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Keeping one's prison cell tidy with minimal possessions can be liberating
Photo by sihuo0860371 on iStock

Every Saturday, like clockwork, I clean and organize my cell. I go through my property box, legal box and shelves and throw away anything that I no longer use.

My cellie loves to make fun of me. He tells others: “It’s his favorite thing to do!” He’s right.

I first got interested in decluttering two years ago after reading an article about the KonMari Method, the latest organizational method, developed by Japanese influencer Marie Kondo.

The KonMari Method, which stresses keeping all the things that spark joy and gratefully discarding the rest, created a whole subculture of followers. In general, the article spoke about a lifestyle that touts the benefits of living a humble life — free of useless stuff.

On its face, it made sense. The less stuff we have, the more we can appreciate the things that really matter in life. But I was initially skeptical because the execution seemed like it would entail a superhuman effort that runs counter to our country’s ingrained consumerism.

I also didn’t think I needed the KonMari Method to simplify my life and downsize my possessions. I live the Convict Method.

Inmates live in bare concrete boxes no bigger than the average parking space. We are stripped of all of our possessions. The longer our sentence, the more we can expect to lose. Many long-term inmates leave prison penniless, without any possessions, nowhere to go, and no one left to greet them at the gate. Aren’t all inmates already living an austere lifestyle?

But as I looked around, I found that — even in this material desert — inmates still fall prey to our worst consumer instincts, amassing and collecting all manner of things. Prisoners become pack rats. We hoard items we consider to be exclusive. This could be a large water pitcher or name-brand body wash even though we may never actually use them. Over time, we accumulate a surprising amount of useless rubbish.

Take my neighbor, Smitty. He’s a pack rat and borderline hoarder. He clings to all kinds of useless junk, and his stuff fills every nook and cranny of his tiny cell. “One day I may need it,” he explains.

Smitty is not the exception; he’s the rule.

The hardest part is looking inward to examine why we keep so much stuff. Perhaps we grew up poor, taught to never throw anything away? Perhaps we fear loss — we’ve already lost so much that our stuff becomes our crutch? Are we holding onto items because we might need these items one day or because they hold a sentimental value?

Joshua Becker, author of “The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own,” also preaches the benefits of reducing possessions in order to optimize our priorities. We can downsize belongings, schedules, relationships, even the words we use, so the things we keep are more appreciated. In his newest book, “The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life,” he argues that decluttering can help people reinvent themselves.

This resonated with me because many of us who are serving hard time are searching for ways to reinvent ourselves.

When we can see that we don’t need all this stuff, maybe our lives will improve. Our physical environments can have a profound effect on our mental well-being and self-esteem. Decluttering could be the beginning of a transformational experience.

One question to consider: “What is your purpose?” If you are a handball player, the extra pair of gym shoes, pair of gloves and extra racquetballs make sense to keep. If you’re not, why would you keep an unused three-pack of racquetballs in your property box? (I’m looking at you, Smitty.)

You’re a jailhouse chef? Keep those extra bowls, utensils and chip bags. If not, give them to someone who actually needs them.

I’m a wannabe writer, so I need a dictionary, paper, pens, highlighters, stamped envelopes, manila envelopes, typewriter, etc. That makes sense to keep. On the other hand, I have books and magazines I haven’t read in almost a decade, and yet I drag the extra 20 pounds along with me every time I transfer prisons. I may read them one day, I say to myself. The truth: I won‘t.

When we embrace a minimalist lifestyle, we can take this new mentality into every aspect of our life. For example, we can be more intentional with our schedule rather than just following the crowds in prison. We can also take a hard look at how we spend our days and only keep items that bring us closer to our purpose and goals.

One caveat I’ve learned is that I need to make time for relationships and myself. Even as a writer, I shouldn’t be writing every free minute of every day. Playing a little Scrabble in the dayroom or working out to decompress and stay healthy is also important. Balance.

When I learned to give myself boundaries, I was able to find freedom and happiness despite my harsh environment.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Leo Cardez is a writer and editor of the prison newspaper, Dixon Digest. Cardez volunteers as an Advisory Board Member of Prison Health News and serves on a committee for College Guild. His work has been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Mend Journal, and Muse, and he is currently a student of the Augustana College prison Education Project. He is incarcerated in Illinois. Leo Cardez is his pen name.