Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

As a sentient creature there is something provocative, searching and sensual, illuminating, spiritual even, about my senses collecting stimuli, processing it all interactively, instructing me how to respond to the physical world. We are all beings whose awareness of the material world is a result of what we see, smell, taste, hear and touch. Our senses create emotions like love and hate, joy and sadness, fear and exaltation, pleasure and pain. All of these inputs animate us in ways that create the rich tapestry of human expression —  in a word, human.

Prison is a place where one is sensorially deprived in ways that are pretty stark. To be confined is to be denied the rich diet of interactive and educational life experiences collected over time. I’m always searching for vicarious sensate opportunities. Books, TV shows and especially commercials are, for me, substitute stimulants for all those prohibited sentient experiences I miss. 

I get pleasure out of commercials. Commercials are like vignettes, inviting in bit players into the theater of my soul, allowing me to feel a full range of emotions. I slip quickly into reveries where I see myself in animated conversations with family and friends while driving a car, or at home; I travel to far off destinations, go to nice restaurants, eating the food of my heart’s desire. 

Commercials that involve children, family and dogs pull most at my heartstrings, as they speak to communion with other living creatures. In those moments I laugh or tear up, just for a moment. The commercials never last longer than a minute and I quickly cycle down from an abbreviated emotional rush.

There are no artificial doses of emotional stimulation for the tactile sensation of touch. I miss the touch of another human being the most. I’m so conditioned to keeping my hands to myself, I don’t realize how much I miss the human touch until I’m unexpectedly touched by someone who is a friend or the touch occurs as a gesture in some mutually enriching exchange. In this place touching someone else is always a touchy proposition.

On most days I have to pass through a metal detector a few times a day. I’m careful not to set off the machine. I place anything that might ring on the counter. If I don’t clear the metal detector it means two or three officers are going to surround me, and one of them will frisk me in ways that are just too intimate and feels like micro-molestation. They will run their fingers around the perimeter of the interior of my waist band. They will pat my back pockets, run their hands up my inner thigh and the sides of my torso all the way up to my armpits. Afterward, it will take some time to recover from the assault of my person. Their touch is unwanted and my brain processes it as an assault and battery. The long-term consequence of that is my brain’s default setting is, “Don’t touch me and I won’t touch you!” 

I live a guarded existence here. I am hyper-aware of boundaries. I’m inclined to stand at the end of the line, so not to be jostled by someone rushing to go nowhere fast. 

In this hypermasculine environment, there are rules of engagement between men. Beyond a “dap” exchanged at greetings in the yard or mess hall — which has since been reduced to an elbow bump due to COVID-19 — touching someone or being touched is socially unacceptable. Social distancing was required long before I ever heard of the coronavirus. I’m always guarding my square.

On infrequent occasions, I have shaken someone’s hand. I have hugged a close associate or they have hugged me. There are accidental brushes in my work space where my skin briefly brushes my co-worker’s, and I register his existence viscerally. Those kinetic moments are charged with an energy that redirects my consciousness to the deprivation of touch and all that it entails. 

It is sometimes an emotionally arresting experience that, in an instant, reminds me of how much I miss my family and friends, and that being here is to be in a state of perpetual loneliness, in spite of there usually being dozens of other people sharing the same space with me. It makes me aware that I am a social creature, and real communication is an intimate process, potentially a rich, shared human experience. 

What I’m talking about here is not sexual. I am not speaking about the intimacy of two lovers. It goes without saying that touch, as it relates to sexual intimacy, is painfully amiss here and is the most bemoaned sensory deprivation. No, I’m speaking about the platonic affections shared between family, friends, co-workers or anyone you share good will with.

The coronavirus has made extreme the loneliness of this place. It has made the idea of touch a risky proposition. Visits have been suspended again because there was a coronavirus cluster in the facility this week. There will be no seeing or touching wives, mothers, children and loved ones for a while, and I’ll be more guarded than usual. Most of us, including me, affix the masks of stoic indifference like a garment, and feign an insensate impassivity in contrast to those starved aspects of our senses and the repressed humanity it represents.

The need of touch reminds me what it means to be human, and that I need other humans in order to be human. When we are in touch, our senses are instructive, instinctive and an intuitive compass guiding us to our better selves and through a shared existence with others. To be in touch is to feel for both one’s self and others. The next time I give someone dap or touch someone on the shoulder, or innocently brush against them, I will be reminded what it is to be human in a place that has tried to make me something else.

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.

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Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.