- Make a release plan now: A mentor of mine once told me he’d started preparing for the day he was released the same day he came to prison. Start to plan for your release now. Whether you get an acquittal or conviction, use every opportunity available while awaiting trial to improve yourself. For starters, you can consult your unit case manager for a list of available programs and enroll in as many as you can. If you don’t have a high school diploma or equivalent, that’s the perfect place to start. Some detention centers even facilitate college programs. Don’t wait until you’re near release or released to get your life back on track.
- Agenda: If you don’t have an agenda, now is a good time to create one. As soon as you’re done reading this article, you can draw up a list of short-term goals, such as things you wish to accomplish within a year’s span or while you’re awaiting trial (like getting your GED, developing a business model or other ideas, important books to read, pounds to work off, etc. …), or long-term goals, such as a five-year plan (where do you want to be in five years?). Envision it. Now map out a plan to get there.
- Learn some law: Don’t panic. You don’t have to learn every law on the books. Just learn about the laws and procedures that pertain to the crime you’ve been accused of. Don’t just kick back and trust that your lawyer is “handling it.” Learn enough about case law to make sure your attorney is on the right track. A lot of attorneys see you as just another case file. The important thing is that you establish good communication with your lawyer and know your case law.
- Mind your business: It doesn’t cost you anything to mind your own business. However, minding other people’s business can cost you a lot of unnecessary problems. Look, if you’re in jail, chances are you get into enough trouble on your own; you don’t need the next person’s drama too. Side-step all those gossipmongers. Focus on reforming your character and turn away from the flaws of others. If you don’t have anything good to say about a person, then don’t say anything at all. News flash: You’re not a judge.
- Stress kills: An arrest can be super stressful, especially if you have people out there depending on you. Jails are pressure-cookers stuffed with people whose freedom hangs in limbo between acquittal or conviction. Pressure can bust pipes without proper relief valves. You must discover healthy ways to relieve stress. First, identify the causes of unnecessary stress and avoid them as best you can. Develop healthy habits to alleviate stress, such as regular exercise, prayer/meditation and laughter. Stay calm in the face of adversity. There will most likely be setbacks, negatives and betrayals coming your way soon if you’re not dealing with them now. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Be respectful: Whether you’re innocent or not, you’re in a jam right now. Deal with the predicament with dignity. You disrespect yourself when disrespecting others and only make things worse. I believe there are two ways of dealing with people: one way is to control them, the other is to respect them. By controlling, you try to regulate what another person can do. By respecting, you acknowledge the other person’s space and will. The least you can do is respect those who respect you.
- Peer pressure: Unfortunately, jails and prisons are saturated with negative influences, such as gangs, who despite the hype are often more abusive to their members than anyone else. Avoid gangs like the plague. Many of you have resisted the positive pressure from your parents, spiritual pressure to live a moral life, societal pressure to abide by laws … and now you’ve punked out to peer pressure? Resist the jeers of peers.
- Do the time: and don’t let the time do you. Reform yourself. Use some of my tips here to form a program for yourself, and take the opportunities offered to you for education and other programs. You know what you need to do, just do it.
- Mental health: Ask for help if you need it. Don’t trip on what your peers think about it. Therapy isn’t for weak people. Most of the celebrities your peers worship either have a therapist or need one. However, the mental health services in jails/prisons are often inadequate so be careful with any drugs they may prescribe. They have a history of over- and underdiagnosing inmates. Try to have your family or friends research the drugs they prescribe you.
- Correct yourself: Socrates was correct in saying, “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Take this time-out from society to examine yourself and your life. Some of us have committed horrible crimes. I’ll have to point the finger at myself now. I was convicted of murder over 25 years ago. I was a child then and didn’t fully understand the value of human life or the consequences as I understand them now. But first I had to correct myself. Here are three essential things I did to do just that:
- Acknowledgment. It was crucial that I acknowledge that I hurt others and was also hurt myself.
- Apologize. I had to apologize to the people I hurt, even if they didn’t accept it.
- Make amends. This is the most difficult. How do I make amends for a horrible crime like murder? After spending so many years working to correct myself, it was still not enough for the contrition inside me. I decided that what was done was done now, and the closest I could come to bring a life back from the dead was to work with at-risk youth to bring about a positive change within them.
If I can save even one person from going down the wrong path, then that’s making amends for me. Correct yourself so that the Department of Corrections doesn’t have to do it for you.
Mustafa S.F. Zulu is from Washington, D.C., currently incarcerated at the D.C. Jail while he waits to be heard for a resentencing hearing under the D.C. Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act. He received a life sentence for felony murder when he was a juvenile.