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…