Want to Time Travel? Go To Prison

I’ve been playing with an idea for a new book and it involves – wait for it – time travel.

Not like the H. G. Wells, Time Machine kind of time travel. There is not fanciful device to dial up the year and zap you to the exact time and place of your choosing. The story I’m noodling over doesn’t feature a Delorean with an aftermarket Flux Capacitor, either. But time travel does feature in the story and guess what? It’s real.

image by sashcha grant via flickr creative commons

image by sashcha grant via flickr creative commons

Time travel does exist. You can instantly flash back in time by twenty years or more, if you choose. Simply go to prison.

Walk into any prison yard, especially one where inmates serve long prison terms, and you are transported back in time. Prison has a way of freezing time. The habits, memories and experiences of the last time on the street are all they have to rely upon during their confinement. Life on the outside goes on without them.

Time stops here image by Tim Pierce via flickr creative commons

Time stops here
image by Tim Pierce via flickr creative commons

The chatter, music choices and social norms reflect a time, decades in the past. I recall walking across the main prison yard and two older inmates saw the cell phone I had clipped on my belt. They started talking about how something like a cell phone seemed impossible. A phone connection without a cord – to the outside. Flash forward a few years and cell phones became the hottest prison contraband, but at that time, these two convicts were in awe of the device.

IMax movies, digital cameras, MP3 files and the Internet would be as foreign as Sanskrit if you were down for twenty years. Imagine coming up after serving a couple of decades in prison and getting tossed out into today’s technologically dependent world.

A few years ago, I was approached by a television network producer who wanted to film a segment on what an inmate faced after release. We talked about the idea of a pause button, when the gates slam behind them and no ability to press fast forward when they get paroled. Every facet of prison life is out of the convict’s control, as it should be. Let’s face it, their lack of effective and meaningful control got them in prison in the first place.


When to wake up, when to go to work, what to wear (typically, a stylish orange jumpsuit with the word prisoner stenciled down the leg) and when the lights go out – all controlled by someone else . The prison culture also sets limits on who convicts can communicate with on the inside. Prison gangs enforce their own set of rules, who has the green light to hit and who doesn’t. Who mules drugs and who can’t be trusted. Deal and sell within your own race, or face consequences. Rules within rules.

After adapting and surviving in this time warped place, you’re released back to your hometown and expected to reintegrate. That sounds easy, but as you sit in a seedy single-room-occupancy hotel, with your few belongings lined up on a shelf, like you did in the joint, you don’t know where to start.

You need an I.D. and you’re told to go to the DMV. The place is a teeming cesspool of people who don’t give a crap about rules, or respect. Having just gotten out of the slammer, it’s all you can do to refrain from shanking the dude in line in front of you. And what’s with the huge holes in his ears, and all that metal stud work? Then there’s the guy behind you talking to himself. He’s having an honest to God conversation with someone with a thingy hanging out of his ear called a bluetooth. That ain’t where your teeth are Mack.

When it’s your turn at the DMV counter, the woman says you could’a done all this on-line. I been standing in line all afternoon, I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about.

With a new license in hand, you stop off at a place with a help wanted sign and talk to the boss. You can’t stop staring at those huge holes in his ears. It’s the guy from the DMV. And he’s the one running this place. You don’t get the job, because you got no relevant experience, he says. You know it was because he didn’t like you seeing if your finger fit through those ear holes. It ain’t like he was gonna pay the ten bucks an hour for grunt work anyway. Ten an hour? What’s this guy smoking? That’s get your own place on easy street money.

You walk back to the hotel, because the ticket machine at the metro stop was a sci-fi nightmare. Money here, tickets there and what color line to take. How the hell do I know? You ain’t about to ask no one for help to figure the damn thing out. Walking’s a good thing, like you did around the track on the main yard, except everybody’s going every which way. It ain’t right and it’s aggravating.  So, you duck into a liquor store. An old mom and pop shop. Now this brings back memories. You point to that amber pint of bourbon on the counter behind the register and the shop keeper rings it up. He tells you it’s $17.50. “I only want one, not three,” you say. He tries to tell you that is the price for one bottle. The only reason you don’t jump over the counter and pound this guy for trying to scam you is he’d call the cops and your on parole. Fine, you don’t wanna sell me something, I’ll go make toilet wine back at the hotel.

After buying bread, extra sugar, oranges, and plastic bags for your artisanal toilet wine, you find it would have been cheaper to pay the $17.50. Maybe that guy with the ear holes wasn’t lying about the ten bucks an hour. You make a mental note to go back and ask about that job again. He can’t hold an ear probing against you forever, right?

What do you think you’d miss going to prison? Or, what would be the most difficult adjustment coming home?


  1. Interesting. I saw an article about a guy who had just gotten out of prison after serving 20 years. It was really cool and was entirely as you envisioned here. His biggest fascination was also the cell phone thing, people standing around apparently talking to themselves. In a weird sort of way, I had contact with a population of people who were “enlightened”.

    They weren’t prisoners, but psychiatric patients who had lived inside their own minds for their entire adult lives, never responding well to psychotropic meds. Along came third generation anti-psychotics. Suddenly, the world made sense. Amazing to see them turn around and become productive members of society. Even more amazing, I was one of them.

    1. You are a survivor and a role model! One of the places I worked in the prison setting was in a mental health unit and the men in that particular unit were unable to live in the prison population due to their illnesses. Medication helped some, but the dual diagnosis of criminal and mentally ill, made it a tough burden to bear when returning into the community. Again, thanks for sharing your story. You are amazing!

  2. This is a great post. Really puts you into the mind of a parolee. I think everything would be difficult to adjust to coming out of a long term prison sentence.

    1. Thanks Jan! It is a difficult adjustment from a very controlled setting to the real world. There are some tremendous programs to help in the re-entry process, but remains very tough.

  3. Gail M Baugniet · · Reply

    It is not what I would miss if sent to prison but the added noise, constant activity, and lack of privacy, I recently read the novel, Mr. White’s Confession which relates a unique adjustment to incarceration. I also think of prisoners of war and wonder how they deal with the solitude and constant fear.

    1. The noise in a prison setting is something that takes time to get used to. There is a constant level of sound when 500 men are held in a single place. When the pitch of the background noise changes, that’s when you know something’s about to happen. And privacy…there is none. It would be hard to adapt to the lack of private time.

  4. Never thought of the time-warp and how technology, economy and culture would be so weird to deal with 20 years later. I’m curious, though, if the environment in prison is so controlled, why are drugs still an issue? Great premise for a book!

    1. I don’t think of it so much in terms of control, but as a place time forgot. It’s not a deliberate thing. These people get left behind and the learning curve is pretty steep after release. Drugs are a big deal in prison, not only to numb them to the daily routine, but as a form of economy. There are big dollars in play in the prison drug trade. Thanks Charli!

      1. So interesting, your knowledge of the culture. I like how you write about prison life without judgement or stigma.

      2. Thanks, Charli. I guess things rub off when you spend a good part of a career behind bars.

  5. […] spaces, honed by decades of control and restricted freedoms. I’ve mentioned before that time seems to stand still in prison, frozen at the moment the gates closed behind the convict. There are piles of literature on the […]

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