Literature on Lockdown: Donald Joseph Urbanski
By Alison Balaskovits
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Donald Joseph Urbanski
The Machine’s Mechanical Heart
Every half-hour of everyday of the past eleven years, an employee of the Department of Corrections has shined a light on me to make sure I was perpendicular and present. Words are never exchanged, and if eye contact is made, it’s only to reestablish the distance that divides us. How do human beings walk past one another 192,000 times without ever inquiring about their well-being? They do it in eight-hour shifts.
Today those sightings are taking place on an astronomical scale, for there are roughly 2.3 million Americans who wake up alone every morning and then climb out of bed from the side that’s not bolted to a wall. Variety simply isn’t a strong suit of incarceration. It’s primarily a monotonous affair that thrives on indifference. And for that reason alone, any vehicle that brings relevance to a prisoner’s life or provides a distraction from their mundane existence is a welcomed detour from the mind-numbing tedium that’s so common with cage-living. The problem however, is most distractions in prison revolve around minor rule infractions or salacious war stories that follow a continuous loop of locker room humor, or they’re centered on the banalities of institutional life and the occasional dangers created by prison politics.
Obviously these are simple generalizations, but they carry as many hazardous variables as there are prisoners. One of the most important variables that hinders an inmate’s chance at obtaining a new lifestyle that’s free of crime, addictions and abject moral poverty, is their inability or unwillingness to be thoroughly honest about their past, present or future. This was true in my own life, as I’ve woken up on the wrong side of the correctional cot for years with nothing more refreshing than a new lie.
Another harmful variable that exacerbates the problem of inmate apathy is the warehouse effect that occurs with prison overcrowding and redundant programming. Because there’s so much structure in the prisoners’ daily routine, they progressively become reactive instead of proactive. Myopia and stir-crazy become real threats, especially for long term inmates who are unable to overcome the rigors of institutional life.
These conditions have been systematically driven forward since the latter part of the 20th century, and it’s due in part to industrialization of the American prison system. Unfortunately there are serious ramifications to this trend. As some inmates become acclimatized to this punitive holding-pattern, it produces a toxic level of complacency. As a result, prisoners frequently become apathetic, and therefore, less proactive with their recovery and reintegration; it also increases their chances of joining the next generation of inmates who will spend the majority of their lives revolving through the criminal justice system.
After decades of institutional living, I eventually became so apathetic I would scarcely move unless I was prodded by count lights, ring-out bells or work whistles. What’s more, my own correctional ease lured me into believing that my many incarcerations were nothing more serious than an occupational hazard of my criminal lifestyle, which regrettably became a way of life. And because of that reality, I’ve been a reoccurring cog in the machine since 1971 with my adolescent apprenticeship beginning at Valley Youth Center, Bar-None Boys Ranch, Bethany Children’s Home, Saint Joseph’s Children’s Home, Sheriffs Boys Ranch, Glenn Lake County Home School, Woodland Hills Juvenile Offender program, and MCF-Red Wing. I’ve also been arrested in eleven states, with at least five prison sentences to my credit.
By no means am I saying that prison doesn’t serve a necessary function. It does. Corralling me and then welding the gate shut for 13.4 years has saved my life; it was also society’s best option, as I left them no choice. However, it’s also become apparent to me during the last three and a half decades of institutional living, that the Department of Corrections has become a refuge for society’s undesirables; a literal dust-bin of human sweepings and despair. We see clear evidence of this unrequited humanity now that our nation’s prison system is the largest provider of housing and health care for the mentally disabled.
Another imperiling variable of prison overcrowding is the assembly line approach to health care and rehabilitation programs. Even though these practices are cost-effective, it diminishes the programs ability to deal with the inmates underlying issues of criminality, addiction or waning mental health. I’ve personally experienced those cost-effective solutions when I attempted to seek help for my own issues of depression and anxiety. I was routinely given a cocktail of psychotropic gorilla-biscuits until my mental faculties and motor skills turned lethargic and infantile-they literally knocked my dingus into the dirt. That’s not a safe condition to be in, considering prisons aren’t playgrounds.
Sadly these problems exist on a much larger scale than the Department of Corrections. In our society we tend to view wealth and economic growth as the surest way to prosperity and personal happiness. For that reason, money becomes a goal instead of a tool for enriching our lives or improving our communities. We shamelessly exploit the disenfranchised by using them as units of commerce or placeholders in prison cells and as objects of evil and hostility. On a daily basis the airwaves are bombarded by sirens of fear like Nancy Grace and Ann Coulter, or on reality shows like “Cops” and “Drugs Inc.” These provocative programs continuously feed the cycle of fear until another high-tech alarm system is installed or another super-max prison cell is built. Meanwhile, the never-ending race for media ratings does little more than perpetuate social apathy in a nation already full of sequacious individuals.
Through that long process, we gradually become desensitized to criminality and its steady erosion of our collective consciousness. We further ignore the root cause of crime which is often our inability to appropriately deal with our own human iniquities. Therefore, when therapeutic programs fail to address the spiritual well-being of their participants/prisoners, the program’s overall objective becomes compromised.
A further aggravating factor of behavior-modification programs are the existing therapeutic tools that tend to focus on the perniciousness of the offender’s criminal actions instead of on the root causes of their criminal thinking. Moreover, those treatment techniques generally consist of stringent guidelines on how the participant should conduct their daily attitudes, actions and speech. Should the participant not meet those program requirements, they are then met with aggressive accountability tactics by their peers and program staff alike. Those procedures will generate an immediate outward compliance within the therapeutic community. But once the individual is released from those constraints, the therapeutic undertakings usually fall by the wayside-engendering relapse and recidivism.
Even though the above practices are popular in the secular field of psychology and psychotherapy, it’s been my experience (through trial and error, but mostly error), that if those secular techniques are used alone and not in conjunction with spiritual principles, then the inmate or the average citizen for that matter, stands little or no chance of sustaining a abundant lifestyle–in or out of recovery.
I’m not simply raging against the machine, and I’m not insinuating the entire regimen of correctional programming is ineffective or without merit. Not it is my aim to minimize, criticize, or devalue the valiant efforts that are performed on a daily basis by the prison’s therapeutic community. In all honesty, the lion’s share of my recovery has been accomplished because of their benevolence. And one day I hope to hold a similar light-bearing position, even if it’s to simply put the intoxicated person to bed and then be there when they wake up with a hot cup of coffee and an encouraging word of hope.
Furthermore, after several years of living clean and sober, I’m convinced that human beings have three vital parts: Body, Mind and Spirit. If those three characteristics are not simultaneously administered during the recovery process, the prescribed treatment will inadvertently reinforce the very problem it’s been designed to eliminate. Recovery is a miracle, a portrayal of amazing grace, and it can’t be achieved through mechanical sterility; it’s accomplished through mercy and active intervention. And it’s profoundly relational. That’s the true purpose of rehabilitation, inside of prison or out.
My whole life I’ve never measured up. I’ve been a general disappointment for over 40 years. I’ve got scar tissue, lengthy prison sentences and a lifetime of colossal failures to prove this fact. I’ve grown up, and old, in correctional facilities. If I was released today, I wouldn’t need a quarter; there’s no one to call. But I’m still a blessed man, because I’ve been able to come to terms with my shortcomings – and with considerable hard word, this state-raised kid has spent the last eleven years of his incarceration enjoying the very definition of freedom by surrendering his will and life over to the care of God. And I’ve done so until I’ve become a pariah in my own homeland of 10,000 prison cells.
Donald Joseph Urbanski is a freedom fighter who enjoys writing short essays that promote the sanctity of life. He believes writing should educate, liberate, or at the very least, give a brief reprieve from the struggles of daily life. In the near future, he hopes to professionally share the gift of recovery with those still suffering from the perils of addiction. Philippians 4:13 “We can do everything through Him who gives us strength.”