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Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Dear Friends, 

Prison life, at least in my experience with it, has been a daily battle against depression, stress, and anxiety. All along I have attempted to keep faith and remain positive about any sort of future which sometimes feels elusive. With 30 years left to serve on my sentence, each step I take in our criminal justice system diminishes the hope that I will be able to return to the outside world and to my family while they are still alive. My psychiatrist has diagnosed me with depression and anxiety, and I take medication, but it takes action on top of the medication to defeat the negativity of prison life. 

Over the past two and a half years, I have been rejected in court, dealt with the death of my grandmother and found out that supposed friends of mine were only preying on my kindness. There is so much I can tell you about the many negative pitfalls and impacts of prison life; however, I just wanted to give you some backstory for my experience with the COVID-19 lockdown that I have been on for over four months. 

Slowly this situation has stolen my joy for life. Amidst my mental struggle, I moved into the cell with a prison tattoo artist. Misery and depression caused me to sleep as much as possible to escape from my reality. Looking for easy ways to cope with my mental battles, I soon found the physical pain administered by the tattoo gun to be therapeutic and a soothing way to temporarily escape reality. As a student of the Northwestern Prison Education Program, I attempted to distract myself with schoolwork and going to class. However, once my prison was put on lockdown and we no longer had class, getting tattooed became my only outlet. 

I entered prison with three words tattooed across my chest: “Loyalty, Honor, Respect.” As we progressed deeper into the quarantine and I wasn’t able to go to the yard, see my family members, or attend class, the only solace I found was through the process of getting tattooed. 

I lived with the tattoo artist for a little under five months, and having an addictive personality coupled with stress and depression, I currently bear upwards of 75 tattoos. I better explain. I am literally covered from head to toe. From my knees to my toes, and from my waistline to the top of my head, I’m covered in tattoos. The only exceptions are my toes, thighs, and face. Yes, I also tattooed my armpits. Forgive me mom, but I believe I can claim temporary insanity for the struggle that prison life dishes out, coupled with COVID-19 and being trapped in my cell 24-hours a day, seven days a week. 

So, dear friends, please don’t judge me for the actions I have taken. I have come to love my artwork and strangely through it, I have found the strength to face my life’s situation and strive to fight back against my depression and anxiety. No matter what, I know that God and my family still love me no matter how uncomfortable that first in-person visit with my parents might be. Instead of continuing to let my situation overwhelm me, I’ve been developing a deeper relationship with my faith, I’m physically working out and taking advantage of correspondence courses through Northwestern as well as in a paralegal studies program. Not only has my outward appearance changed, but I’m working daily towards changing my mindset and choosing to battle my depression. Today, I have hope again, and a vision for my future. 

So friends, please don’t judge this book by its cover. Give me a chance and see that life under quarantine impacted me differently than most. I still want to be loved and have joy for life. 

Thanks for listening.

Warmest Wishes,

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Todd Mandoline is a writer incarcerated in Illinois. He is a 2022 graduate of the Northwestern Prison Education Program.