Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash

Part I: Inside Prison 

Death is easy. 

A quick slice of the wrist, swallowing a bunch of pills or wrapping something around your neck. It’ll be over in a matter of minutes if you do it right. If you don’t, you will probably face years of endless psych evals that would ensure that you don’t go anywhere near a butter knife. But that’s not the hard part.

The hard part is getting to that point. Nobody just decides to end it or there would countless obituaries in the news daily. There’s a long road, one that you try to avoid at all costs. 

I went down this road at the lowest point in my life and deservedly so. I committed an unspeakable act and was given a death sentence in the worst place imaginable. Imagine being surrounded by thousands of people and being the most alone you’ll ever be in your life. Imagine being cut off from everyone you know with nothing to comfort you except your deepest darkest thoughts. 

I was depressed and no medication or group therapy was going to change that however much I tried. I saw psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and their solution was the same: pills. 

“I confronted my worst demons without medication because I needed to feel shame and sadness, and I needed to cry for the right reasons and know that emotional pain was a prerequisite for prison.”

Pills? Really? Were these pills magically going to take me out of prison or relieve my burden and pain and trauma I’d suffered all these years or make me forget what I had done? 

“They make you feel less sad,” they told me. 

Then what good are they? I wanted numbness. I wanted to forget and make life just a little more bearable. And how would they know what to prescribe? No offense, but these people didn’t have enough experience to understand real life situations and how to “treat” us. The last time I checked there was no such thing as a “relief from prison” pill (maybe Pfizer will work on that next). 

Looking back, all I needed was for someone to say, “Hey, you should be depressed. You’re in prison. It’s normal to feel fucked up and there will be a whole bunch of bad days ahead. That’s what prison is about. You can’t be happy in captivity.” 

During my years of incarceration, I’d seen numerous people who were so doped up on psych meds they didn’t realize they were in prison. Some were in that state because of their mental health issue, but others were there by choice. A choice I too had considered so I wouldn’t have to wake up to the endless, tiresome Groundhog Day for the next 50 years. 

But pills suck. I still believe that it is a crutch for something you’re not dealing with. We all have unprocessed trauma and stuff that one way or another negatively affected us in our lives. 

I confronted my worst demons without medication because I needed to feel shame and sadness, and I needed to cry for the right reasons and know that emotional pain was a prerequisite for prison. 

Eventually, I found a reason, a reason for being. Being me, alive, and as a whole person. Some people inside can’t find it. They might not even have it. I was lucky to have my family to support me and my life journey. 

Part II: Re-entering the Real World

I got out of prison last May shortly after the pandemic began. Going in and coming back out has similarities — a new environment, new people, new rules and a new mindset. 

I tell people who have come out after me that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and angry (especially when you’re still learning to use your phone). Is there a pill out there to treat the “I’ve been gone from home for so long that my mental state will take up to a year to adjust” syndrome? 

For those of us that are out, we laugh at how people out here have had a hard time with COVID-19 and their so-called lockdown. Compared to decades of incarceration and being stuck in a bathroom-sized cell with another human being for 23 hours a day, this life out here is a breeze. 

At the same time, I understand. Maybe people finally see that freedom should not be taken for granted. 

“I have nightmares about going back to prison, that all this can be easily snatched up and they would just haul me back for the rest of my life.”

Even so, you would think I was crazy if I told you that some of us missed the days of incarceration, right? There is a comfort of being inside, especially if you went in at 16, did 25 years, and then had to relearn how to be an adult outside of prison. Inside, they found comfort in the rules they’d learned, the stability they found and even the respect and connections within the community (though physical comforts like two-ply toilet paper, real beds and unlimited shower time might sway them back out). Comfort and connectedness is what we’re all looking for. 

One of the problems is that the only places open in the pandemic are shops — Target, Walmart and others where you can drop whatever is left of your stimulus. 

What is not open is a community center where people can talk about their problems and not buy away their issues. I don’t care if you have the latest iPhone with 5G, our phones do not help us stay connected like the way we were able to inside. 

Inside, our unofficial mental health treatment was stopping by a friend’s cell or sitting down at dinner to talk face-to-face. There might even be the occasional share in a group session. Those who know me know I never shared, but the opportunity had been there. 

I could complain about how bad my day was and we would all relate. Out here, do people even do that? I can count a handful of Zooms where people actually shared their emotions. Maybe that’s why we all hate Zooms. 

What if we showed our emotional selves in a Zoom meeting? I’ll start: 

 Hi. This is my check in. I don’t like life right now. Being responsible and choosing not to see my family sucks. Why can’t I be less responsible and just drive and see them? I miss them and want to hug my niece and nephew so badly, but I have to be fucking responsible. 

I have nightmares about going back to prison, that all this can be easily snatched up and they would just haul me back for the rest of my life. 

I cry for the people who passed and those who are still incarcerated without knowing if they’ll live long enough to see their families again. I hate how my masks (yes, I double mask) fog up my glasses and won’t let me breathe properly. I’m really scared that the masks might mess up my body in the long run because breathing in CO2 is not good for you, scientifically speaking.

I hate that I’m out of shape and can’t run a mile without my inhaler. I completed five marathons inside prison, but now a mile seems like forever.

And the good? I’m free, free to make my own decisions as my own person again. I can go make real eggs the way I want to, not the fake stuff served inside. I can watch a rated-R movie again without having to wonder if they’ll bleep out the cuss words or black bra any topless actresses (CGI allows them to not use a bar anymore).

And Spotify!! Music was and still is my coping tool. 

The ultimate freedom item that every incarcerated person can agree on is having 100% PRIVACY. F- you and leave me the f- alone. Close my door and don’t bother me. The ability to sit on the toilet without your privacy being invaded by a guard or unwanted visitor beats anything and everything. 

To sum it up, I feel shitty about what’s going on right now, but I deal with it by listening to music, meditating and turning my phone off (once in a while), so I can appreciate life for what it is, what it will be and the hope of a hug without a mask. 

Maybe at our next Zooms, you can take the time to say how shitty your day was, but how you found the peace that led you to wake up another day to live your life the way you choose to (hopefully responsibly), as you plan for a better year with less junk food, less Zooms, and more conversation with anyone who’s willing to listen, including me.

 
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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Jonathan Chiu

Jonathan Chiu is a formerly incarcerated citizen who paroled from San Quentin State Prison on May 1, 2020. He has been part of the San Quentin News since 2015 as the layout designer and crossword designer for both the newspaper and its Wall City magazine publication. His work has also been published in the Marshall Project. He is a member of the San Quentin 1000 Mile running club and a stand up comedian in his spare time.