I was sentenced to 30 years to life as a 16-year-old child. And after a few days of being locked up, I was all right.
When I was sent thousands of miles away from my family in DC to a federal prison in thousands of miles away because the district doesn’t have its own prison, and thus they couldn’t visit, I was all right.
When I was subjected on several occasions to 23-and-1 stints (23 hours locked down and one hour out) in solitary confinement, or to stay in my cell for weeks/months at a time with only 10-minute showers every 72 hours, I was all right.
And sadly, when my grandmother died during my incarceration, I couldn’t even cry because I had to be all right.
I’m always all right because I have to be.
It’s the prisoner’s anthem. I’M ALL RIGHT! We are constantly telling ourselves we are all right, because it is this mantra that steels us against the pain and adversity we endure daily and to which we will continue to be for years to come. It’s a defense mechanism, our armor. We are ALL RIGHT!
I thought I had a good chance to finally be freed two months ago, as part of the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act. (I was incarcerated as a child and already have already served more than 15 years — for murder, even though I did not pull the trigger.) But, last Tuesday, I was told I have to return to the federal penitentiary in Florida. The judge denied my motion requesting to stay in D.C. so I can continue mentoring younger inmates and complete my Georgetown University courses in pursuit of my bachelor’s degree.
Again, I told myself I am all right. It never occurred to me that just maybe I was not all right — until, that is, I watched the news on TV and I really took note of how people now are in isolation and/or self-quarantining to avoid catching or transmitting the novel coronavirus. It dawned on me then that in my own way, I too had begun self-isolating.
One of the privileges of being a mentor in the Young Men Emerging unit of the D.C. jail is that I can spend a lot of time out of my cell. But I had spent all of the previous day locked in my cell… in self-isolation. When I first started spending more time “cocooning” myself there, I thought I just needed some time alone. But after some self-analysis, I realized that what I am really doing is reprogramming myself to be able to mentally endure being locked in my cell again for long periods of time (cumulatively, I’d estimate about half the year) as I will have to do in the Fed… In other words, I am putting my armor back on.
In his autobiography, titled “Solitary,” Albert Woodfox describes his 40 years in solitary confinement. He captures so well the mental armor prisoners must assemble to survive such treatment. His lawyers sent him to a psychiatrist to help build the case that long years of solitary are inhumane, but he found the requirement excruciating. Before each visit, he had to break down the layers he had carefully swathed himself in to protect his sanity, to enable himself to be vulnerable enough to truly, emotionally engage with therapist. Immediately after, he had to “erect all of these layers and put my defenses back on.” It was too painful to exist in any other way than a sort of numbness. “The only way to survive the cell was to adjust to the painfulness of it,” he wrote.
“I had to bury all of my emotions, so that things that would normally touch or move me didn’t have the power anymore.”
I am not all right! I feel like a war veteran who is being sent back to Iraq to serve another tour of duty after already acclimating to civilian life. I can say this today, because for the past year I have gotten used to living a “normal” life. I have not had to constantly worry about protecting myself from harm. I do not have to worry about being locked down for months at a time in my cell. I don’t have to worry about race riots in which people routinely die. I don’t have to worry about being in the yard when an almost daily fight breaks out, while flash bombs drop out of the tower and bullets are fired indiscriminately. I don’t have to worry about being treated like an animal or an inmate. And I have thrived!
When I first learned I would have to return to the Fed, I automatically went into bunker mode. It was not even a conscious thought. The sad thing about all of this is that the leaders of our criminal justice “system” (it’s really more of a hodge-podge of jurisdictions) does not recognize the damage they are wreaking by forcing people to shut down their emotions just to survive their daily conditions. It basically forces them to become inhuman — to shut down their ability to love, care, feel, empathize or cry. I all think we can all agree that is not conducive to rehabilitation.
I will try to go back to the Fed without my armor on. I will never again let my environment dictate who I am, how I love or my ability to be human. I will not only survive… I will be all right. Only this time, I want to mean it.
A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at email@example.com.