I am currently in solitary confinement where I have been for over a year and a half as a result of gang violence.
There are approximately 191 other prisoners housed at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in solitary along with me. There is constant noise from the reverb of walkie talkies, thundering intercom announcements, handcuffs, chains and keys rattling. The slamming of our food slots three times a day is like a hammer to the mind. Men are always screaming, arguing, crying and kicking their cell doors at all hours of the day and night, begging corrections officers and case managers for permission to use the phone, which we are only permitted to access once a month. Periodically, men lose their minds and throw feces and flood their toilets, seeping deeper into depression as the weeks turn to months, locked behind these cold steel doors. The men want out of these cages.
We can’t see outside because the windows are too cloudy and dirty. We have no TV to watch. Most of our books and mail are rejected by the mailroom staff on the grounds that the correspondence either violates divisional policy or because of unknown smears, smudges or substances on the mail.
Many of us suspect that any smears are the result of the fallen tears of our loved ones. Since all visitation is suspended, prisoners are going on hunger strikes that fall upon deaf ears. According to my observation, there have been nine suicides since 2018 at PCI, along with many unsuccessful attempts; three since the pandemic began. In July 2020, one man hung himself with less than a month remaining on his sentence. The other occurred in April, involving my 23-year-old Latino friend. I can’t get the image of him hanging from the vent in his cell out of my mind.
There’s nothing to do in the yard outside of solitary confinement but to go outside one hour a day, three to four times a week. Everyone here in maximum security prisons in North Carolina are living in a constant state of fear during the coronavirus, quietly wondering what is going to happen to us if our economy collapses, and if everyone gets sick resulting in a statewide emergency or martial law.
We as Americans no longer live in a civilized country like Scandinavia, South Africa or Iran, which released over 70,000 prisoners. We live in a cutthroat, unforgiving, merciless, draconian country. All of the prisoners wonder whether we will be euthanized by a needle like animals in the pound? Will the COs abandon us and leave us to starve behind these metal doors? Will we be poisoned or suffocated by gas? These are the dark thoughts that haunt each of us as we try to sleep at night.
As for me and for all the time I’ve spent in Max, I think about all the brutal killings I have witnessed first-hand. The look in a dying man’s eyes as the light of life fades away into death in his last moments. I think about the coppery smell of blood, bile and shit that emanates from his body. I think about all the times I’ve used homemade needles to stitch deep flesh wounds with dental floss because the men are more afraid of solitary confinement than of infection. It has damaged me mentally, living in the hidden war zone of a North Carolina prison.
There’s an unspoken air of violence that comes from the hopelessness of those sentenced to life that runs through the inmates, a vibe not felt by outsiders. But as real and powerful to each of us as the current running through our veins. It’s like an ancient evil that crawls up from the putrid rottenness of it and gets into the mind and into the blood.
Many of us who are condemned wish that we could slip away from the waking hours, from all of this noise, fear, torture and never-ending rain. Away from all of these strangers and the thoughts that gnaw at us.
In the race of death and indescribable loneliness, we find ourselves insisting on cobbling together some kind of schedule within the isolation of our cells, as we can barely hold everything together by doing so. Not that we believe in any schedule anymore, or in the value of order.
We submit to the forms of procedure because their fragile shell of normalcy is better than no protection against a cruel vacuum that sucks away all dignity, morality and humanity.
At 53 years old, I have come to realize that I will face a lot of grief during this pandemic and in the years ahead of me that will include insomnia, tears, frustration, depression and suffering. In all of the valuable years that have endlessly slipped away from me, I have come to accept the unconscionable curveball the mortality of American life has thrown at 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.