Holidays are robbed of meaning in prison

Illustration by Aaron Maron for The Atlantic: “As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles.” But prison is a never-ending circle.

These are days when people in the free world are enjoying or looking forward to the holidays — whether it be Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa. Even a pandemic can’t totally take that away; it has just reshaped it a little. And then there is the new year, one that promises such a fresh start, with a COVID vaccine coming and the departure of Trump (finally!) But for us in prison? Holidays are just another day.

That’s especially true for the holiday this year, with COVID-induced lockdowns meaning we pretty much get nothing to eat but cold bologna and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. We aren’t allowed to receive holiday cards and even pictures are copied before we receive them, in drab black and white. (That’s why the Flikshop postcards some of you have been sending me are so very, very special. Thank you!)

I anxiously wait for the mailman to slide letters under my cell door, because we’re locked down and I can’t call to receive the simple comfort of a voice from the outside. And for most of us, 2021 will hold more of the same: What’s a New Year’s Day to the lifer, except the start of another year added to the tally of years he’s spent in prison? And then it’s another Easter, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, merging with all the other days into a sort of numb nothingness. Just another day!

Birthdays are the same. What’s a birthday to a man who has been incarcerated practically his whole life, besides a stark reminder that although he has survived another year, he also has just lost another year of his life that he’ll never get back?

The heart must harden

There are two types of people in prison: There are those at the beginning of their bids (sentences) who still look forward to and celebrate their birthdays and holidays. We consider them still “emotionally pure.” The denial and longing are still fresh and as a result, they particularly suffer from loneliness during the holidays. And then there are people like me, whose hearts have become calloused by the realities of prison and whose emotions have dulled.

Now, does this mean we ignore holidays? No! I still call my family members when I can and if not, try to send word to them in other ways to send them good wishes. But that is more for them than for me. And sure, the blandness and poor quality of prison food are broken up by a couple of spoonfuls of something special like cranberry sauce. Until it’s not — like this year. And that’s the thing; we know that in a blink of an eye, it can all be gone. Doing time has taught me that in to survive mentally, physically and emotionally, I must guard my heart from expectations. How do I do this? By turning my emotions off to worldly comforts, thoughts and cares. I take everything in stride as “just another day.”

This year, though, I slipped. They caught me with my pants down. I was really looking forward to Thanksgiving. After two years in the DC jail, where we were treated as humans and allowed to participate in stimulating interactions with the outside world, I took my armor off. And even when I was moved to the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Virginia (on my way back to my penitentiary “home” in Florida) we were allowed 20-minute video visits and I was so very much anticipating joining virtually while my mother and girlfriend ate Thanksgiving dinner. Wow! What a joy that would have been for me to be able to spend a Thanksgiving at the table with my family after 25 years. Can you imagine how happy that would have made my mother? But once again, the Grinch (prison) smacked me in the face and reminded me that in prison…each day is just another day. (I was moved to a penitentiary in West Virginia just before Thanksgiving and immediately placed into a three-week quarantine. As soon as that ended, I exited into…“the usual” lockdown, where I remain.)

The meaning of time

In prison, time is not marked as free people do, although I do associate certain prisons on my journey with what was big in the news at the time. For example, the Lakers won the championship in 1999 when I was in Lorton (the now-closed DC prison). And Obama was elected in ’08 when I was in Oklahoma, transiting to a penitentiary in Atwater, CA.

But I often don’t even know the date, because it doesn’t matter and the sameness of each day makes them all feel the same. So, how do I recognize the passage of time? Sometimes, I’ll be reminiscing with a friend and he’ll say, “Sherrie, she looks good as hell.” I’ll say, “but she’s a little girl!” And then I’m reminded that she isn’t. She’s 30 now; I just remember her as a little girl. Things that happened 10 years ago seem like yesterday.

My collaborator and editor Pam sent me an article about how time has been “warped” during the coronavirus pandemic that applies very much to us in prison. It opened this way: “Think about your first day in quarantine. Does it feel like a lifetime ago? Or does it feel like yesterday? For those staying at home during the pandemic, it has a lot to do with our worlds shrinking to the bare minimum — staying at home for the vast majority of the day, with trips outside only for exercise or a visit to the grocery store.

‘For the most part, we are not taking part in particularly memorable activities, says Marc Wittmann, author and research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. Now, there are fewer signals differentiating a Sunday from a Monday. And if you’re doing the same thing every day — the new normal for many in quarantine — there’s no need to remember each day specifically. Even if time passes slowly in the moment, it’s likely that nothing will stand out upon looking back, causing you to perceive time has passed by quickly in the long run.”

Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in New York City and faculty at Columbia University, adds this in an article on a website called Very Well Mind: “When your days start looking the same, and you aren’t leaving the house to go to work, school or even grocery shopping or the gym, you can begin to feel trapped in your own circumstances.”

Trapped

That is how I feel here. And those in prison with life sentences don’t have a vaccine that will free us to which to look forward. (I have to give a shout out here to the DC City Council for passing the Second Look Act for District residents who were incarcerated below the age of 25 and have been locked up for 15 or more years. It’s estimated that about 300 of my brothers will be considered for early release under this act! I was denied this opportunity due to a disciplinary infraction four years ago, but I hope many others will walk free in the next year.)

My wish for the future for all of my brothers and sisters

So, what still makes life meaningful here? What motivates people to care when you have a life sentence? Well, there is always hope that criminal justice reform will finally recognize that life sentences don’t rehabilitate and are a waste of human potential. More than anything, I want to make it home to my mother while she is still alive. Those of us with kids also want to see them grow up.

And if we can get some kind of prison job, we can earn some money to send to our families, rather than constantly being a burden. That makes us feel viable, worthy, manly.

My brother Pete Petty and I talked a lot about a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. We always have a choice about how we respond, even in the bleakest of situations.

There is some satisfaction to be found in refusing to be broken, to become an animal or non-entity. Violence is something that comes easily in prison. Walking away is one of the hardest things to do. That’s why I exercise my brain constantly, to learn. That’s why I publish this blog with Pam. She sends me every comment you make on these posts, so if you read, please respond in some way. You are helping me stay human.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store