When the world is your cell

It shapes you in ways large and small

In the end, the cell is undefeated.
it stains everyone it touches
in its own unique way.

The cell molds you.
The cell scolds you.
More than likely, the cell
will fold you…
as it engulfs you in its
bearlike arms, squeezing
the life out of you.

The cell contracts and expands,
depending on your state of mind
and how you use it…
It abuses or enthuses you.

The cell talks to you
and sometimes you talk back.
Its walls have teeth and it will bite you,
making you scream out
in a panic attack.

The cell breaks you down
to your core
and forces you to deal with
your very essence,
learning things about yourself
you’ve never faced,
for a reason.

The cell doors won’t open;
there are only two ways to escape —
or build yourself up,
but to what?

The cell seeps into your soul,
makes you feel weathered,
Or like water, it can nourish,
making you feel strangely whole.

The cell makes you realize what
is truly important in life
as you yearn to be in the world again,
replaying your entire life back in your mind,
wishing it could be done again.

The cell makes or breaks you
and it’s made me.
It has been my library,
my incubator,
my university.
My own tiny space where I was
allowed to be just me.
My own special place
where I found me.

I thought I had beaten the cell.
Or have I?

— Robert Barton, serving a sentence of 30 years to life

In a recent op-ed on the mental health effects of lockdown during COVID-19, Drew Holden wrote in The New York Times that “the psychological effects of loneliness are a health risk comparable to obesity and smoking. Anxiety and depression have spiked since lockdown orders went into effect. The weeks immediately following them saw nearly an 18 percent jump in overdose deaths and, as of last month, more than 40 states had reported increases. One in four young adults age 18 to 25 reported seriously considering suicide within one 30-day window. Calls to domestic violence hotlines have soared. America’s elderly are dying from the isolation that was meant to keep them safe.

Now consider this report from Rob Barton, confined in a U.S. penitentiary in West Virginia — one in a long string over 25 years:

During my incarceration, I’ve spent so much time locked down in a cell of some sort (a cumulative 14 years to be exact…I know because I’ve counted) that I’ve grown immune to its effects (or at least, I tell myself I have). The isolation no longer bothers me. It’s almost like I crave its quietness. The only time I find myself truly rattled while in the cell is when the guys around me make so much noise it starts to disturb my “peace.” I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve become so comfortable being in a cell that it has become my sanctuary, my refuge, my muse.

But truth be told, Anthony Ray Hinton (author of “The Sun Does Shine”) was right when he wrote, “Men will do all types of crazy things to avoid spending another night with their own thoughts.” The cell drives a lot of people insane. Hinton writes about spending hours concocting elaborate mental journeys, often while married to actress Halle Berry, that were so tangible he literally disconnected from reality. I have witnessed people hang themselves, set themselves on fire, smear feces all over their walls and bodies, slit their wrists, rap or talk all day to themselves and so much more. As I write this, I am lying in my cell listening to guys “cry” about being on 24-hour-a-day lockdown for weeks and months straight. I find myself annoyed and irritated that they could be so “weak.” But then I question myself. Am I the crazy one?

Guys like me who have grown accustomed to being locked down in a cell feel as though others are weak if they can’t take it. I remember when I was given detail (a job cleaning the tiers and getting guys “behind the door” — in solitary — water, books, etc.). I heard them “crying” about being locked down, complaining about all sorts of frivolous stuff all day. I often thought to myself, Damn…why don’t they just toughen up? Even today, I get mad when the guys here in quarantine with me talk through their doors about anything and everything to escape their cell: They are disturbing my “peace.” But now I’m starting to question whether there is something wrong with me. I mean, you have to be crazy to find peace lying in a cell all day. And something truly has to be wrong if being deprived of human interaction/conversations for months at a time doesn’t have some effect. Maybe there is nothing wrong with them. Maybe they aren’t weak. Maybe something is wrong with me.

The truth is, the cell stains each one of its occupants in its own, unique way. There is no right way to survive. Sure, reflecting on your life, reading and writing are more productive ways to escape, but it’s escape nonetheless. Others hurt themselves, fantasize or bid (talk, laugh, joke) through their door. In the end, though, they are all ways to escape. I learned how to build up walls inside and tell myself I’m all right so many times it seems real. But I have layers of emotional trauma and plenty of scars. They’re just hidden under my armor.

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

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