As I compose this post, I’m lying in a small cell on a hard, cold steel bunk, covered with a pallet I fashioned out of three blankets (I discard prison mattresses because they make my back stiff), surveying The “comforts” afforded to me during my forced COVID-19 isolation include a sink and a toilet; a cramped desk I’ve converted into my dresser, on which I place the few commissary items I can afford to buy; a couple of books to transport my mind outside my restrictive confines; a radio that gets poor reception; some writing materials; a newspaper; a Sudoku puzzle for distraction; and a tablet loaded with the coursework for my Georgetown University Prison Scholars program. This is my world, day in and day out.
I’ve been thinking about how people “in the world” (the phrase we use to describe everyone who isn’t in prison) have begun to compare their forced isolation due to the stay-at-home orders to being locked up in jail. It would be easy for me to cite any one of a thousand experiences I’ve been forced to endure during my 24 years behind bars to discredit this comparison. But I won’t do that because it would selfishly invalidate the feelings of others and their own reality. I would not like it if someone who has not walked in my shoes attempted to tell me what it is “valid” to feel. So, instead, I will focus on what the two forms of isolation do have in common.
These days, when I turn on my tablet to watch my videotaped coursework, the lecture begins with my professor thumbing through her calendar in an attempt to figure out the day’s date. I know that being a bit “out of touch” with time has become a recurring theme in a lot of people’s lives during the lockdown. Although it may not have occurred to you, this is one of the main characteristics of prison life. Our enforced insulation means we do the same things over and over again for days, months and years at a time. The variety you lack now we haven’t had for a very long time. Each day runs into the next, marked only by meal and rec times.
Like you do now, we yearn for the things we once took for granted. After a quarter century of incarceration, you might think I dream of exotic vacations. But no; I dream of taking a long, hot, relaxing bath. In prison, we are herded like cattle into showers. I yearn to sit on my front porch and enjoy the loving company of my mother. I long to lie lazily in the grass by D.C.’s Tidal Basin and watch the clouds go by.
I’m sure you can list the things, people and activities that have been “off limits” during the COVID-19 lockdown. Maybe it’s going out for a night on the town, seeing a movie with friends or giving one another a hug. (A woman on TV news joked that she’d pay $50 dollars for a hug!) This is what deprivation does to us: We become acutely aware of our loss and make promises to ourselves that when this challenge is over, we will never take it for granted again.
But, oh how soon we usually do forget about our pain and struggle. As soon as life becomes “normal” again, it all becomes a distant memory to be filed away.
That’s why when I am finally released, I have decided I will create a space in my home to be my “cell,” a place that will, in times of adversity, refocus me on what is truly important in life and why I should savor life’s small blessings. I don’t want to forget the struggles I’ve overcome!
I don’t want to suppress the memory of being chained to the bed in four-point restraints for 48 hours, only allowed to get up every eight hours for 20 minutes to eat or use the bathroom.
I don’t want to forget how helpless I felt when I was unable to help my son when he was first thrown into the “system,” after he and his siblings were removed from their mother’s custody.
I will never forget what it feels like to be confined to a cell 24 hours a day for months at a time with only a 10-minute shower every 72 hours.
I will never forget being transferred from one prison to the next, forced to stand on the tarmac of an airport, while a marshal searches and fondles us like slaves before loading us on the plane to be shipped to the next “plantation.”
I vow to never forget! And it’s because I will always remember that I will never need to be reminded by being thrown back into prison again.
I encourage everyone reading this post to remember all the things you miss during this stay-at-home phase. Remember not being able to visit your friends or hug your grandmother. Remember the feelings of isolation and disconnection. Remember the financial hardship of being laid off and the failure to save for a crisis like this.
But don’t just remember. Use the memory as a prod to appreciate the small things of life you’ve missed during this pandemic and to prepare for other challenges in the future. Tough times don’t last but tough people do.
Remember, before you’re reminded!