Illustration by Liam McCauley

Prison is a human warehouse. We are stacked on top of each other like sardines. 

Personal space is almost non-existent. It’s a precious commodity, and becomes increasingly so as you spend more time in prison. 

Prison overcrowding is a common issue in the United States. A 2020 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative found that nine state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons were operating at 100% capacity or higher. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, overcrowding can lead to increased violence, worse health care, limited programming and educational opportunities, and fewer visitations. 

While that might help those on the outside understand the problem, I don’t need a study or some analysis to tell me what I see in my community every day: Inmates’ personal boundaries grow during a stretch in the big house. We become wary of touch and uncomfortable with intimacy — even from our loved ones. 

In many ways, this makes perfect sense. Prisons are highly volatile places, where inmates — and officers — live like clenched fists, constantly on high alert, our bodies ready for fight or flight. 

Our whole lives are oriented toward survival. Any encroachment on our personal space —  even if it’s innocent — is often met with suspicious looks at best and extreme violence at worst. 

Once one experiences the high-voltage intensity of living in a concrete jungle over an extended period of time, your brain changes. New habits are created. It is not irreversible, but it takes superhuman effort to change. 

Wizard, a cowboy from Texas, talks with an exaggerated drawl. He said he has always enjoyed his personal space. 

“I grew up in the heart of cattle country. My closest neighbor was half a day’s ride [away],” he said. “City folk like to live on top of each other. When I first got to the joint, I thought eventually I would get used to it, but it has only gotten worse. Now, I warn ‘em, ‘Give me some space. I shouldn’t have to smell your coffee breath.’”

Too-Tall, 35, has started slow-walking when going to chow or the yard. It helps create distance from other inmates. 

“It’s a physical reaction for me. I literally feel myself cringe. I’ll step back if anyone comes up on me,” he said. “The other day at the law library this dude sits right next to me. There’s 10 open tables. I was like, ‘You for real?’ I just got up and moved to another table.”

It’s no surprise that inmates who leave prison do so with several physical and mental health complications. During a recent re-entry presentation offered to people close to their release date, a counselor encouraged participants to seek help, once released, for everything from bad knees to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Upon release, it is not uncommon for some of you to feel anxious around people, especially large groups in small spaces,” the counselor said. “Give it some time. But, if you’re not getting better, do something about it.” 

Someone asked if there is anything we can do while still locked up to help ourselves.  The counselor suggested gradual exposure to different environments: “Think about places in here where you feel anxious around others and try to work your way into spending longer stretches of time in those circumstances.”

Wizard, scheduled to be released this summer, is trying that approach. 

“I don’t want to look like I’m crazy out there. I have enough to deal with,” Wizard said. “Now that COVID-19 is easing off and we’re opening up, I’m gonna try to hang out in the dayroom more. That place is always packed after dinner.”

The presentation concluded with good news — that most of our issues will fade over time. Our brains are constantly adapting to new environments as a survival mechanism. In other words, this too will pass. 

Additional reporting by PJP staff

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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Leo Cardez

Leo Cardez is a prison journalist and prison reform activist who has written for various newsletters and newspapers. His work has been selected for various anthologies. He is the editor of the prison newspaper, Dixon Digest. He volunteers as an Advisory Board Member of Prison Health News and serves on a committee for College Guild. He is incarcerated in Illinois. Leo Cardez is a pen name.