Creative Commons License

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

Photo by Weston MacKinnon on Unsplash

Out of 168 hours in a week, I spend 164 of them confined to my cell. Quarantine means the yard or staying in my cell. It is a Faustian bargain. Staying in my cell gives me the independence to regulate my time and space in the cell I occupy — or so I believe — but I’m often cornered by the demons in my head that taunt and blame me for things I have no control of, demanding new penances for old sins. 

Going to the yard makes me feel like so much corralled cattle, milling about in a confined space in search of purpose or distraction — either will do — but I find nothing to feed my heart or mind. There is the television, but rarely do I find programming that burnishes my spirit, save the peculiar suspended disbelief I surrender to with my favorite commercials. I’m invariably drawn to CNN like a spellbound follower of a cult, sacrificing my peace of mind for the horrors of the day.

My self talk reminds me we only get a short stay on this rock and death is an inevitability, and I try to think about life from the upside. But we’re emotional creatures who make strong attachments to others. Losing a loved one, or the specter of loss, can be traumatic and life-altering. The altering part can be a trip down a rabbit hole or it can reaffirm the best of shared experiences. Storing things I’d rather not face in the closets of my consciousness has created the fault lines of my life. In solitary moments I let my feelings have their way, rather than hold onto them.

The upside to my fear and anxiety is that I’m more in touch with my true self in ways that seemed impossible not so long ago. This second quarantine is different from the last, as I am no longer sick with the virus, battling it from the front lines. It is now a counterintelligence mission, and I’m the insurgent. 

I’m required to keep company with myself, and in doing so I’ve used every deficit as an opportunity to discard some aspect of my thinking or habits and pick up something new that not only makes me feel good, but is good for me. The weapon is always a change of perspective. 

The facts on the ground invariably stay the same. I read and write. I realize words are my art. Although I’m still a student, I take pleasure in the study, as I can lay myself bare, collecting myself in ways that restore me and hopefully let others draw what they need as well.

I compose these thoughts with a variety of life-affirming emotions. I’m thankful for family, friends and all those who love me in spite of myself and support me as I grow. To the PJP community, my sincere thanks for allowing me to share my world, and for listening. I truly believe with all darkness there is light, and I will continue to seek out rays of light as they reveal themselves in the most unexpected ways and in the darkest places.

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.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.