What 4 Years in Solitary Confinement Taught Me About Surviving Isolation
I turned my prison cell into a space of enlightenment, creativity, and higher learning
People around the world are swarming grocery stores, hustling to buy as much hand sanitizer, water, and toilet paper as they can. One by one, districts across the United States are shuttering school doors, leaving children and parents asking the question, “What are we going to do now?” Major conferences and festivals like SXSW, Coachella, and Something in the Water have been canceled, and many employees have been ordered to work from home.
The feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are palpable both on- and offline. Our collective stress level appears to be rising as bad news unfolds in a digital river of press conferences, news clips, and uninformed blog posts. The reactions are understandable — these are scary times. For many, it’s the first time their lives have been thrown into the chaotic world of uncertainty. It’s also the first time a pandemic of this magnitude has affected the global community since the Spanish flu in 1918.
While reflecting on the countless news articles, news segments, and texts I have received, I found myself in a calm state. Instead of panic and stress, I began to think about what I can do to ensure my eight-year-old son, Sekou, is washing his hands properly and what measures I need to take to adjust to our vastly changing world. The calmness I feel is born out of an experience that forced me to control myself when things around me felt out of control. From October 1999 to March 2004, I spent every waking morning inside a six-by-nine-foot solitary confinement cell.
For years, I witnessed the men around me suffer the mental anguish of being in an environment designed to crush souls. For the first two years, I suffered alongside them. I was anxious, stressed out, and deeply depressed until I discovered the root cause of my state of being: an indeterminate sentence in solitary confinement. I simply didn’t know when or if I was ever going to be released. Not knowing when the torture was going to end nearly drove me to the brink of insanity. Every time an officer or counselor approached my door, my body would tense up and my palms would start sweating. “Is this the day they are going to tell me the nightmare is over?” I would ask myself silently.
When they whisked past my cell, my heart would sink into my stomach and my mind would drift deeper into depression. What I learned in the two years to follow was that I was trying to control something I had no control over, and I suffered as a result. In my third year, I began to journal. I discovered that my thoughts and my actions were the only two things I could control. It was a pivotal moment in my life. I went from being a victim of my circumstances to being a master of my destiny. I stopped worrying about when the prison administration was going to release me and focused my energy on becoming the best version of myself. I realized that I could turn my prison cell into a space of enlightenment, creativity, and higher learning. It wasn’t easy, but with hard work, dedication, and a commitment to come out on the other side of the pain healthy and whole, I was able to do it.
For many people, adjusting to our new reality isn’t going to be easy. We have to make many lifestyle adjustments that are scary and uncertain. Parents like me with school-age children are adjusting to our children being out of school for a few weeks. Many people are uncertain about their financial future due to being out of work or running a small business whose revenue depends on now-quarantined customers. Stocks are plummeting and 401(k) accounts are at risk. Many of us have to care for family members and protect them from contracting this potentially deadly virus.
With so much going on, self- or government-imposed quarantine compounds our stress. As scary as all this may be, I believe there is an upside for all of us. In the middle of every crisis, there are opportunities to make ourselves better in the long run. This is our opportunity to grow spiritually, become more resilient mentally, and physically be of help to others in need.
Below are eight small steps, plus a bonus step, that you can take from my experience in prison and apply to our current reality. Together, I believe we will get through this and come out on the other side better than before.
When I was in solitary confinement, I suffered from the constant banter in my head. “When are they going to let me out? When will this end?” When the voices got too loud, I sought a way to quiet them.
During one of my earlier stints in solitary, I came across a pamphlet on meditation. The word “meditation” was foreign to me, but the idea that a practice could alleviate the pain I was experiencing made it intriguing enough for me to read. The pamphlet was pretty straightforward and offered some breathing exercises to try out. How hard could it be to inhale and exhale? It turned out that breathing with a purpose was a bit more complex than I initially thought. Some exercises were for advanced practitioners, but there were some simple ones that worked out for me.
When I started feeling anxious and the voices became too loud, I would lay on my bunk and focus on my breathing. I would inhale for a count of five and slowly exhale for a count of five. I reminded myself to release all counterproductive thoughts while inhaling the liberating energy of a quiet mind. It was hard in the beginning, but the more I did it, the easier it got to bring my mind to a state of stillness.
You don’t have to focus on mastering it, but I promise you will reduce your anxiety significantly if you give yourself permission to be present with your own breath while freeing your mind of toxic thoughts. Find a quiet moment for 30 minutes or so, and practice slowly breathing in for a count of five and exhaling for a count of five. Give yourself permission to let go of the things you can’t control while embracing the empowering energy of being in control of how you think and feel.
2. Write letters
Writing is and has been one of the most important parts of my journey and healing. When I was in prison, I wrote letters to my family and friends on a regular basis. Writing to others about life in prison helped me get my thoughts out and process what I was experiencing. I often wrote without expecting a response. I just needed to share my experience, and writing was my only way of connecting with people I loved.
I also wrote letters to myself to help me process what was going on inside of me. I still have letters from the time when I wrote to my younger self and to my future self. It’s amazing to look back at those letters and see how much of what I wrote then lined up with where I am today.
Take this time to write letters to yourself and to those you love. Most of us have family members and friends from generations that still appreciate the written word. There is also the pleasant surprise of being able to reflect on your thoughts years from now. Just imagine being able to look back on this moment and read something you wrote to yourself. Hopefully, you will be able to look back at your letters with a sense of pride and a deeper sense of self love.
Be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to not be perfect.
3. Write a book
I wrote my first book while I was in solitary confinement. It was the first time I had completed anything of substance. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined. I didn’t have a laptop, iPad, or smartphone; I had the old-school tools of the trade — a pen and pad. I took the flimsy pen they gave me and rolled it up in prison stationery and wrote a minimum of five pages every day. There were many days when I wrote more, but I made a commitment to at least five pages.
You don’t have to commit to that many pages. Maybe you just want to write a paragraph or sentence. The key is finding what works for you and then holding yourself accountable to doing it every day. Today we have the luxury of technology to make writing easier, so take advantage of this time away from work and society and get those thoughts out. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself permission to not be perfect. The most important thing is getting that story out of your head and onto paper. Before you say, “But Shaka, you’re a writer,” recognize you’re a writer, too. If you have made a social media post expressing your opinion and thoughts, then you too are a writer. You can incorporate your children or other loved ones into the process. It’s a fun and engaging way to connect with others. So write that book and tell the stories that matter to you.
The greatest gift I gave to myself while in solitary confinement was the gift of journaling. I poured my heart and soul into my notepads. I wrote about all the experiences, life choices, and traumas that led me to prison. I was lovingly honest with myself. I talked about all the things I had stuffed deep down inside, and it was the most liberating experience I had, aside from walking out of those prison doors nearly 10 years ago. Journaling created a level of intimacy between who I thought I was and who I actually am. It was like meditation on paper.
When is the last time you had an honest conversation with yourself or processed that one thing that doesn’t seem to go away? Been a while? Well, now is your chance to get reacquainted with your authentic self. One thing about challenging times is they will always reveal to us who we truly are. Journaling will help you see yourself clearly and has the power to help you rediscover your inner magic. Take yourself on a sacred journey of discovering all that you are.
What does the world look like on the other side of this pandemic for you? Who do you want to become?
5. Create a vision board
Late one night, I paced my cell floor, thinking about the life I wanted for myself. With each step I took, my vision of a world beyond bars grew more vivid. I imagined the kind of car I wanted to drive, the food I wanted to eat, the woman I wanted in my life, and the goals for my career. When I was finally released from solitary, I found magazines and cut out the images that matched the vision I had conjured in solitary. I pasted the cut out pages on my bulletin board and reflected on them nightly. I wrote down the goals I wanted to accomplish and spoke them out loud daily. I can say with a great deal of confidence that most of those dreams came true. I wrote down that I wanted to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, and it came true; I wrote down that I wanted to be a New York Times bestselling author, and it manifested.
I now look at my vision board as more of an action board. Once I had a clear vision of what I wanted, I took the steps to make it happen. What does the world look like for you on the other side of this pandemic? Who do you want to become? What do you want to accomplish? What do you want your day-to-day life to look like after we get through these tumultuous times? Find magazines that reflect your vision, and create that board. Then prepare to put actions in place that will allow you to bring those things to life. You can also see it as an opportunity to get free of those old magazines you have been holding onto.
6. Learn a craft
Let’s face it, people underestimate the genius that exists behind bars. As an MIT Media Lab Fellow alumni, I have brushed up against genius on both sides of the fence. I’ve learned that one quality true to all genius is the ability to innovate no matter the circumstances. Whether it’s making fish lines out of sock strings to share information between prison cells or making premium prison wine with fermented orange or grapefruit juice, people in prison are always innovating on ideas we take for granted in the free world.
One of the crafts I learned in solitary is the fine art of making incense out of toilet paper and deodorant. I also learned how to make deodorant, because prison stinks both literally and figuratively, and I did everything I could to counter the terrible smell of prison funk. It’s a smell I will never forget, even though it’s no longer my daily reality. I would roll toilet paper into a long, tight string and then coat the toilet paper with deodorant until it was saturated. I would get a light (no, I’m not telling y’all how!) and light it. The handcrafted incense would burn for hours, blocking out the smell of pepper spray and feces that permeated the air.
Take this time to learn something new and useful. Hopefully you don’t need to make incense. However, there are all kinds of things to make at home, especially with young children. Draw inspiration from cool videos to help you imagine, and learn something new and useful. Learn to knit, sew, draw, or make prison wine. (I am sure there are recipes online!) Whatever you are passionate about, take this time to learn something new about it.
7. Go back to school
When I had my breakthrough in solitary, I decided to live my life differently. Growing up, I was an honor roll and scholarship student, but my life got derailed by things that had nothing to do with me. Once I had that epiphany, I realized I had a love for learning that had been suffocated by my circumstances. In that moment, I decided to go back to “school.” I couldn’t enroll in college courses (or any courses, for that matter) in solitary. Instead, I set up my days in my cell like I was at a university.
I ordered books from the library on a variety of subjects and studied a different one each hour. I studied African history, world history, political science, and even got into philosophy. I learned a lot during that time, and it has served me well. Three years after I got out of prison, I began teaching at the University of Michigan. I helped design the curriculum, and I remember how empowered I felt as an educator. I still teach classes online every now and then, and it’s just as rewarding today as it was the first time I walked onto the U of M campus.
What is something you always wanted to learn about? Take a minute to think about it. There are all kinds of free classes online and different curriculums that can help you become that scholar you once were or always dreamed of being. Whether it’s taking online courses or listening to educational podcasts, now is a great time to go back to school. Google free online courses to find something that intrigues you.
It’s no secret that people often come home from prison in better shape than people in larger society. It’s not because there’s nothing else to do in prison — there are plenty of other things a prisoner could do. The reality is that prison is one of the most stressful and volatile places to be, and exercise is a great stress reducer for people inside.
When I was in solitary, I didn’t have access to the weight room or the track, so I used what I had at my disposal. I took my sheets off my mattress, rolled up the mattress, and then wrapped a sheet around it. I would then slide the other sheet through it and use the mattress for an assortment of exercises. I did curls, shoulder presses, and squats. I would also take my books and put them in a laundry bag to do isolated curls and presses. I did step-ups on the concrete slab that served as a bed frame, and I ran in place.
With gyms now closing their doors, finding things at home to exercise with offers another option to get or stay in shape. In addition to shedding some pounds, it will relieve a lot of stress. It’s also another great way to engage whoever you might be quarantined with.
Bonus: Discover new recipes or remix old ones
It’s hard to come up with new recipes in an environment with limited resources, but when you’re in survival mode, you figure things out. In solitary confinement, I didn’t have access to commissary, so I was limited to whatever they served me through the food slot. There were foods I would have never eaten under normal circumstances, but I found different ways to make those items appetizing enough to get down.
This often required squirreling away different things from various meals. I would save half my peanut butter from breakfast, mix it with a little butter and water, and create a peanut sauce to drizzle over the hard rice and bland chicken they served. I would save jelly from one breakfast and make peanut butter and jelly waffle sandwiches when they served waffles. In general population prison, we used ramen noodles for the bases of every supplemental meal. We mixed summer sausage, pickles, and cheese with our noodles and put them inside flour tortilla shells. Sometimes we used tuna or roast beef from the commissary, or whatever protein we could smuggle back from the chow hall. These supplemental meals were lifesavers, especially when the prison would go on lockdown.
In these days of uncertainty, stock up on ramen noodles, and try out different ways of making them. Grocery stores are overwhelmed, so it’s a great time to learn how to make different things with whatever food you already have. Dig into your cabinets and try different spices and seasonings for foods, experiment with new cooking techniques, and, most importantly, enjoy the process of discovery. I call this one a bonus because cooking stresses some folks out, and I don’t want to add an unnecessary stress during these times.
Serving time in solitary wasn’t easy. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever endured. There were days when the ghost of the past and the uncertainty of the future threatened to crush the little bit of hope I had of ever being free. But I knew if I could get through the pain of those moments, I could come out on the other side. This is what I believe to be true for all of us today.
I can’t promise that any of us will come out of this unscathed. Some of us will lose or have lost loved ones, friends, and colleagues. These are scary and uncertain times; however, I believe the lessons I learned from solitary confinement can help us get through this crisis one moment at a time. Remember: Each moment is all we really have.