How Prison Prepared me for Social Distancing

Note: If you’d like to skip to my tips for using time wisely during quarantine, click here.

In many ways, my 6 months in jail reminds me of the new social distancing policies. Visits with families and friends were 3 times a week and one hour long. You couldn’t touch your visitors except to hug and kiss them at the beginning or end of each visit. We could use the phone but only during certain times, with limited 6 or 14 min phone calls (and there were 2 phones to be shared with as little at 15 girls to as high as 50). Commissary (food/supplies) shopping was once a week. We had individual cells and you could not be alone with another person or else you’d get a ticket. If there was a fight, we’d have the “SWAT” team of C.O.’s shut our unit down, make us stand in a line, get stripped searched, yelled at, addressed by our last names, have our cells tossed, mattresses flipped, commissary ransacked, and our personal letters were read, confiscated, and destroyed. And all we could do was watch with a straight face and no objections as our space, our time, and our being was violated.

Afterwards, We would be on lock down for hours. No movement. No sound. Just the sounds of the electric buzz of the fluorescent lights. The sound of a ticking watch, and the occasional pop of a cell opening. We were surrounded by cinder blocks. You could count them if you wanted, like counting sheep as you tried to nap. But there was no point, they’d wake you up anyway for the count. All we had were our thoughts. Our bodies. And maybe our books.

Our new social distancing rules aren’t nearly as harsh, but there’s some overlap. We must stand 6 feet apart. Stores will only allow a certain amount of people in to shop. We shouldn’t leave our homes unless it’s for essential needs. We shouldn’t visit family or friends, especially those most vulnerable. No alcohol. No beauty salons. No clubs. Now, there is talk of fining those who break social distancing rules. But, this is still not jail. 

I think for comparison’s sake, this is more like being on house arrest or parole but without the threat of being picked up, profiled, and back in jail at any given moment, at the will of a cop. So this is still, not jail. 

We have WiFi, TVs, movies, and can even go outside- we just can’t congregate. Many of us have comfortable homes to quarantine in, private bathrooms, and decent decor. Again, this is not jail. 

I understand why the parallels are being drawn here; As a nation, many of us lost our freedom to travel, shop, and just hangout overnight, we’re not able to make moves last minute, plans have been cancelled, money is lost, and we’ve had to bend to the will of lawmakers, police, and doctors with constant changes overnight and little communication. Lots of us are losing income. Losing our routines. Losing long walks, train rides, and busy work that felt like meditation. Shit, most of us are losing our minds.

Some of us are even gaining new roles: becoming teachers, homemakers, chefs, and babysitters, all while still working our main job. And it was sudden, overnight, and without our input. And we’re anxious, we question- how long will this last? when will things be normal? Will things ever be normal again? When can I get back to my life?

That’s what it felt like when 20 police officers knocked on my door and took me from my home. That’s what it feels like for roughly 2.3 million Black prisoners. This is what it feels like when you are on parole, probation, have a felony, or live in an over policed neighborhood; at any given moment your freedom can be stripped without question. So when I say this is not jail, I mean it- this is not jail. 

I think I want people to walk away understanding that many of us are extremely privileged to not be in jail during COVID-19. We have our own bathrooms, bedrooms, and if not, we have WiFi. We have so much comfort compared to those in jail. This is not the case for everyone; I know many students do not feel safe in their homes- so this is directed toward those of us who do.

Incarcerated folks who get COVID-19 will suffer. They are in overcrowded prisons, with extreme limited resources, doctors, and access to care. Prisons are not thoroughly cleaned. NYS put in place protections for correctional officers before they put a policy in place for inmates. That’s how little inmates are considered. That’s how little health is prioritized for prisoners during a pandemic. The only reason why there are policies in place is to protect officers not inmates. Jails are notoriously non communicative and do not share decisions with inmates (read here for more information on Riker’s island during this pandemic).

In addition to the everyday burden of jail, inmates now have to worry about the pandemic, and losing access to families. We think our hospitals will be crowded? Imagine the jail medical centers. Imagine jails that have been systematically built in the middle of bumfuck nowhere so the nearest hospitals are 30 min to an hour away. Imagine if this were you. Your father. Your cousin. Your sister. If you are free and get sick, you may have family and friends you can call. But if you’re in jail, you don’t have that comfort. You won’t have that reassurance. And even if you did, your loved ones may not even get a chance to hear you or see you if you’re quarantined.

At the end of this quarantine we will go outside in groups, return to our normal routines, and have our freedoms again. At the end of this quarantine incarcerated individuals will return to their normal routines as well- in jail.

I’ll say it again: social distancing, while frustrating, is not jail.

At best, I hope that this inspires more of us to become prison abolitionists. Sometimes, it takes going through a similar experience to empathize with impacted communities. I get it. If you are looking to join movements against prisons, please consider reading Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, watching the documentary “Thirteenth,” and checking out some of these prison reform organizations.

I started this post inspired by these articles: “I’ve Spent 27 Years in Solitary Confinement. Here Are Some Tips on Making the Best Use of Time Alone” No, Your Coronavirus Quarantine Is Not Just Like Being in Prison” and “How prison has shaped one artist’s view on social distancing.” I have cracked various jokes about my experience in jail and social distancing on Twitter, but I realized, I have some serious suggestions and skills I’d like to share as well. 

I spent 6 months of my 17 year old life on Riker’s island. Trust me, I know the feeling of missing out. At 17, I had to tap in to my resilience and endurance to overcome the mental effects of jail. It is one thing to be entrapped physically. It is another to be a prisoner of one’s mind. I freed myself from mental prison by shifting my perspective, and maximizing the use of my time as best as I could.

circa 2011.

One thing I learned early is that, while in Jail, you do not own your time. When we got some sort of “freedom” the key to surviving jail was maximizing this free time in order to not develop a “stuck in jail” mindset. That’s how you survive jail on the day to day, you must maximize your time. We were on a schedule, but we did have blocks of time where we could be productive. Time was like sand on Riker’s; when you looked at it in front of you it was vast and endless, but when you tried to hold it, it would fall through your fingers, especially if you did not have a tight grip. 

The best piece of advice for surviving this day to day social distancing is to get a hold of your time as best as possible. Make a daily schedule and write it down. And here’s the hard part- follow that schedule. This may be hard for those of us with children, demanding jobs, or school, and some of us are juggling ALL of those tasks virtually. Still, make the schedule because it gives you a benchmark. It gives you something to measure against. It helps ground you. 

Here’s a very rough example of a schedule you can create. I just did a few hours but you should get the gist. Be as specific as possible.

We know that at the very least we will be quarantined for 30 days, and having this deadline is a huge privilege compared to incarcerated individuals who have no clue how long they will be in jail. I think the best way to approach this is to change your perspective from “ugh 30 days of lockdown” to “Yes, I have 30 days to Lock-in on my goals!” Consider brainstorming these questions: what would I like to say is different about me in 30 days? What can I accomplish during this time? What can be continued after this 30 day quarantine?

The first few things I asked my mom to bring when I was locked up were 2 of my favorite books (The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah), a journal, my bible, and a watch. And they all represent what I believe were my main priorities in jail: education, reflection, spiritual alignment, and staying grounded through time. Here are some of my tips for surviving social distancing and how to make the most of your time: 

  • Make a schedule. You need to see your time in order to understand how much you have. You cannot set any goals unless you understand what’s possible. You will feel so much more at ease if you make a schedule, I promise you. Include the time you wake up, go to sleep, and eat. Discipline, contrary to popular belief, is freedom. 
  • Make an “if only I had the time to” list of things you have always wanted to do but just haven’t had the time to. Just write. Maybe this list includes organizing your books, closet, reading a saga, watching a long series, classic movies, Learning to invest, braid, do nails etc. We have youtube and can use this to our advantage. But the key here is to create a list for YOU. Do not let Roc Nation Twitter, side hustle twitter, workout twitter, and talented tenth twitter force you to put shit on your list that does not apply to you. 
  • READ. Period. We read books and traded them like cards on Riker’s. It will help you learn, escape, and stay entertained. It will expand your imagination. If possible, use audible so you can multitask. 
  • Write. Period. You will want to go back to this time to reflect on your thoughts and growth. Take the time to grow closer to yourself. Get those thoughts on paper so they don’t jumble your brain. 
  • Attend virtual church services or try to reconnect with your spirituality and keep a prayer journal. 
  • Participate in 30 days of gratitude challenge
  • Go outside once a day.
  • Stretch!
  • Try a new skill. You do not need to perfect this skill. But with Youtube you can literally learn anything. Learn to braid, do nails, write, code, photography, website design, or sewing. Having a long term project will keep you motivated. And you never know- what if your true calling has been inside of you all along but you’ve never had the time to explore the possibility?  
  • Buy legos, jigsaw puzzles, board games, or playing cards. We loved games in jail. It was fun but competitive. 
  • Buy crosswords, word searches, or play words with friends. These are small mental workouts.
  • Drink on Fridays or Saturdays. Jail parties were lit when you had a radio. In our case, it’s IG live.
  • Facetime your friends. 
  • Learn to bake or cook new recipes once a week. Fun fact: I took a cooking class in jail. Cooking is one of the most meditative and freeing tasks for me. I love putting my all into a meal and trying something new. 
  • Take an online course or get a specialized certificate for a course to help boost your knowledge or your resume. 
  • Plan your side hustle
  • Take a social media break
  • Create a vision board. 
  • Asses your 5 year and 10 year goals. 
  • Workout 
  • Cut out an unhealthy habit for 30 days. 
  • Apply for graduate school or study for the GRE, LSAT, MCAT etc.  Fun fact: I studied for my SATs in Jail and I applied to college that fall and was accepted with a full ride.
  • Stay informed but do not over indulge on the news. 
  • Go outside and walk around the block or past a park. Try to get back to the green. 
  • Spring clean your home thoroughly
  • Start a garden. 
  • Rest. When will you have time to just be again? 

Whenever we had a court appearance in jail, we used to say “hope for the best but expect the worst.” It was our way of staying optimistic but being realistic about the likelihood of disappointment. In this situation, I think that we can hope for the best (in 30 days we will be back to normal) but we should expect the worst (Maybe this will continue until June). the truth is we don’t know, but we can make the best of it. Those of us who have survived jail tapped into our resilience, creativity, and discipline to use our time wisely. We also built community and spoke to each other. We shared stories. We tried to laugh. During this quarantine, I challenge you to do the same. Lean on your network.

Lastly, please count your blessings. Please be grateful where you can. Try to partake in a 30 day gratitude challenge and watch your mindset change. Those of us with jobs complaining about endless Zoom calls, roughly 3 million Americans are unemployed right now. Those of us complaining about being suck in, at least we have shelter. At least we have our families. At least, we are not in jail.

What are some of your suggestions for maximizing your time during this quarantine? Comment below.

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