Sentenced to Life

A man grows old in prison and outlives society’s fears

| September-October 2010

  • Sentenced to Life Image

    Scott Bakal /

  • Sentenced to Life Image

Prison is a young man’s world, a world of physical violence and posturing, a world of brute strength and primal, unfocused rage. It is not a place to grow old, although more and more of us are doing just that: growing old in prison. 

When I entered the system, I was a young man. I spent my days lifting weights and worrying about my status among peers. I rarely considered the significance or the magnitude of my predicament. In fact, the only lesson prison imparted to me, at least to that younger me, was how to be a prisoner. 

I found out how to exist with another angry young man packed into a concrete box too small to be a bathroom anywhere else. I learned to become an accomplished thief, an exceptional liar, and a proficient hand-to-hand combatant. The state wouldn’t provide for my desires so I stole to satisfy them. Truth is often viewed inside, by prisoners and guards alike, as a form of weakness; I figured out early that the big, well-told lie was superior to the mundane and pedestrian nature of mere facts. 

And in the joint—in a world where violence is king, perpetuated by us against us, by us against them, and by them against us in a dizzying choreography of preemptive attacks and retaliatory strikes do-si-do-ing around sneaky backstabbers and goonish thugs with battery-filled socks still dripping blood and lead-gray brains in their baggy pants—I came to the no-shit-Sherlock conclusion that I had best become as dangerous as possible. So I did. 

All of this living at a high-revved pitch, expending all my strength to meet the challenges in this branch of Hades, wore me down to a cinder mote. This is the common experience of those who spend their youth in such concretized suffering. The accumulated weight of years lived pushing against the immovable yields a premature decrepitude. Long-term prisoners, particularly those of us who threw ourselves into the scrum as young men and never managed to slip back past the buzzing electric fences, age at a rate out of sync with the chronograph of time. 

As I struggled to maintain the battlements I constructed in the frenzy of youth, the hinges and choke points began to fail—gradually but inexorably. My wrists can never forgive the thousands of tons of rusty pig iron I balanced, or the poorly executed angles I threw as I smashed fists into leather heavy bags. My knees were clicking and popping while I still struggled to hoist weight bars into narrow slots, well before I began the 10,000-mile trek on tight oval tracks as a prisoner of the state. Hair and teeth vacated follicles and sockets, blond locks disappeared, and vigor succumbed to weariness in the infernal contest to keep upright in this maelstrom. 

11/26/2010 1:29:25 PM

This is a very well written, poetic article. The language is tangible and colourful. I am not a literary person, but am impressed with this author/ story.

Rebecca Migdal
10/28/2010 11:13:01 AM

This is a very well-written and deeply moving essay. I for one appreciate the rich vocabulary, but then being a writer myself I swim in a sea of words, and clearly the author takes a similar pleasure in verbal legerdemain. So it didn't strike me as showing off or trying to make a point, just as the expression of an intelligent mind stretching its wings, taking flight-- a form of volitation that Mr.Hartman's trammeled life grudgingly affords, though so many other freedoms are denied him. Bravo!

10/8/2010 10:37:11 PM

Wow, the thesaurus works wonders. I work in a prison so was interested in reading this article, but I found the constant plugging of the 'money' words distracting. It seemed the writer was trying way too hard to sound intelligent to overcompensate for the fact he is an inmate. Still might be an OK read for those not in the business to hear a bit about what it is like for an old-timer inmate to grow up in prison, but I got bored with the writing style, so didn't even finish the article. Would have been more interesting if the writer used a more common words. Didn't have to use 'prison speak' (would have been cliche) just plain talk. There are plenty of inmates who speak and write well, no need to use all the fancy words to make the point.

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