When people see how I move in my day-to-day life in this prison, they see a man who is consistently cool, calm and collected. Generally, this is true. However, there are some days when this is merely a façade. Beneath the surface exists a raging sea of emotion threatening to consume any who come too close. For this reason, among others, I keep all but a very few people at an emotional distance. In doing so, I protect them, and I protect myself.
Today was one such day, when my internal sea nearly escaped its barricade.
Over the past several months, the prison has been locked-in with increasing regularity — due to short staffing and now the added factor of the COVID-19 pandemic. As busy as I am each day providing service to my fellow incarcerated citizens and other members of this tiny exiled community, I’m usually the first one joking about how happy I am when we get a surprise lock-in — I get a surprise vacation!
Today, though, I failed in all but a few of my attempts to muster a smile.
Having spent a considerable amount of time in Segregation during my first few years of incarceration, I have learned to find solace in forced isolation. I live with constant empathy for the men in Close-Custody who are locked in for all but a couple hours each day, as well as for the rest of the men in 500-Building, who are locked in by 5:40 p.m. each weekday — preventing them the opportunity to communicate with their families and loved ones who work day shifts, and with their school-aged children who need their fathers. (Weekends are an exception, though we’ve been locked-in more weekends than not lately.)
Not everyone who lives or works in this institution shares my empathy. I hear the apathetic comments about how “if they could stay out of trouble, they could get out of there.” What I rarely hear is acknowledgement that “behavior reflects one’s environment.”
It is extremely difficult to climb out of sinking sand with an anvil tied to your ankle.
Even after going eight years without any disciplinary infractions, and nine years without engaging in any violent behavior, I am still very conscious that non-violence is not the norm of prison life. Violence-as-a-solution is one of the anvils that, once tied, quickly becomes a tangled mess.
When you lock a man in a cage and give him a constant schedule, he learns to adapt to his captivity. When you disrupt that schedule, adaptation becomes exponentially more difficult. The captured man now seeks to reestablish consistency. When that man learned violence-as-a-solution early in life, it became his means of establishing consistency.
I know it’s not right; I know I don’t want to live that life anymore. It makes no logical, or spiritual, sense. Sadly, though, bouts of aggression are a known byproduct of incarceration, along with any number of adverse mental-health effects. This is what I was struggling with today. My mentor and my cellmate were probably the only two people who noticed anything off about me. Except, of course, the officer from whom I requested a feed-in tray.
In prison, your meal schedule is dictated*. If you don’t leave your living unit fast enough, you forfeit that meal. If you don’t have enough money to buy canteen, you go hungry or break the rules to hustle for food. Thankfully, I’ve been here long enough that I earn sufficient pay to afford some snacks, plus I have friends and family who love me and are able to send a little extra money every once in a while. This is not the case for many of the men here.
Today I had to forfeit my dinner to maintain my sanity. Cabin fever in the free world can be remedied by any number of activities. In prison, there are three general remedies: prayer/meditation, exercise, or violence.
I had a good conversation with God in prayer this morning. Violence is no longer an acceptable solution for me, since part of God’s Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). So I had two needs and one want for the afternoon: I needed to meet with my mentor, I needed to exercise, and I wanted to eat what was to be the best meal we’ve had in weeks — and were likely to have for weeks to come. By the time my meeting with my mentor was over, chow was about to be called, but I had yet to relieve my restlessness. So I skipped the fried chicken and rice pilaf (that hurt), and ran on the treadmill.
At a healthy 6’6” and 275 lbs., I am not on a diet. However, due to the increased restrictions on movement within the prison, my choice was to eat dinner and risk reacting violently to someone who does not have my self-control, or forfeit dinner and settle my agitated nerves. Instead of eating some juicy fried chicken, I took the edge off my hunger with a jailhouse health shake (about 1/4 cup of powdered milk, half of a 2 oz. pouch of vanilla health-shake powder, and a packet of maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal, mixed into some cold water from the stainless-steel sink).
Thankfully, I’ll never know what might have happened had I made a wrong decision. These are the unseen sacrifices made each day by those of us who somehow manage to make it out of that sinking sand — even with the anvil still attached.
*Maine State Prison has since switched from dine-in chow-hall meals to grab-and-go meals as a COVID-19 health precaution.