Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Back when I was less than a year into my lengthy prison sentence, I befriended an inmate who was near the end of his 10-year stint. This guy was deeply and seriously into Zen and Buddhist philosophy. He said it helped him survive the topsy-turvy sociopathic circus of prison. I was skeptical, not just of him, but of others who followed and practiced religion and/or philosophical traditions as a way to escape or minimize the hard realities of confinement.

This guy would meditate every day in the empty portions of the prison schedule. These are the useless expanses of time we deal with while awaiting a call to meals, or while we shut down for a secure move, or times we are permanently inactive  such as the case with the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Life in low security and camp-style compounds allows for certain freedom of movement and activity within the prison, far less restrictive than for those inmates in higher security or county lockups. As one climbs the levels of security (or descends, depending on how you wish to look at it), permissive movement and activity within the prison become more and more controlled.At the top (or the bottom) of the prison security dynamic, inmates live in a contained cinder block box, allowed perhaps an hour or two PER WEEK of fresh air in some ugly, barbed-wire enclosed concrete courtyard.

Maybe they’ll have time to shower and to make a phone call. This claustrophobic punishment, which is also frequently used to punish those in lower security settings when they ‘misbehave’ or break the rules, is nothing short of psychological spatial deprivation torture. The lower security compounds inflict less of it but are still punitively restrictive, especially at certain times between activities and controlled moves. It was in these gray periods of punishment that my friend, the Zen guy, would use his powers of meditation to escape.

He would lie flat on his bunk, on his back, eyes closed, and appeared to us as no different than a lifeless corpse in a coffin. If you spoke to him he would not respond. Loud noise did nothing to stir him from his passive state of absence. We speculated whether in this state he might even ignore the summons of a unit guard or the attack of some crazed inmate. We never had the opportunity to learn just how deep his Zen state might be, but we were always tempted to poke him or sprinkle some ice water on his face to find out. We never did, though. 

I used to joke with him telling him that I believed he was practicing for that ultimate eventuality, for actually being dead. He didn’t see it that way. He said meditating helped him stay focused, helped him cope with the anguish of incarceration. 

“This is my life now,” he’d say. “I’ve learned to accept it.”

Several long years later, I find myself where Zen guy was when I was a newbie. I have not adopted his philosophy, though there is a small group of practicing Buddhists here in my new spot. There is meditation and yoga and the group is allowed to use the chapel for their services. 

I confess I did attend a few of these. It was so perfectly quiet there. The only discomfort was the intense cold of the AC. But you could literally hear a pin drop and, in case you might not be aware of it, in prison that’s a true luxury. The Buddhists would ring their chime-gong and burn incense (this is a VERY permissive compound). I absolutely loved the quiet and I know and understand meditation. But for me this was not the way. 

My only escape is in the endless scribbling of words, the monkey-brain flow of ideas, the element most disapproved of and eschewed by true Buddhist philosophy. I cannot bring myself to accept, like he did. I cannot make that assertion Zen guy learned to live by: “I live here now.”

I can’t call my cell a room. The unit is not my house. I cannot call this a life. This is an empty pause between events. We are all zombies here, some with laughing, sneering faces, macabre clowns, others dragging themselves, shamed and downcast, others staring at TV screens for hours on end.

Once when I was on the compound between moves returning from a medical visit I was confronted by a guard. 

“Hey, you. Where do YOU live?” he challenged. 

He was asking what unit I belonged in but I was confused for a moment and I just stared at him. He must have thought I was a psych case until the wheels in my head clicked and I realized what he was asking and I replied, telling him where I was coming from and where I was going. He shook his head and walked away leaving me alone. 

“Another dumb inmate”, I could just hear him mumbling.

At that moment, I wanted to say: “I don’t live HERE, you idiot.” I wanted to give him my real world home address. But he would have given me a shot, written me up for disrespect and insubordination and I probably would have ended up in the SHU (Secure Housing Unit or Special Housing Unit, take your pick), prison within prison, low security’s version of high security hell.

So, no. This is NOT my life. This will NEVER be my life. This is no life at all. This is the void between moments. I can sympathize with the Zen guys, sure. I admire what they do and commend them for it. I respect it. But to me they’re no different than guys who sleep all day long and believe they’re cheating the government out of their time because they are not present for it. What both of these groups fail to grasp is that being removed from all meaningful social interaction — THAT is the punishment. You can sleep or meditate all you wish but you will not escape the stunting effect of social banishment, a banishment that will continue after prison and for the rest of your life. No inmate in America will.

Like those guys who refuse the blindfold when they’re put in front of a firing squad, I choose to face my punishment straight on, no flinching, no philosophical tricks, head held high.

These words are MY meditation.

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.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Fernando Rivas Martinez

Fernando Rivas Martinez is writer and prison reform advocate incarcerated in Texas. He is a 1977 Juilliard graduate and award winning composer of film and television music. In 2016, while incarcerated, he received an honorable mention from the PEN America prison writing program for his poem ‘300 Min.’ In 2019 he won the American Short Fiction Insider’s Prize award and an honorable mention on the Texas Observer short story contest.