A Lesson My Cellmate Taught Me: Standing for Principles

By Christopher Zoukis

The other day my cellmate presented a situation for my review.  He explained that a certain person I regularly sit with in our housing unit's day room had a bad reputation for some of his political and social beliefs.  While I challenged his opinion on the matter, after taking some time to reflect upon his statements, I realized that he was right.  By sitting by and allowing offensive discussions to be held around me, I was contributing to the problem.  By remaining quiet, I was not combating or showing my disproval of the topic, but providing my tacit approval for such offensive conversations to be had.  It's this standing -- or lack of standing -- for principles which I'd like to touch on today.  Image courtesy www.sciencedirect.com

As a prisoner, I am sometimes surrounded by some who aren't of the best character.  This isn't to say that these are bad people -- much like how I'm not a bad person -- but that all of us in prison have the propensity to make stupid decisions and, most likely, have impulse control and conduct issues.  But even with these inherent problems in the incarcerated population, there are good people in prison, people who walk right, are honorable, and are generally stand-up guys.  Simply stated, with a little effort, worthwhile associates can be found.

Those inside prison need to do what we can to promote positive behaviors and dissuade negative ones.  We do this through positive reinforcement (e.g., verbally agreeing, clapping, and associating with others) and negative actions of stigmatization (verbally disagreeing, leaving, and not associating with others).  But in prison, the conversation often turns to the negative, or if not the negative, then those having the discussions tend to not be as decent as they could be.  After all, we are all in prison for breaking societal norms and mores.

The point is that remaining quiet is not an honorable and dignified answer when wrongs are being committed.  Doing nothing is not assertive merely because the nothing is not supportive of the offensive conduct transpiring.  Instead, as stand-up men and women, we must make our voices heard both when we agree with the interactions going on around us and when we disagree with them, too.  Remaining silent when wrongs are being committed -- or even discussed -- shows not only those engaging in the wrongs that we agree with them, but it also shows those around us that we agree with the wrongdoers, even if we don't.  This is simply being guilty by association.  If I associate with racists or sexist men or creeps in my housing unit's day room, then others who don't know me will assume that I'm a racist, sexist, or a creep.  And this isn't ok with me.  I fancy myself a man of principles, and allowing such discussions and behavior to go on around me is not in line with that belief.

After my period of reflection, I returned to my cellmate.  I informed him that he was, in fact, right.  And I pledged to not allow such offensive discussions or activities to go on around me without my objection.  It's the least I can do to help improve the prison culture and those who associate around me.  Plus, it's in my own best interest since by objecting, others will see that I'm not in agreement with such offensive beliefs.  I implore all others to do so, too.  Merely because your workout group, lab partner, or colleague is voicing hateful or inappropriate thoughts, it doesn't mean that you have to stand for it.  By raising your voice, the culture of tolerance of offensive behaviors and beliefs will become that much less tolerant of hatred and filth.

As always, I welcome your comments, suggestions, and thoughts.  Continue the discussion by posting a comment below.