07 May 2020

One Bite at a Time

Before COVID-19 I was a regular volunteer at the local penitentiary, what with AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project - Sioux Falls, of which I'm president) and the Lifer's Group (of which myself and my husband are the official volunteer supervisors).  This meant I was down there pretty much every week, and sometimes more than once.  Well, that came to an abrupt end.  No visitors, no volunteers allowed, for the foreseeable future.

Yes, I miss them.  And I've been trying to maintain contact.  I have permission to write to them, as long as the letters are non-personal and revolve around AVP or the Lifer's Group, and I do not put my personal address as the return.  And since I can't get in to get any responses they send to the in-prison chapel mailbox, it's a one-way communication.  Kind of frustrating.  But I keep doing it.

I know many people today feel - and say - that social distancing, and COVID-19 lockdowns are like being in jail.  To which, my simple answer is, no, it isn't.  Not at all.

A typical cell at SCI Phoenix, with room for two inmates. Mr. Cosby has not been given a cellmate yet because of security concerns.Not unless you're spending your social distancing in a 6' x 8' concrete room with one wall that's nothing but bars, and inside the bars is a toilet, and against another wall are bunk beds, and you share this space with another inmate.  Who you may or may not like, but you probably have to live with, because if you refuse to share, that's a violation, and could land you in the SHU, which is an even smaller room, with even less stuff in it.  Not only that, there are guards who make sure you stay there up to 23/7, and enforce a wide variety of rules on behavior and speech that have to be read to be believed.

So, no. Staying at home is not at all like being in jail.

But we can learn a lot from inmates. And the first thing is how to do time.  It seems that to a lot of people, six weeks is way too long to have to be stuck indoors.  What if you had to do a year?  (There's a good chance there will be no effective vaccine for at least that long.)  What if you had to do more than that?  How does a person do a long stretch of time?  Well, one of our best inside facilitators, lifer Mighty Mark, said, "Well, it's like eating an elephant.  You take one bite at a time."

Every inmate has to learn - even if they're in for a short sentence - to NOT think too far ahead.  To NOT focus everything on their exit day (if any).  To NOT fume and fret and demand more than they can have.  To accept, in other words, what their situation is.  And then live, as much as humanly possible (and we are all human and frail) in the moment.  Right now.  This bite.  Chew.  Swallow.  Bite.  Repeat.

The big mistake most people do when they find themselves in confinement is to focus all their attention on:
(1) how horrible their situation is.
(2) how unfair the lawyer / judge / sentencing system is.
(3) how are they going to survive the next ____ months / years?
(4) how much the next ____ months / years is wasted time, time they'll never get back, no matter what, and it's just unbearable.
(5) how everyone has abandoned them.
(6) how alone they are.
(7) how useless / hopeless / tasteless everything is.
And on down the a long, long, long negative list of emotions, facts, realities, that are indeed unmistakable and undeniable.

A lot of them - especially the young men - lash out, towards themselves (there's a lot of cuttings, self-harm, and attempted / successful suicides in prison), towards other inmates (a lot of aggressive posturing, attacks, fighting), and even towards the COs (which never ends well for the inmate).  Some of it - even sometimes the self-harm - is showing off, to themselves and others that they've still got what it takes.  That they're the man, and no one better mess with them.  Rising in the pack, hopefully, to Alpha male.  The angriest - and ironically the most wounded - spend the most time in the SHU (solitary confinement), because not only is isolation the punishment for violence, but it's also where they put the suicidal.  (And those who are contagious.)

But, as the young inmates age, many of them come to realize that it doesn't work.  That sinking into violence or despair, aggression or depression, does nothing but make the time go longer and longer and longer...  And they realize (especially the lifers) that they have to make a life, a whole life, where they are.
Including friends.
Including hobbies.
Including goals.
Including education, perhaps even a career.
Including happiness.
BTW, a rip-roarer of book is Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.  Meet Edmund Dantes, sailor, who is falsely accused of treason and imprisoned for life - in solitary confinement - in the Château d'If (which still exists - see photo on the right).  After 8 years of solitary, he's suicidal, but then the Abbé Faria - digging his way out, a poor sense of direction - ends up at Edmund's cell.  Over the next 8 years, Faria teaches Edmund everything - language, culture, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, and science - so well that, after Faria dies and Edmund escapes (read how yourself), Edmund can pass easily as a Count, welcomed everywhere and anywhere.  This is one of the great swashbuckler thrillers, especially as the Count ruthlessly, tirelessly pursues his revenge - but the opening chapters are also a master class in how to survive doing serious time.  And how important education can be.

Another master class is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, an account of his years in the camps and how people survive horror beyond imagination.  He was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the  Holocaust - barely.  (See the Wikipedia summary HERE or, better yet, read it yourself.  I've read it more than once, and gained something new every time.)
"The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."
Remember, this is from a man who survived four - yes FOUR - concentration camps.

And there's a story about Viktor Frankl in another book called The Monks of New Skete:  In the Spirit of Happiness.
We had a friend who was in a Nazi concentration camp in the Second World War, a dog breeder, and he was digging in the trenches with the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and Victor Frankl told him:  "This is where you've got to find your happiness - right here in this trench, in this camp." ...  For this is where we're supposed to find our happiness - where we are now, wherever that might happen to be, in all that we do, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  To experience happiness is to experience freedom.  No matter what may happen in life, nothing will be able to touch true happiness. ...  So we have come to understand that happiness is not only in our power to attain, it is our duty to attain.  - The Monks of New Skete, pp. 312-313
A handy list to help:

And a wonderful video of how they do it in prison, Path of Freedom, with Fleet Maull, a former inmate:

    One bite at a time.
    One beat at a time.
    One breath at a time.
    And repeat…

    And now for some blatant self promotion:  My latest story "Brother's Keeper", set in Laskin, is in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I share space with many of my fellow SleuthSayers - Robert Lopresti, Elizabeth Zelvin, Michael Bracken, Mark Thielman, Janice Law, and many other fine writers.



    1. Good, informative article. Like the isolation well being list.

    2. Especially timely and well done with good lessons in resilience.

      I'm looking forward to your story- my AHMM hasn't yet arrived.

    3. Janice, my AHMM hasn't arrived yet, either - but all my magazines are running late right now.
      Thanks, O'Neil. I figure every little thing helps.

    4. What a great post with excellent advise from those who know how to handle isolation. This is something we all need to learn, the earlier, the better. Many who live long enough end up in isolation with failing health, hearing, and sight, and some others are wrongly accused, convicted, and sent to prison. Then here are the concentration camps. Thanks for writing this, Eve.

    5. Eve, it's good that someone is working with prisoners towards rehabbing them (when the prison is open).

      While working undercover, I ran into too many cons who had relapsed into their old ways. For some, the anger just stays with them, whether they are angry with themselves or with others. One guy in particular, I will never forget. He'd been down twice for homicide and was out again when he brought me two kilos of coke. His total record got him put in Super Max. I ran into him years later after he was on his way to report to his federal parole officer for his first meeting. I cautioned him to change his life and avoid his old associates, and he agreed and sounded sincere, but the pattern was already set. When he walked off, I told the guys I was with that Charlie wouldn't make two months on the street. Thirty days later, he was arrested and revoked for choking someone. I always liked Charley, but then he wasn't trying to kill me (that I knew of). Too bad somebody didn't work with Charley when he was in the first time. We already have enough violence and crime on the street. We don't need more.

      Keep up the good work, when you can.

    6. Thanks, Jan - I was thinking that very thing, that sooner or later, almost all of us end up in isolation in a nursing home or hospital, or via disability, or incarceration.
      R.T. - I totally agree. We need to work with them as soon as we can. And even then, most don't get it. Especially teenage meth heads. Someone asked me if I'd discovered any bias towards people in myself, and I said, "yes, I'm biased against teenage meth heads." You can't get through to them at all. And there are a lot of old cons who never get over their anger. But the lifers - given enough time, they learn how to do time. And build a life that's totally different from their old one.

    7. Eve, a beautiful column, and very timely as we are being teased with opening up. Thank you.

    8. Interesting column, Eve, and great insights about something few of us know much about.

      Congrats on the AHMM story!--Looking forward to reading it.

    9. Congrats on your new story, Eve. And your mention of The Count of Monte Cristo reminded me of this great scene from The Shawshank Redemption. Enjoy!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9p9Yr1U2KA

    10. Oh, thank you for posting, Eve! 30+ years ago I had a nowhere job in a mall and got to know some of the work-release inmates pretty well and heard a lot about being "behind the walls." (I still keep in touch with one of those guys; he's out in Arizona with a family now---we were about the same age!) Thanks for your work inside, Eve, I am sure it is appreciated!

    11. You're ever more amazing, Eve. The rest of us probably can't fathom the good you and your husband accomplish.

      And the advice… I have little problem being alone, but I'm claustrophobic as hell, one of the reasons I find it difficult to tolerate cities. I recognize the wisdom of those who've lived through it.

      And I agree… The Count of Monte Cristo is an excellent story with quite a lot of history behind the adventure.

    12. Thank you, Unknown, John, Barb (Yeah, the Shawshank Redemption is great!), Jeff, and Leigh.
      I don't have much problem being alone, but I grew up an only child, and I'm used to it.
      The Count of Monte Cristo is on my re-reading pile, tucked under Colette's "My Apprenticeships"

    13. Great post. Perspective is everything. I also think it's important to shift our perspective from *stay at home* to *safe at home*.

      PS- LOOOOOOOVED The Count of Monte Cristo. May need to reread it from our new COVID experience.

    14. Came to this a day late, but SO glad I read it. Thanks Eve. I also love that list. I wish we could get out to find pets and plants that need our nurturing. That will come in the months ahead, I hope.


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