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Am I Better Off Dead?

Was I better off dead
Than to be stuck in my head?
23 hours a day
For damn near a year straight.

In response to one crisis,
They created another:
A pandemic of mental health illnesses
We now suffer.

This one-year lockdown,
An unexpected abnormality,
Has me struggling to maintain
My grip on reality.

Am I better off dead
And at peace with myself
Than to be cruelly and unusually punished
In this beast that’s my cell?

COMMENTARY

This poem is an attempt to capture the unbelievable amount of stress placed on inmates who have been forced — in the name of “safety” — to be locked down for an entire year, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through the prison system.

I don’t mean to suggest I’m suicidal as a result of this lockdown, but I wonder how many of us are. On the one hand, preventative measures were needed to prevent a prisonwide outbreak in the jails, but these measures are not humane. They are unusually cruel. It seems like not enough people are talking about the new crisis being created by the lockdown meant to prevent the COVID-19 outbreak crisis behind bars — and that new crisis is a mental health crisis.

We have been locked down for so long, it is impossible to maintain a positive outlook, to “keep your head up.” There has to be another way to prevent an outbreak in the prison system. One of the things that makes this lockdown so challenging is the constant rush once you’re let out your cell for the 45 minutes allotted a day. You’re rushing to the shower, rushing to try and sync your tablet, rushing to call a loved one and then rushing them off the phone when you’re told to lock in — which seems like 5 minutes after you started talking to them. 

For inmates who have legal deadlines or are genuinely trying to accomplish something, trying to really better themselves or maybe strengthen or repair some relationships — and data shows supportive relationships are key to lowering recidivism — this lockdown is complete torture and works against all of those efforts.

The lockdown has impacted in the most detrimental ways, every aspect of our social life. When our cell doors are briefly opened once a day, you can barely hold a conversation with anyone on your block because you’re trying so desperately to get the necessities done, like take a shower, make a phone call, check the kiosk or sync your tablet. These crucial and key activities leave little room for anything else. And after a while, you start to feel more isolated than you ever have. What part of the punishment was this?

Depression, anxiety, frustration and hopelessness come in unpredictably constant waves as a result of this cruel “preventive” measure. After being locked down for this long, you start to ask yourself: Am I better off dead?

 
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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Manuel Pagan Jr.

Manuel Pagan Jr. is a writer incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Fayette in LaBelle, Pa. He is the father of four amazing kids and a passionate musician. His music can be found on Apple Music and other online platforms under his artist name “Zona.”