I moved in certain social circles before I was arrested for burglary. I ate at swanky gastro pubs, attended sales meetings, rode on trains and wandered through museums.
During those years, I was free and surrounded by a world of people; but I still couldn’t shake the frequent feeling that I was alone in a crowd.
It wasn’t an all-encompassing, misanthropic vibe that followed me everywhere I went; on the contrary, I was a people person — not a loner like the person I became, keeping to myself in prison. I was, back then, a gregarious soul with many friends and a large loving family, a talker who easily engaged strangers in conversation.
But I’m starting to wonder now just how much prison changed my relationship with others and with space, and if the COVID-19 pandemic has done something similar for those on the outside.
While the pandemic forced the world to redefine the concept of space — with social distancing mandates and travel restrictions — I sat in an overcrowded prison and asked myself: Were we ever really that close to begin with?
Every imaginable separation exists for the incarcerated: race, class, status, gang affiliation, education, criminal charges, cellblocks. As I witnessed, those spaces create animosity that resonate throughout the penal system, causing violent conflicts that result in further separation.
In prison, I had less personal space than ever before, but that was nothing compared to the vast chasm of differences between the other men and me. Being in prison was the loneliest experience of my life — you simply cannot prepare for the isolation of being a state-owned pariah living inside a cinder block box.
I was 800 miles away from my family in Philadelphia, calling home with a broken phone, struggling to hear their words of encouragement.
Meanwhile, I was surrounded by many men who didn’t care if I lived or died, who didn’t ask me how my day was or offer a helping hand. I lay down at night, alone with my mind, having no one with whom to share my trepidation. No long hair spilling over the pillow as we cuddled and talked about our hopes and dreams. No way to take my son to the park or to join a writer’s workshop on Facebook.
Some days I yearned for human interaction so badly that I put NPR on my headphones and imagined having a conversation with the anchor. Everyone in the free world was far away from me spatially and metaphorically. I talked to myself more and more — an inner dialogue pervaded my every waking moment, judging and planning, complaining and praying. I watched sitcoms and daydreamed about life outside.
There were so many residents inside this prison that it looked like a small city inside a concrete maze. I walked to the recreation yard with 500 to 600 ornery men. The administration packed 40 of us into the medical waiting room. I slept 3 feet above my bunkmate. I ate meals 2 feet away from the other men. I stood in line only 1 foot behind the next prisoner.
Yet it felt like I was miles away from everyone.
Living alone in a crowd is like dying of thirst in an ocean of saltwater — relief seems so close but is impossible to reach.
During the pandemic, many of the world’s citizens could relate to that feeling of loneliness. For someone in prison, that feeling consumes every second, causing depression and fear.
The isolation of incarceration is real and unique: Where else can you be forced into seclusion with so many people who hate you just because of your skin color or background? The criminal justice system cuts us off from society while simultaneously dividing us among our peers, expecting us to get along while knowing it will never happen.
This destabilizing prison environment mirrors the separateness of many people on the streets. Sometimes these gaps seem woven into the fabric of our society. They float through the ether and seep into the spaces between our everyday lives.
If socializing amplifies our happiness and promotes community, then why the hell are we so mean to one another all the time? Where does this lack of compassion come from?
We should ask: How can we respect each other more?
If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that we were all living a little superficially in the past.
Change is one good thing that can come from this pandemic — and also my incarceration.
Of pandemic lockdowns, the poet Tiana Clark wrote that “it gets lonely living by myself in such an isolating time, but the solitude is shaping something beautiful in me that I can’t name just yet.”
Maybe prison helped me morph into something greater too. Only time will tell.
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.