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‘If You’ve Been Waiting in Jail for Several Months, Prison is Considered the Promised Land.’

Daniel Luke, a 45-year-old former inmate from Oregon, on his time behind bars and what he struggles with now that he’s out.

What were you convicted of?

Burglary.

How much time did you serve?

24 months.

How long have you been out of prison?

I was released in December of 2012.

Have you been incarcerated more than once?

No.

If you're currently employed, what is your job?

Self-employed as a housekeeper.

My most-prized possession in prison was:

My reputation.

My favorite prison meal was:

My last.

My least favorite prison meal was:

None. I bitterly resent having been fed dog food for two years.

My favorite thing to read in prison was:

The daily WSJ.

The best thing someone mailed to me was:

“Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker

My favorite person, real or fictional is:

My beautiful boys.

If I had never gone to prison, I...

... wouldn't have the insight that only a person who has been to prison can have about prison. For this I am very grateful.

What do you remember most about your first week in prison?

What the public generally doesn't know is that if you've been waiting in jail for several months, prison is considered the promised land because there is better food (though still terrible), more of it, and plenty of other amenities including television, the luxury of going outside, and so on. People in jail, many of whom had been to prison repeatedly, would almost fondly recall memories of time spent in prison. So it was built up as something to actually look forward to, at least compared to jail. The whole time in jail you are waiting waiting waiting, and this wait is loaded with a dreadful suspense. Will you get probation, or will you get five or even ten years?

Were you ever placed in solitary?

Yes, but in jail on two separate occasions for a total of 20 days. I was never given a reason, even though I asked repeatedly.

How would you describe that time?

Imagine that someone broke into your house and tied you up along with your family. Imagine that this someone began performing depraved acts of cruelty on your loved ones while you were forced to look on. If you somehow escaped and thought back on the experience, it wouldn't just be the thought of the cruel acts themselves that caused the most disquietude, but the fact that you could do nothing to intervene. In solitary, it is your own soul, or your own psyche, which stands in for the family members. The experience hacks away, second by second, at every received notion of what is generally perceived as normal reality.

If there was one prison rule you could change, what would it be and why?

The question is inane and offensive. You don't "change one rule" when it comes to something as evil as prison. You abolish it.

Use three words to describe your former corrections officers:

Banal. Bored. Tragic.

Use one adjective to describe yourself when you were in prison:

Observant.

Do you tell people that you were incarcerated?

I don't necessarily offer it, but I never lie about it when asked. I even post to online forums relating to topics of incarceration using my real name. I do this partly because lying or concealing this past implies that there is a lot of shame surrounding my former actions, and shame is one thing I seek to banish. One is required to look at oneself and say, "Maybe I fucked up here, but I'm not going to relinquish my dignity, my humanity, my kindness or sense of decency." There is no pride in committing a trespass against another person, and certainly remorse and plenty of regret have followed in my case, but I feel strongly about claiming my humanity and refusing to be marginalized.

What’s the hardest thing about being a former inmate?

Seeing society, and this would include most prison reformers, continue to put trust in something that should by now be about as discredited as phrenology or eugenics. Prisons are akin to individuals who, having been victimized, set out on a course of vengeance and retribution. Prison represents the same sort of mentality that lands people in prison. So, maybe the hardest thing has been communicating this message.

What piece of advice would you give to someone who is about to be incarcerated?

Do not give up hope. You're still alive, after all. And it's not hard, with a little effort, to accomplish more in prison than most people accomplish on the outs.

What advice do you wish you had received when you were about to be released?

Keep your head low.

What were your happiest moments in prison?

Feeding deer from my hand. Walking. Earning the esteem and respect of others. Helping people out in various ways. Getting in top shape. Reading. Writing. Moving from a feeling of irremediable depression to a feeling of confidence and power.

If you were to have a life motto, what would it be?

“No man deserves to be praised for his goodness, who has it not in his power to be wicked. Goodness without that power is generally nothing more than sloth, or an impotence of will.” — Francois de La Rochefoucauld

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