Answer by Terry Lee:
Yes. I spent 51 of my 71 years locked up in California. But the same stubborn independence that led me to reject the laws of society also helped isolate me from the toxic effects of more than a half-century of confinement.
Some guys in the slammer let their brains be completely washed, rinsed and set in jailhouse concrete. But not me.
Never did the tattoo bit, swaggered around, carried a shank or pumped iron to obtain a Tweety Bird physique (although I did run the second marathon at Folsom State Prison). I just did my time as problem free as possible by following a few basic rules. Like never snitch, always pay your debts promptly — or avoid borrowing or lending altogether — never provoke the lunatics (among the keepers and the kept), and always be helpful and courteous but firm.
One big advantage I had was that, as a former engineer, I did a lot of repair work. Fixed radios, TV sets, Walkmans, earphones, watches, CD players and so forth. Was usually the most skilled repair tech in whatever prison I was incarcerated. As such, my position was similar to that of a piano player in a rowdy, 19th century saloon of the Old West. On the wall above these hard to find musicians was often a sign that said, "Please do not shoot the piano player."
In a similar way, prison shot callers told everybody, "Don't fuck with the fix-it man."
As a result, I had carte blanche in the highly polarized prison environment to move among all races and even mediate small conflicts. Some guards at certain prisons allowed me to operate a repair shop out of my cell in order to make their jobs easier. That is, by repairing items they accidentally broke during shakedowns.
As I pointed out in a TV Guide article, cell TV sets had a certain tranquilizing, or "electronic babysitter" effect, and so the guards found that
the more TVs that remained in good working order, the fewer problems they had to deal with among the prisons' captive TV audience.
I finished a final 26-year term on December 31, 2010 and at age 67 — highly embarrassed over life choices — decided not break any laws. Simple as that. Had been in all kinds of counseling sessions and group therapy meetings for decades. I wrote hundreds of pages of therapy assignments which impressed doctors and social workers.
But for me, all the psychobabble and overthinking and eloquent dissertations didn't matter as much as a stubborn resolve to go straight.
I remember walking into a supermarket shortly after I got out and looking around, feeling rather disoriented but fascinated with the simple acts of people selecting merchandise and paying for it at cash registers. In the old days, when shoplifting was my most compulsive form of theft, I'd be scheming at length on how to sneak various items out of the store.
But now, as I watched the everyday people in the supermarket function like a microcosm of society, I thought, Hey, I can do this too! It's not that hard! I can be just like everybody else!