A Ulises Valdez | Contributing Writer

In 2006, I was sentenced to federal prison for 144 months—how’s that for an experience? In the years to come, I would go through a process of adapting to a setting which I had never encountered before. Being introduced to a new environment and its etiquette can be different from what you are used to, thus having to adapt to it.

Adapting to new environments will bring forth change through a series of phases—obliviousness, awareness, action, and defiance. These phases I went through led me to better adapt to my surroundings in a positive manner.

However, it doesn’t always have a positive outcome. People may experience these phases similarly to my experience or maybe very differently. No way of encountering these phases is right or wrong; this is solely how I, personally, underwent these phases in my time of adapting to this new atmosphere.

Despite the quality of the outcome, you will adapt to the environment. I am using my most challenging experience of incarceration as an example to assist in my explanation of this process.

This first phase that I transitioned through when adapting to a new environment was the most dangerous. It was the phase of being oblivious to my surroundings. This can be dangerous in many newly experienced environments, not solely the one I am talking about.

For example, in a new job you could get hurt because you are unaware of the safety hazards, or perhaps in a new culture, you could say or do something that is socially unacceptable by that culture.

The first year and a half of my incarceration, I walked around in this state of obliviousness. This was my initial reaction—or rather, no reaction. I had no idea how to conduct myself, nor what to expect. My greenness showed as I timidly walked through the prison corridors to my new place of rest.

However, I was not entirely frightened.  To be honest, part of me was quite excited! As the saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” I was happy, even borderline content, at this new ambience even though I knew it was a dangerous place.

I was only intrigued because I truly did not know what sort of environment I was in. The understanding of the dangers would come to my awareness in the next phase I transitioned to—the phase of awareness.

Progressing into the phase of awareness, I began realizing things about my surroundings. I was not so enchanted by the whole mystery of it anymore. There were things coming to light that was no laughing matter.

I came to know I had been risking my safety by walking around blindly. During this phase I learned how things operated. I gathered as much information as I could, studying the etiquettes of the population and understanding what and what not to do. Although the whole philosophy of this environment still intrigued me, I learned that it was not a playground to play in.

The awareness phase was a good learning and growing phase.  It sharpened my senses, brought me acuity, and made me a good judge of character.  Ultimately, people stay in this learning mode mind-set as they progress through the phases. This proved to be wise.

People who believe they have learned everything they need to know about an environment are the ones who fall victims to it, miss an important aspect of it, or simply fail to see the beauty of it.

As I learned, I began to change. Yet, the change did not happen immediately. I had to ponder upon many of the philosophies I learned in this setting. It wasn’t that I was putting these philosophies through my own morally righteous core beliefs—no, I was just not ready to start acting like a man, or rather a true convict.

Slowly, though, my change crept in, one etiquette at a time. Before I knew it, I had transitioned into the action phase. In this action phase, I learned so much and was still learning. The base of this phase was the change in my actions. This was the walk the walk phase!

I was not done learning, but rather I started acting on what I had learned already. I now knew how to conduct myself after becoming aware of the customs. I did not look so susceptible and inexperienced anymore. My character metamorphous took the better part of five years.

In my experience, when it comes to the phases of adapting, the action phase is the final phase for most. This is the phase where you have adapted completely to your environment. However, there are some of us that learned to adapt to our environment but also learned to challenge certain customs in our surroundings.

The phase of defiance, as I call it, is the fourth phase. This phase is like the Self-Actualization (Self-Transcendence) level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Not everyone reaches this level, but it is not necessary for basic survival.

Furthermore, the growth into this phase can be utilized as a positive or a negative advantage.  Some break off to become malicious individuals with their newly gained knowledge of manipulation, intimidation, and persuasion skills, while others, like myself, acted upon self-betterment and community improvement in this new phase.

The transition into this phase started when I refused to ally myself with an organization, even after being threatened, but that is a story for another time. My point is that this triggered a defiance in customs, which, in turn, gave me the strength to defy other non-edifying etiquettes.

I personally found that I could change to satisfy the surroundings without having to be the aggressive, stereotypical, and prison character that society paints us to be without knowing the mentality or the environment of an inmate.

Ultimately, my person had changed, my character became genuine, and my word was credible.  This would not have happened had I not gone to prison, adapted to its etiquette, and furthermore, yet more imperative, challenged some of its ill set philosophies. These phases brought my persona sincerity in integrity.

To clarify a bit, all people, in all different settings, witness different experiences. Someone who has gone through or went through a similar situation, as I did, may have undergone different phases altogether than the ones I experienced.

Nevertheless, you go through phases despite their appearance. When adapting to new environments and we begin to transition through these phases, understand that change is going to take place in us. Depending on the amount of time that you will spend in this new ambience, don’t fight the change but see what can come out of it.

Take in anything of worth as you progress, cast aside the asinine material, and find ways of growing even when there is not much nourishment to absorb in these stages. I consider experiencing these phases of adaptation a great quality; however, reaching this phase of defiance is none other than a true blessing.