FROM THE INSIDE

★ ★ ★ ★

LOSING THE POWER TO CHOOSE

Image by 莎莉 彭

By Ryan M. Moser

Liberty: the right to act without restraint as long as the actions do not interfere with the equivalent rights of others

I gave up my liberty the moment I committed a crime, and the autonomy I’d held so dear throughout my lifetime was gone the instant I walked through the center security gates at a state correctional institution. The prison system is designed to break men and women in many uniquely cruel ways; horrible nutrition, pseudo-medical care, isolation, life-threatening violence, and undignified acts are commonplace in every penitentiary. But the most defining heartbreak of my incarceration has been losing my liberty, and the freedom to choose.

I’ve always been an independent person. The first time I moved out of my family’s home in the idyllic Philly suburbs I was only thirteen—committed to a psychiatric facility for adolescents.
I had to fend for myself emotionally and physically. I then spent my teenage years bouncing from foster care to youth shelters to group homes to juvenile detention to county jail, with many enduring childhood memories in between. Although I was loved and supported my entire youth, I was a runaway rebel without a cause—and the most cavalier free-spirit you would ever think to meet at such a young age. Often mistaken for a baby-faced adult because of my height and stoicism, I’d learned very quickly how to drive, buy groceries, fist fight, steal money, hustle drugs, and sleep on a park bench in the winter. I shot my first illegal handgun when I was fifteen.

Growing up taking care of myself, with peripheral help from my exasperated parents, I was sometimes forced to resolve basic survival problems that were normally reserved for adults: food, shelter, clothes. I worried a lot, but I still loved the freedom of hitch-hiking on the open road. Or sleeping under the stars. Being an occasionally homeless wayward teen earns you a certain gravitas in the world that can’t be taken away, and my soul lifted in the summer breeze.

Oftentimes, when my friends or girlfriends had to go home for dinner or curfew, I was the last one standing, free to roam without supervision. Constantly seeking my next adventure or meeting someone interesting and new. I toured with Phish and partied on the beach at the Jersey Shore living with reckless abandonment, but free.

When I was seventeen and crashing at my parent’s place while working a steady job, I signed my first apartment lease, ready to take life on with my friends and leave my traumatic past behind. Ready to run wild in the jungle once again. Capricious and aimless, I didn’t think about my future, just the next thing. If I didn’t like my job—I’d quit. If I owed rent, I’d move. If I was bored with my girlfriend, we broke up. Always searching for the ultimate freedom, I carelessly chose no strings attached over stability. I only knew one way to live.

When I came to prison, I learned to take orders; the loss of choice and free will was hard at first, but like many people, I learned to cope by not thinking about it for long. Eventually, I started to forget that I ever had a choice to begin with.

Eat this.

Sleep now.

Don’t shower until 5pm, wake up for inspection.

No nighttime movement, store purchases only once a week.

Wash your sheets on Monday, count time every day, ten times a day.

Walk there, sit here.

No talking. Speak louder.

Petty rules and unyielding guidelines are never ending in prison; they are consolidated in a vast tome of over 500 pages called the Florida Administrative Code, and most correctional officers have their favorites. Having dozens of different staff members from four shifts cite rules to you every day becomes like a perpetual command from one continuous source, repeating the infinite theme that is incarceration—repetition is prison’s true nature.

If these directives are an audible reminder of my defeat, the fences themselves are a physical reminder of the freedom I’ve lost; a circuitous border keeping the things I despise inside and the things I love out. The concrete walls are a symbol blocking the things I cannot touch, the air I cannot breathe. Every time I see an officer lock a door or a gate, I think about what’s behind it: trees and streams and cars and music. The feel of fresh cut grass under my bare feet. The flapping wings of a hummingbird. A glance from my lover. My son’s college graduation.

Traveling around the country and the Caribbean during my life gave me an opportunity to see so many new people, places, and things; being locked inside a penitentiary prevents any chance for that, as every day is the same, and the people rarely change. No longer can I get in my truck and take a hike in the Appalachian Mountains, or attend a gallery opening in New Orleans. I can’t walk down the street and window shop in New York City, or walk on the beach in Aruba.

Freedom is an intangible thing that is very hard to explain; the best way to learn how it feels to lose it is to experience it yourself. After I was incarcerated, my cherished self-governance was gone. I couldn’t just walk away anymore. I had to face the difficult truth of fear and regret and punishment, and it did not feel good. Not being able to make your own decisions—whether big life choices or the daily minutia—handcuffs your brain’s stimulus and detains your soul.

I will gain that personal liberty back once again, and I often wonder how I will handle such freedom after eight years of carceral struggle. What will it feel like to step through that final gate towards real life again and smell the air which was off-limits for so long? How will I cope with all the immediate and serious choices that I’ll be faced with? Will my senses be overwhelmed? Will I be incapacitated by indecision after so long?

I imagine this moment almost every day… daydreaming about picking my own clothes out at the mall and buying groceries that I can choose to eat. I fantasize about traveling again. When inmates in the DOC are transported in prison buses, our hands and feet are shackled for hours upon hours. That has been my only mode of transportation for so many years. Now I just picture riding in a car unbound by the restraints of my guards, and imagine the freedom of hitchhiking again—just to feel the wind in my face once more.

Ryan M. Moser is a recovering addict serving a ten-year sentence in the Florida Department of Corrections for a nonviolent property crime. Previous publications include Evening Street Press, Storyteller, Santa Fe Literary Review, The Progressive, themarshallproject.org, medium.com, thewildword.com, thestartup.com, and more. In 2020, his essay “Injuries Incompatible with Life” received an Honorable Mention award from PEN America, including publication on pen.org. Ryan is a Philadelphia native who enjoys yoga, playing chess, and performing live music. He is a proud father of two beautiful sons.

This column was made possible with the help of Exchange for Change, a non-profit based in Florida that teaches writing in prisons and runs letter exchanges between incarcerated students and writers studying on the outside.

Exchange for Change believes in the value of every voice, and gives their students an opportunity to express themselves without the fear of being stigmatized. Their work is based on the belief that when everyone has the ability to listen and be heard, strong and safe communities are formed, and that with a pen and paper, students can become agents of change across different communities in ways they may otherwise have never encountered.

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