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Photo by Youssef Naddam on Unsplash
Photo by youssef naddam on Unsplash

More than a year ago, most Americans learned what it was like to shelter in place and the term “social distancing” became common discourse. Millions of people worked from home. Many who could not work from their place of residence lost their jobs. 

The long one year interval of isolation gave many people bouts of anxiety, cabin fever, loneliness and depression. 

Welcome to the world of prisoners, many of whom have lived in this isolated way for decades. Such state-imposed distance from society has less to do with the concept of crime and punishment than it does politics. 

A quarter of a century ago, in 1996, I entered the prison industrial complex disease. Let’s call it PRICOMD-96. Like so many who braved the pandemic, I also lost my job, my house, family, friends and my life – to a sentence of “distance.” 

One year under such living conditions probably seemed like an eternity for you, even though you had all the comforts of a home with access to telephones, computers, cable television, the internet, refrigerators, microwave ovens and other modern conveniences. Many Americans were also probably isolating with family and perhaps a handful of friends. 

Worldwide, more than 191 million people were diagnosed with COVID-19 and more than 4 million people have died from the pandemic. An untold number of them were separated from loved ones when they succumbed to the virus. 

Incarcerated people understand that latter situation only too well. When our loved ones die, there is no notice. No farewell. No goodbye. The distance created by a prison sentence is made permanent by death. Parting this way seems unnatural, unless you’re a prisoner. 

Two decades into my incarceration, my mother died. 

Now in my 25th year of confinement, social distancing has become one of my specialties. It’s a skill I developed through what I like to call carceral Darwinism. 

You see, years ago I realized there is one place a prisoner is guaranteed to serve time: in a cell. Master that and everything else becomes meaningless social commentary. 

Decades inside a cage, however, can sometimes have a reverse effect on distance by drawing one closer to the world, loved ones and self. A physicist may describe the perception of time, distance or space as relative. Believe me, it’s true. 

In my world, there’s always an administrative reason to lockdown a prison, which creates a natural social-distancing among prisoners. I think I’ve seen it all: stabbings, melées, weapons, threats to staff, searches, riots, escape attempts, emergency counts, inclement weather, death, and sometimes just because they can. Coronavirus was a game changer, though. 

The distance created by time, place and space has given me a better understanding of sociopaths, misanthropy and antisocial behavior. So I have learned to entertain myself. 

That’s when I discovered tolerance, patience, compassion and forgiveness. I haven’t mastered any of it, yet, but education and the application of it is a constant work in progress. 

There’s no getting around that, not even with distance. It ebbs. It flows. Then it goes away. Because it’s all relative.

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.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.