Art by Inti Gonzalez

To those of you going stir crazy while struggling to shelter-in-place and self-isolate, please try and focus on the positive aspects of this new reality. It’s important to find your own beacon of light to pull yourself through the worst of the chaos. Decades of incarceration have taught me this and ingrained in me the coping skills to get through any seemingly depressing situation.

Regardless of your current position or personal background, there’s always value to be gained through self-reflection. After all, how well do you really know yourself, really know who you are? When we’re stuck at home without the trappings of our usual outside routines (or stuck in a prison cell), there’s no real way to ignore the person staring back at us in the mirror. This can be a perfect opportunity to take a good, hard look at yourself and conduct a personal inventory.

What do you stand for? Do you like who you think you are? Now’s the time to effect some change in yourself. What are your longterm goals? And more importantly, what can you do in the here and now to start actualizing these goals?

I like to make lists for myself — simple lists of what I should be trying to accomplish today: write a letter, read a couple chapters in a book, workout a specific muscle group, watch a TV show at a certain time etc. Your list should be a mixture of serious and fun endeavors. Push yourself to try new tasks within the context of staying home — anything to keep yourself busy, productive and engaged. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to come up with such a list yourself, and equally surprised at how easy it is to deviate from that list. But that’s okay too. Almost every list I’ve ever made fails to get fully completed that same day.

You have to remain open to the idea that there’s always tomorrow. Before I go to sleep, I make sure to have a new list started for the next day, including whatever got left over from today. Post-It notes and Sharpie pens are great for this. You want to place your list where you can’t avoid it when you wake up and go about your day.

Not only does self-isolation afford you the time to reconnect with yourself, but oddly enough, social distancing can also provide the time and insight to reconnect with people you say you’ve been too busy to reach out to. Make the effort. You never know what they’re going through — if they’re out there, sitting around thinking about all this stuff too. Old grudges, unresolved disputes, friendships that may have eroded innocuously over time and distance — so much of what we threw on the back burner might now prove fruitful to take a new look at.

One of the truly beautiful things I’ve learned in prison is the power of communicating with other people. Most of the rehabilitative and self-help programs I participate in start each session with a simple “check in,” where we go around and individually take a moment to express how we’re feeling right then and what our day or week’s been like so far. We talk about what we’re going through, where are heads are at. I used to think it was all silly and rather an obligatory gesture, but I’ve come to realize it can be highly impactful and lead to a much stronger sense of community.

“One of the truly beautiful things I’ve learned in prison is the power of communicating with other people.”

In the cell situations I’ve lived in for the last twenty years, it’s such a common occurrence for another prisoner — an acquaintance, friend, homie — to stop by your cell if they’re out and about wandering the building. It’s a simple interaction, but it means a lot. “You doing alright in there?” That might seem the basis for a bunch of small talk, but it’s also the essence of checking in. Inevitably, this behavior promotes you to do the same thing when the situation is reversed. You’ll also end up interacting with guys in other cells whom you’ve never spoken with before. Empathy and commonality arise from these casual conversations. And whether you’re incarcerated or free, humanity shines brighter when we attempt to relate and discover insight into one another.

I would urge all of you out there to establish this check-in mentality amongst your circle of friends and family. It’s a philosophy that perhaps seemed sorely lacking before COVID-19. In this day and age, however, almost everyone has the tools and electronic devices to reach across even vast distances. So there’s really no excuse. You might stop someone from going crazy all by themselves, from being stuck in some glitch of self-rumination. Or maybe they’ll end up helping you. Try putting a sign in your window for your neighbors. “Are you lonely? Need anything? I’m here for you.” See what happens.

If you’re not holed up alone, appreciate whomever shares your residence, appreciate this renewed state of communal family living. Even if you have an annoying roommate you never particularly cared to socialize with, get to know them a little better. At the very least, you might learn something about yourself and how you face the things that trigger your anger and frustration. Now might be the ideal time to address such issues. If not now, then when? Take this same approach toward those stifling situations with your close family and spouse too.

Try and prepare for a different outside reality once we get over the hump. Brace yourself and accept a new normal because odds are that things will no longer be the same. Employment and recreation are drastically going to change. If you need to solidify or strengthen your career posture, don’t let all this down time go to waste. That’s one thing prisoners who are considered “programmers” do — we use all our time in limbo to get ourselves ready for a whole new life if we’re ever granted a chance at parole. We know our re-entry will be awkwardly joyous and filled with unforeseen obstacles, and it’ll surely be the same for the post-COVID universe once we all emerge from this cloud.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Some of the most self-driven and successful talks are unabashed to seek out guidance and knowledge from others. And be willing to offer a helping hand too. The smallest gestures of cordiality and community can alter a life — maybe even your own. Is this the proverbial butterfly effect or just standard goodwill?

The incarcerated experience often leads to resiliency, strength and reinvigorated community bonding — mostly out of sheer necessity. And likewise, I believe our culture’s acclimation to social distancing will ultimately produce improved levels of connectivity and social cohesion.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Joe Garcia

Joe is a journalist at San Quentin State Prison and a staff reporter for San Quentin News. A San Francisco native with no connection to the carceral system before his arrest, Joe first believed prisons were filled with the worst people imaginable. But within his first week in Los Angeles County Jail, he found himself surrounded by people with rich, complex stories. Joe requested a transfer to San Quentin with the express purpose of working for the prisoner-run newspaper and now helps fellow prisoners find their voices as writers. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.