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 10 Valuable Lessons Learned in Prison 

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Michael Santos

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Before a person enters the Federal prison system as part of his or her sentence, he or she should prepare for their journey by setting a plan for the best possible outcome. In order to have a plan for success, a person should study resources to better understand the challenges ahead. Having knowledge can empower a person to thrive in difficult situations. It’s never too early, and it’s never too late to start preparing. Following a pathway to success can help a person achieve their goals while serving time. Those who need help to prepare for prison may derive value from reading our article The Ten Most Valuable Lessons I Learned in Federal Prison.  

In an effort to help people to find purpose and inspire them with hope through their incarceration, I would like to share what I have learned through my personal journey in the criminal justice system.

My name is Anil Sahijwani. In 2017, I plead guilty in a Federal court and was sentenced by a judge to four years. If I would have known at the very beginning of my time in prison the lessons I learned along the way, then I would have developed a path for success much more quickly using a values-based attitude and goal-oriented plan. Our team at Prison Professors has worked with thousands of people that are preparing to enter prison and the link below offers a wealth of information that a person may find valuable:

Lesson#1 – Grief is a Human Process

Grief is defined as an emotional reaction to the loss of something or someone important. From my learning about this emotion, I came to understand it is a process and that everyone moves through it at a different pace, sometimes going backwards and forwards through the stages. Grief is a commonly shared emotion among people entering the prison system, and can be a dangerous obstacle to the progress of their personal journey.

There are five stages to the grief process:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

I entered prison in the beginning phases still in denial and very angry. I learned it is easy for a person to get stuck in a phase for quite some time, but the key is steadily working towards progress. As I began learning more about myself and other valuable lessons, I achieved the final stage of acceptance and am grateful for the peace that follows with it.

Lesson#2 – Introspection is Painful and Therapeutic

Introspection is defined as a process that involves looking inward to examine a person’s own thoughts and feelings. A successful process can help a person to grow and strengthen his or her mental and emotional state. A negative approach to introspection can be very destructive to a person’s mental and emotional well-being.

I began my prison journey with a poor self-image and low self-esteem, which adversely affected my mental and physical health. As I slowly started analyzing myself, I discovered my best personal growth came when I was truly open and honest. Looking inwards, for me, was uncomfortable and l felt vulnerable in the beginning, but knew it was absolutely necessary for me to examine my decisions in life and all of the consequences.

I learned that spending time alone with my thoughts helped me to understand my strengths and weaknesses, but the key is for this process to be a healthy self-reflection. I discovered self-reflection to be empowering and still use it daily to help me achieve personal growth and success. The continuous experience of personal growth, for me, is a life-long process that helps to live a life aligned with my values and goals.

Lesson#3 – Mental Wellness is as Important as Physical Health

Mental wellness is defined as a person’s ability to think and behave in ways that create a positive impact on his or her mind and body. Being in a difficult environment, like prison, can lead to negative thoughts in a person’s mind, especially if he or she believes they do not belong there or blame outside factors for their misfortune. Mental stress can be dangerous, not only for a person’s mind, but can negatively impact the health of his or her body.

In the beginning, I did not completely accept full responsibility for my bad decisions and focused mainly on when my release would come. These and other stressful thoughts negatively impacted my attitude and I found myself to be angry and depressed. My physical health suffered as I was not eating well and did not possess the motivation to exercise.

I realized once I began to accept the consequences of my very own actions and develop a positive attitude, my outlook changed and in time my mental wellness improved. With a stronger mindset, I began to workout and run, and in turn my physical health also improved. I discovered how interconnected my mind and body truly are. I realize having a proactive strategy to strengthen my mental, emotional, and physical health can help me overcome daily obstacles and achieve my goals in life.

Lesson#4 – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is based on the concept that a person’s thoughts affect his or her feelings that in turn affect his or her actions. CBT is a psychotherapy that begins with the basic principle of a person’s thoughts are based on his or her beliefs. By challenging and changing negative or irrational beliefs, a person’s thoughts can become positive and rational. Optimistic thoughts can help a person feel more confident and hopeful. Overall good feelings can guide a person’s actions to be more aligned with positive values and goals.

This form of mental health treatment has been shown to be very effective at helping people deal with negative thoughts, reducing recidivism, and assisting those with substance abuse disorders. I entered prison with a substance abuse disorder and learned about this concept when I started the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). I read about the methods used in this therapy and began practicing it every single day. Every time I had a negative thought or feeling, I went back and challenged my belief where it all originated from, and found a rational way to think and positive way to feel. The link below offers an article to provide a basic understanding of RDAP:

It took daily practice to challenge and change my negative beliefs, and eventually the process became so simple and easy that my actions were consistently constructive. Being able to overcome a substance abuse disorder by learning how to change my thoughts, feelings and actions is very empowering. This therapy helped me to successfully overcome many obstacles and be productive in my time in prison.  

Lesson#5 – Families Serve Their Time Like We Do

The day I stepped into prison was the day my family and loved ones began their time as well. My bad decisions caused me to be separated from my family for years. Life for my family still went on and they had to learn how to navigate through the ups and downs without me. The harsh reality of losing my freedom was that I could not truly help my loved ones in times of need compared to as if I were present. It was a bitter pill to swallow knowing that I had also sealed their fate by my own hands.

As I began my time in prison, I selfishly focused on my losses and wallowed in self-pity. I knew my loved ones were sad, but irrationally thought that my fear and depression were more justified because of my incarceration. Inside prison, a person has the luxury of time to focus on him or herself. For inmates’ families, they have to find time to navigate through their grief process while also figuring out how to successfully overcome the challenges of daily life with one less person around.

I discovered the importance of empathy and how practicing this valuable trait helped me keep my perspective. Emotional support became a two-way street, as my family was providing a great deal to me and I was able to return in kind. I started rebuilding trust with my wife by doing everything I promised I would from inside prison. By actively listening to my loved ones as they shared their emotions—good and bad—and validating their feelings, I was able to help them to heal.

Lesson#6 – Every Day is Filled with Choices

Human beings have free will and the ability to make their own choices—good or bad—even when they are imprisoned. All of us understand that our choices have consequences and ripple effects that can spread far and wide. Our choices are about self-control and lead to our actions. Our actions, which reflect our true inner preferences, are what others see and judge us on.

I learned prior to entering prison that my priorities were out of order, my selfish wants stood above everything else, and none of this was aligned with my values. In prison, I practiced restructuring my priorities based on my moral compass and goals for personal growth. Being in a confined area with so many people around allowed others to see my choices in action, whether I realized it or not. I recognized that my actions spoke louder than my words, so I practiced doing the right thing every day, even when nobody was watching.

I also chose each day to improve myself through setting attainable goals. I would commit to reading books that could provide valuable lessons for my mental growth on topics such as self-help, philosophy, and business. I would exercise regularly to get myself into shape, which also helped to strengthen my mind while being a great form of stress relief. I discovered the key is to make daily positive choices aligned with my values and character so that I am able to unlock my potential for success.

Lesson#7 – Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Judging another person is part of human nature and we all do it to varying degrees. This natural tendency helps us to understand our world and how we fit in it. Judging a person’s appearance is a superficial way to determine if someone is trustworthy and because we are not mind readers, judging a person’s actions gives us insight into his or her character.

Upon entering prison, I judged everyone around me from fellow inmates to authority figures. Even though we were all inmates imprisoned in the same place and wearing the same uniform, I judged others without much thinking or reasoning. I realized my judgments stemmed from my lacking self-love, suffering from low self-esteem, and wanting to feel better about myself.

Through time, I took the chance to really understand others and learn about their motivations, fears, hopes, families, and reasons behind their actions. My perceptions of other people were completely wrong in so many instances and I realized that a large number of us shared many commonalities. Through compassion, patience, and an open mind, I was lucky enough to meet very good people and learned how to accept my own character flaws, which improved my self-worth. I discovered a quote by Ian Maclaren that I use every day:

  • “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Lesson#8 – Faith Can be a Source of Strength

Faith is not solely about belief in a higher power or spiritual being, it can also be about trust and hope for things a person has not yet received. The choice of faith comes more from our hearts than our minds because it’s a choice to have hope in something that has a greater good, but no certainty.

I never considered myself to be very religious and I had lost a great deal of faith in my religion, and myself, when I entered prison. I was fortunate to have strengthened my belief in spirituality by attending religious services, and confidence in myself by believing that everything happens for a reason.

Having faith, for me, was an emotional need that helped me to:

  • Create meaning from the events in my life,
  • Deal with regret, pain, loss, and shame,
  • Accept reality and begin to heal,
  • Find courage to embrace the learning lessons, and
  • Strengthen my motivation and determination to lead a values-based, goal-oriented life.

Lesson#9 – Time is Precious

Time affects everyone and is the one resource that no one can buy more of, which makes it truly priceless. Time is a commodity that appreciates in value and depreciates in quantity as we all age. We all have the same 24 hours in a day to decide on how we should spend our time and live our lives.

Time can be an inmate’s worst enemy if he or she chooses to waste this resource by focusing on negativity or living life by the calendar day. I made the proactive choice to use time to my advantage and spend it wisely. I became productive by strengthening my mental well being, exercising for better health, preparing plans, and setting goals for my success upon release.

I used to take time for granted, but because I experienced so much time away from my loved ones, I now appreciate true quality time with my family and make this my priority. It is a choice to make time in life for the people and things that a person deems important. The key, for me, is to find the right balance so that I can have a happy life.

Lesson#10 – I am not Defined by my Mistakes

“To err is human, to forgive divine” is a quote by Alexander Pope that I interpret as everyone makes mistakes—no one is perfect—and to forgive involves a person’s choice to be empathetic and release resentment. Feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt can be difficult obstacles to overcome if a person stays focused solely on their mistakes in life.

I have learned the importance of having perspective and focusing on the larger picture of my life. I do not want my history to repeat itself. By accepting responsibility for my bad decisions and learning from these lessons, I can make good decisions about my future. Acknowledging all of my life experiences—good and bad—is an important step for me to begin strengthening my self-confidence and self-worth.

As I started to define myself by more than just my bad choices, I began to feel worthy of love, trust, and another chance. I discovered on the path to success that I should learn from life’s lessons, use wisdom to change for the better, and build hope to achieve my dreams.

How is Your Plan to Enter Prison?

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works alongside (not in place of) civil and criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively navigate through investigations and prosecutions. Our team also helps clients prepare mitigation and compliance strategies.

If you have any questions or are uncertain about any of the issues discussed in this post, schedule a call with our risk mitigation team to receive additional guidance.

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