5 Keys to Inner Strength from 5 Years in Prison
by Ross Ulbricht (2018)
October 1, 2018 marked five years since I was imprisoned. My physical surroundings today are ironically similar to what they were after my arrest back in 2013. I’m in the SHU again (Special Housing Unit, aka “the hole”). It means permanent lockdown, separated from the general prison population, in a small cell. There is a slot in the heavy metal door for food trays, a small steel toilet, a concrete bunk with thick rings at four points (I guess that’s how I’ll get strapped down if I go crazy), chipped paint on the walls and floor with gang names and desperate Bible quotes etched in, and everywhere thick marks counting the days spent here by former inhabitants (some collections are terrifyingly large).
The initial shock of entering the cell—and all it meant for my immediate future—gave way after a few days to a helpless, restless dread and a burning need to get out. This feeling had to be stuffed down to avoid madness, and eventually a numb acceptance took over, but it was a precarious arrangement. Desperate frustration simmered constantly beneath the surface. When I was first arrested, I was put in the hole against my will at three different prisons as they bounced me across the country from San Francisco where I was arrested to New York where I was prosecuted. The only reason I was given for this was that I was “high profile.” After six weeks I was let out and never returned… until now. This time, I’m actually glad to be here because the alternative is life- threatening.
I was forced by some other inmates to make a choice: assault someone or be assaulted. Morally I knew I couldn’t initiate violence against another, but if I refused, I would be seriously hurt and would face an uncertain future, not knowing how long I’d be in the hole under protective custody or whether I’d be sent to another prison where I’d meet the same fate.
When the dreadful situation arose, I managed to ask for protective custody before anything happened to me. I was immediately cuffed and escorted to this cell where I’m writing from. I chose the hole rather than hurt another man.When they dropped me in the SHU after my arrest, I did my best, but it was a tough six weeks, going from a life of freedom straight in. I broke down when I got my first phone call, and one week I completely lost track of time and grounding. It makes me anxious just remembering it.
Maybe after five-plus years I’m used to doing time, but I think it’s how I’ve done my time that has made me mentally tough, that has made the difference between how I handled the hole back then and how I’m handling it now. I want to share this hard-won wisdom with you. Here are the five keys to inner strength I’ve learned from five years in prison.
My first night locked up was in a San Francisco holding cell: just painted concrete, toilet and sink. There was blood splatter staining the wall. I was so impatient for that night to be over. I almost felt I couldn’t survive it, as if it would never end. Of course it did, but I’ve never felt time move so slowly.
Prison has its own pace. One time, getting two pages of medical records printed took three months. I once had a faucet running day and night for five weeks before it was fixed. A clogged toilet took two months and a complaint to the Office of the Inspector General. Another time, I spotted a letter addressed to me in the corner of a guard’s office. It had been there for four months.
I’ve learned that patience means doing what you can today then letting go. It means settling in to this moment and letting things come in their own time. Impatience and boredom do not bring results faster, but they do rob you of your happiness here and now.
After a long day of working in the lab as an undergraduate research assistant back in 2005, my mentor asked me if I had ever boxed. I told him no, nor had I been in a real fight. Compared to many, I had a sheltered upbringing in safe schools and neighborhoods. I had no need to fight. He pulled out some 14-ounce gloves and we went a few rounds in the hall outside our office, blowing off steam and having fun. From then on, whenever the stress of work got high, we’d get the gloves out at night before heading home.
When I was arrested and thrown in jail, I faced an opponent in a real fight for the first time in my life. The prosecution wanted to take my life as I knew it. They wanted–and still want to–keep me in a cage forever. I found myself on an alien battlefield and my opponent had every advantage. Being initially locked up in a detention center was like fighting while under water, most of my energy going to day-to- day survival and dealing with prison bureaucracy.
At trial I stepped into the ring hoping for a chance, for a fair fight. When my lawyer wasn’t allowed to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses and I wasn’t allowed to call my own, my hands were tied behind my back. And when the prosecution was allowed to hide corrupt agents from my jury and present unreliable and tainted digital evidence, they were handed a metal bat. It wasn’t a fight. It was a massacre. The defeats kept coming, first at the appellate court, then at the Supreme Court.
I remember one time when I decided to stay out late on the prison yard. The sun was setting, and it was just me and a few others out there. I walked over to a metal picnic table where a man I’ll call Big Mike sat alone. Mike was the biggest person I’ve ever met. He weighs twice as much as I do, and his arms are as thick as my legs. He once told me that he doesn’t work out because he gets too big and scares people. We chatted for a while and he told me about the arguments he was preparing for his next motion to the court.
“I need to keep working on my case every single day until I go free,” I said, inspired by his efforts.
His expression became stern. He stared me down then went into a half hour rant that only ended because we were called off the yard for the night. “Yes you do,” he said. “No one is going to fight for your freedom like you. These people got you tied in a knot and you’ll never get out if you don’t struggle and fight. You’re fighting for your life. They took your life from you. Only you can get it back.” He was still going as we walked into the cell block.
Mike had fought his entire life. He grew up on the streets of Philly. He fought to survive, and now he was fighting the last shreds of doubt and defeat still left in my heart. He won that night and lit a fire in me that’s been burning ever since.
The will to fight is primal. It’s in all of us. Like me, many of us have never needed it and it lays dormant. Yet you don’t need to wait until you are under attack and your life is in danger to learn to fight. You can fight for who you love, for what matters, for what you believe in, like your life depends on it. And truly it does because a life worth living is worth fighting for.
A few months after I was sentenced, I lay down on my bunk after the cell door had been locked for the night. As my conscious mind slowed down and sleep approached, the faces of those who put me away for life bubbled up and captured my attention: the judges, prosecutors, politicians and agents, and they were looking down on me with mocking smiles. A cocktail of emotions accompanied these images, including anger, frustration, helplessness, even the beginnings of hate. My heart beat fast and my mind raced until I snapped fully awake and lay there trying to drift off again. After a few cycles of this, I sat up in bed. This wasn’t the first time I couldn’t stop these negative feelings. I had to get a grip.
While I was tossing and turning, those people were probably sleeping, comfortable and sound, in big comfy beds in big comfy houses. Or were they? Maybe they were also sitting up at night tormented by the thought of all the people like me they had condemned. Or maybe they didn’t care and rationalized the pain away. The truth, I realized, was I had no idea. And further, all my anger wasn’t hurting them one bit. It was all right there with me in that cell. I wasn’t getting back at them by holding a grudge, but I was poisoning my mind.
As revolting as it felt at first, I had to forgive them. I purposely cultivated thoughts like “it wasn’t personal, they don’t even know me” and “their hearts must be so calloused by what they do, I feel sorry for them.” I focused on feelings of love and kindness and imagined them radiating out and healing those who had hurt me. I don’t know if that had an effect on any of them, but I certainly started sleeping better.
As time went on, I became ruthless with these hateful thoughts whenever they entered my mind and would rewire them immediately as I had that night. I could not indulge in them because I had come to learn this simple truth: hate does not hurt the hated, it hurts the hater. It’s been years since I wasted my energy hating those people and I’m so much better off for having forgiven them.
Being condemned to grow old and die in prison with two life sentences plus 40 years is like staring into an abyss. My future as I knew it disappeared, replaced by darkness and uncertainty. In the face of this nightmare, faith became a matter of survival.
The day I was sentenced I returned to the detention center and was given hugs, condolences, and a hot meal from my fellow prisoners. When I found some time alone that night, I saw two roads before me. One was a downward spiral. I could see that the further I went down, the harder it would be to claw my way back. At the bottom, the demons of despair, hatred, and crushing sadness were waiting to devour me. The other path soared upward, but I couldn’t find the steps. There weren’t any. There was no reason to hope that I could hold onto.
In the following months, I had to leap, stumble and scramble toward that upward path. With all evidence to the contrary, I had to have faith that God would see me through whatever was to come. I realized I’m not strong enough on my own to keep from falling into that ever-present abyss. It may be irrational to believe without proof, to have faith, but it’s also irrational to forsake the hope, love and joy that faith brings, because it gives you the strength to fight and ultimately win. In a situation as desperate as mine, keeping faith alive is the difference between freedom and a slow, caged death.
There are endless opportunities for suffering in prison. You can suffer when they lock you in the cell and you feel like you’ll explode if you can’t get out, when your back spasms from the hard bunk, when you’re sick and feel isolated, when you notice the filth, when the door slams and locks behind your loved ones after a visit, when you feel like you’re drowning and just need one last day of freedom to breathe, when you wish you could keep sleeping but you have to get your boots on because what if a riot pops off, when you imagine the shank you saw pierce the last man is piercing your flesh, when you realize you haven’t had a moment of privacy in years and everything around you is cold and hard, when someone dies you never got to say goodbye to.
I’ve had countless occasions for suffering. In each case the pain is unavoidable. It hits without warning and you feel it, whether you like it or not. And of course, the nature of pain is to not like it. Our natural reaction is to resist it, to fight it, to push it away or down. This aversion to pain is suffering.
To resist what is so and long for something better is to suffer. Pain and suffering seem hopelessly entangled in prison, but I’ve learned that suffering is not the unavoidable consequence of pain.
While pain is inevitable in my circumstances, suffering is entirely optional. Pain, even emotional pain, is just a physical sensation: the knot in my stomach, the ache in my heart and head. It is neither positive nor negative on its own. It just is. Suffering is our negative response to pain which compounds and amplifies it and drags it on and on.
I’ve come to believe that the antidote to suffering, the path out of it, is acceptance and gratitude. Acceptance turns “I can’t take another day in this hell” into “I am where I am, and yes, it hurts.” Gratitude goes a step further: “At least I have clean water and enough food. At least I’m alive and surviving. Thank you.” Suffering always arises in the context of inadequacy because you want what you don’t have. Acceptance and gratitude flip your context to one of abundance because you are focused on what you do have and are thankful for it. It’s the difference between misery and joy and it’s available to each of us every moment of the day.
So here I am in the hole, counting my many blessings and refusing to indulge in suffering. Hopefully you can benefit from these five keys to inner strength without having to go through what I have. That would be a nice silver-lining, to know what’s happened to me can make a difference for you. That is one more thing to be grateful for.
If you haven’t signed Ross’s clemency petition, you can sign it here.