper-sprayed, and inmates attempting suicide. There's enough hooch, drugs, and sex to make you think it never stopped being the 70s in here. And there are offenders of every kind: drug dealers, bank robbers, murderers, rapists, money launderers, tax evaders, crooked cops, people who looked at child pornography and people who made child pornography. Yes indeed, this is still very much a real prison, so don't let me get away with painting too rosy of a picture. I've seen enough gratuitous nudity, violence, blood, vomit, shit, illness, drugs, heartache, grief, pain, death, and all manners of adults behaving badly to put me off of ever wanting to see another rated-R movie ever again for the rest of my life. And this is just a low-security facility I'm talking about. I can't imagine life in a medium or higher. The path I've walked here in Englewood has been rough enough; I don't need to experience anything worse. If the whole point of this place is to make me never want to break the law again so that I don't come back here, then prison has done its job. But it's too easy for me to sit here and say that I will never come back. I didn't think I was capable of doing anything to deserve coming to prison in the first place but I proved myself wrong. I've seen many people come back who swore they were never going to. I have to stay diligent. I have to stay sharp. I have to stay on the path I'm on and take care not to wander. I've seen firsthand how one step in the wrong direction can lead to annihilation. I'm lucky to still have my life. I'm lucky to have this chance at a much better way of living. I'm lucky to be on this path. For the rest of my life, I'll be watching my step a lot more mindfully.

Author: Bak, Julian

Author Location: Colorado

Date: August 2021

Genre: Essay

Extent: 4 pages

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