This Is Us

I Can’t Talk About Isolation Without Thinking Of the Incarcerated Men I Serve

The inconveniences of social distancing are nothing compared to the inhumanity of mass incarceration

Photos courtesy of the author.

I shouldn’t be isolating in Texas right now. I shouldn’t even be isolating in New York City right now. I should be in a prison. Well — at a prison.

Before the world started burning in a contagious, viral mess, I was scheduled to spend the last two weeks of March teaching at a state penitentiary in Pennsylvania. What should have been two weeks of team building, choreography, and Cracker Barrel (so, so much Cracker Barrel) quickly became… nothing.

This was the right call. My colleagues and I, professional artists traveling from Los Angeles and New York, would have posed a significant risk to the incarcerated men we intended to serve. If contagion was going in any direction, it was us to them. They are, in many ways, already quarantined.

My disappointment to not be working with the group of participants that had already been interviewed, accepted, and cleared to be in our program is massive. I had spent hours working on my lesson plans and choreography, and I know from experience how meaningful this time is. But each day that passes, I’m understanding how this time still relates to them. How it still prepares me to serve them.

For the first time in my life (except maybe the four ill-fated months lived on a tour bus), my movements are restricted. My company is limited. My food is rationed. My connections are strained. My future is plainly uncertain.

Online, I’ve seen my cooped up peers expressing moods that swing by the hour from motivated to despondent, placid to agitated, optimistic to terrified, resolute to defeatist. These are the shades of incarceration I’ve seen in the nearly 300 hours I’ve taught inside prisons. These are the exact seasons of reconciling circumstances I’ve heard articulated from men serving six months to 40-plus years.

When they explain how they adjusted to incarceration, it’s shockingly neutral. They talk about the early days with calmness and clarity. They don’t judge how they felt. They might call their behavior good or bad, but how they felt at the time—it just was. There’s no moralizing over anger or depression. Those feelings came out of something; they were valid then, and they’re valid now.

For the artists and freelancers who feel obligated to either produce or to self-reduce in this time, I want them to hear this wisdom, to respect the maturity of perspective. It arose from the process we are all going through — the process of living life only where we are and knowing the millions of places we are not.

It’s felt acutely when a participant in our program comes 10 minutes late to rehearsal because they were on the phone with a family member celebrating a birthday. Lines were maybe long to use a phone, or too many family members had something to say. It’s a melancholy thing to only be there in the way you can be and not in the way you want — to have the whole family unit accept that this is how it is for now. And one day, cake will be sweeter when it’s shared.

There’s no moralizing over anger or depression. Those feelings came out of something; they were valid then, and they’re valid now.

We too are missing birthday parties, postponing weddings, and mourning from a distance. Those who are locked up have learned to revere what connections they have. There’s no eye-rolling or guilting involved. A phone call is precious. The uniqueness of penmanship is beautiful. If it took time to do, it’s meaningful. More meaningful perhaps because there’s a barrier.

An economic slowdown will undoubtedly have effects everywhere. I find myself heartsick thinking of the family members who will not be able to accept calls from their incarcerated loved ones because the expense is too high. How devastating cutting that phone line will be, and how much I take for granted an unlimited phone plan and Wi-Fi.

There’s an economy inside a facility, too. Not just the one that has inmates working for $0.15–0.45 an hour. (Yes, that was cents.) A popular currency is soups—ramen noodles if you will. Can you clean my bunk? How many soups? Need someone to hem your blues? I got you for three soups.

We’re all getting into shelf-stable cuisine these days as an alternative or supplement to our typical diets. The value of the soup inside a prison though isn’t really that it’s shelf-stable, it’s that it’s edible.

Typically, outside volunteers are able to eat in the staff dining hall or bring in their own lunch, but my first teaching experience wasn’t so cushy. Because of officer constraints, our team was brought meal kits that were identical to the ones brought to the men. These meals usually contained some sort of starch cooked beyond recognition, and some sort of meat sauce of unknown contents. That day, the sauce was a grayish green, and one member of my theater team said, “Don’t eat that — even if you’re hungry — don’t.”

I told him I had a tough stomach and dove in.

I was so wrong. I was so foolish. Our three-hour rehearsal then stretched into what seemed like an eternity of cramps, terror, and interruptions. (And you wanna talk about needing to stock up on toilet paper?!)

Imagine a permanent lifestyle of stockpiling reserve food to have on hand not because there isn’t any around, but because what you’re being offered is high calorie, low nutrient, and might make you sick. Imagine it’s this way for 20 years.

At that same facility, we walked two full cellblocks to begin and end the day on our route to the gym. This was a rare opportunity for me, a plainclothes woman, to pass by rows of cells. They’re six by eight feet. For two adult men. My first thought was “If this was a zoo, we would shut it down for being inhumane.” Humane: It should be the standard treatment for humans. People are not meant to be restricted this severely. If your two-bedroom converted apartment with roommates feels this size, you were not meant to be restricted this severely.

These guys cope as civilly as possible. The main rules: Respect bedtime and wakeup time, don’t watch TV at all hours of the day, give a warning if you’re pooping, and you don’t always have to talk. When you are talking, aim for rapport, be on equal footing. And if none of that works, I’ve heard the classic “fart and pretend to be asleep” model can get one’s point across.

And mostly, be patient.

Everyone, everywhere, is waiting — for jobs to start again, for arms to hug again, for life to move on again, to be out and free again. It’s begun to seem like time is arbitrary. Every day might as well be Tuesday or Saturday or a very lazy Sunday. Your former clients don’t get back to you for a week? Okay, I guess. The parole board postpones your hearing for another six months? Okay, I guess. When that which is out of our control seems to be in suspended animation, there is no choice but patience. Kicking and screaming doesn’t move the Earth around the sun any faster, it just wears you out and scares people off.

There is the urge to contribute. Of having so much to offer and nowhere to offer it. Of knowing the asset you would be to an organization or a family, and being overlooked, or invisible, or judged for whatever experience your past is comprised of.

Every time I have worked in a prison it has been mere tourism. This isolation is only a visit to confinement.

There is a compulsion to learn, to improve yourself. To come out of this knowing you’re better than you went into it. Of having something to show for yourself, in yourself. And every day confronting the inertia of too much meaningless time. Too many attempts were derailed because of external and internal roadblocks. Chaos and noise without and within that never break for clarity of thought or peace of mind.

There is a desire to know the future. To know for sure the hour this will be over. To know the job and community that awaits you. To shut out the gnawing, knowing suspicion that things couldn’t possibly be the same as they were when you left them. Neither the good nor the bad will await you as they were. Their familiarity will be no solace to you then.

The feelings are universal. I’m understanding in a new way what the experience has been for the more than 150 men I’ve worked with, for the 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in the United States. How confinement and alienation have pushed them into despair and defeat, and how much strength it takes to reject those negative, consuming feelings every day. I’m living in the same battle.

But of course, no.

No, I’m not. I’m not at all. Every time I have worked in a prison it has been mere tourism. This isolation is only a visit to confinement.

Being stuck in my parents’ house is not incarceration. Losing my job is not the crippling mark of “felon” on my job applications. Eating frozen vegetables is not inedible meat slop. Roommates are not cellies. Worrying about getting sick is not the constant threat of assault. FaceTime is not going without a visitor for a decade. This temporary isolation is not a sentence so long it is referred to as virtual life, a period so long that you know you will expire before it does.

What I can do is take the breadth of this experience — all of my feelings, big and dramatic as they are, and compress them. Compress their mass and increase their density to the size of a golf ball bore into my gut at maximum potency. I can then take that ball of energetic pain and grow it. Imagine its mass expanding and consuming the inside of my body, pushing out against my skin, constricting to my chest, gripping my throat, beating like a jackhammer behind my eyes. I can wonder what the weight of it is. How it feels to be a woman made of lead.

That’s how I can use this experience. That’s how I can begin to imperfectly imagine incarceration.

I know some will say, “I didn’t break the law. I’m experiencing this unprecedented hardship for no fault of my own, and the people behind bars made choices that put them there.”

Fair. For many, certainly not all, but for many of those incarcerated, decisions were made that they take responsibility for and of which they are now experiencing the consequences.

But ask yourself: Is how you’re living rehabilitative? Feeling disconnected from the people you love, feeling purposeless, feeling like an inconsequential speck in big governmental systems that have a lot to say and no ears to listen, chaos and danger your primary compatriots — does this feel like rehabilitation?

Or after this fractional experience, will you need another kind of rehabilitation — the kind that is full of meaning, community, peace, patient care, and opportunity.

That tells me all I need to know about incarceration in the United States, and what it must become.

To learn more about some of the powerful, rehabilitative working being done inside corrections facilities, check out www.shining-light.com.

Angelica is a NYC based creative. She has performed in the national tours of Broadway musicals, written for ESPN, and teaches theater and dance in prisons.

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