The author of this article is a life-sentenced prisoner serving a minimum tariff of 13 years, who communicates with Urban Times via letters which are transcribed to be published online. He describes Notes From The Other Side of The Wall as a kind of ‘Blogumentary’, offering a unique and topical insight into prison as a microcosm of society. Danny Cash is a pseudonym.
Without a doubt, one of the hardest things to do in prison is to keep yourself positively occupied doing something constructive. The Prison Service itself recognises this and compiles annual statistics detailing the total amount of hours prisoners have spent out of their cells engaged in ‘purposeful activity’. Unfortunately, well over half of most prisoners’ days are spent locked in a tiny cell and finding something constructive to do behind the door can prove very challenging.
For many of us, games consoles, television sets and DVD players sing a sweet Siren song. We’re not physically lured to the rocks–the bars are good for preventing that–it’s just our minds we need to worry about; sitting comatose in front of the television for hours on end every day cannot be good for the old grey matter. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to work that one out.
It was after one particularly slothful session in front of my fourteen-inch reconditioned portable set that I realised, just like Odysseus, I needed something to help resist the too-often alluring Siren song. That’s when I remembered something useful from my life before prison, a tool that I used to use as a salesman: my trusted weekly To Do list, the hymn sheet of my occasional success and a mast I could now perhaps bind myself to.
My list then used to contain things like: make 100 cold calls by Friday; reach commission bracket by Wednesday; speak with boss about monthly targets. Those were the days! I was young back then. When it came to sales I had the heart of a hungry lion and the appetite of a thirsty elephant. Ticking the tasks off my little lists made me somehow feel that I was operating at optimal performance, that I was continually making ground.
At first I imagine it would be somewhat difficult to compile any sort of meaningful To Do list in prison, after all, how much can you find to do when you’re locked up in a small concrete cell for so many hours every day?
My first list comprised mainly of letters I needed to write, people and places I had been promising myself I would write to for months but somehow hadn’t got around to. Contrary to what you might imagine, time flows almost scarily fast inside. It seems only recently that America elected its first black president, now it’s already four years later and they’ve just re-elected him.
The television sang to me a few times but I cracked on with my letter-writing regardless and, in the process, rekindled several friendships that had been waning for far too long. That made me feel good, and that’s when I realised that I could use my To Do lists just as I had as a salesman–to trick myself into feeling that sense of progress.
I now write up a new list at the start of every week and check it against my written annual objectives. Sounds a bit anal-retentive, I know, but I do it to ensure that I am not losing sight of the objectives I’ve set myself for the year and that I’m still working towards those objectives. Another little trick I learned as a salesman.
These days, a typical list of mine might look like this:
- Speak to Offender Supervisor about report.
- Send mum birthday card.
- Phone home.
- Contact solicitor.
- Finish chapters 3, 4 and 5 of course textbook.
- Write to Mick, Clare and John.
- Clean cell.
I generally try to put my tasks in order of priority, though not always. If I don’t complete a given task, however, it goes at the top of next week’s list with a big asterisk next to it, meaning ‘Get your backside into gear and get it done!’
My To Do lists seem to be working, I’m reading more than ever, writing more than ever, studying hard and really getting things done. I definitely feel like I’m making progress. Whether I actually am remains to be seen but, at the very least, my days are a lot more organised and the Siren song seems to have been temporarily silenced.
Comments will be relayed to Danny Cash by post.