A few months after I got out of prison, a car pulled up outside my apartment. I panicked. It was white, with a dark stripe down the side: a patrol car. Surely, I thought, this was it.
The police were here to arrest me. They’d call my parole officer, and he’d send me back to prison, to a world of handcuffs and isolation, a place of barren rooms and boredom.
Never mind that this did not make any sense. I’d scrupulously followed all the rules of parole, from curfew to travel restrictions. I had no traffic tickets or warrants. But after having spent close to two years behind bars on a drug charge, I’d learned to stop discounting worst-case scenarios just because they seemed impossible.
I hid in the bathtub.
Now, nearly eight years later, sheltering in place is what terrifies me. When I heard about the lockdowns in China, I winced. When I heard about them in Italy, I blanched. When I heard about it in the United States, I panicked. My heart raced, and gray spots of anxiety clouded my vision.
There are millions of people across the country like me, people with felony convictions who served time. We are the products of a system in which so much does not make sense. You could go to solitary for having too many stamps. Or have your release date postponed because of an extra pair of earrings.
We would do anything to avoid going back.
Some of us think prison prepared us for the pandemic. But lots of us are trying not to freak out.
For those of us in the latter group, our fears about sheltering in place aren’t rational. I know that. Even if you’re alone, locking down for a pandemic isn’t the same as solitary confinement. It’s not jail, it’s not prison—it’s not even close. There are phones and clocks and friendly voices. There are colors and music and families and dogs and windows that open. And unlike solitary confinement, shelter-in-place serves a clear purpose for the public good.
But the uncertainty, shifting rules and social disruption of COVID-19 “is a throwback to the total lack of control you feel in prison,” Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California, told me. He has studied the effects of prison conditions and solitary confinement on people behind bars.
Self-isolation is “a form of retraumatization,” he said. “People feel hemmed in, and it reminds them all too gruesomely of their time in solitary confinement.”
I had a few brief spells in solitary, each time becoming a bit unglued. Of course, I understand that it’s my fault I ended up in prison in the first place. And I understand that right now this enforced isolation is necessary to save people’s lives.
But in the moment, that doesn’t always make it easier. I find myself doing all the things I did in prison, like rocking back and forth when I go to sleep. Once again, I’m stocking up on toilet paper, instant coffee and canned peas—the commissary items I relied on to make it through. I’m running. I’m marking off days on a calendar. I’m doing crossword puzzles, looking for a place in the world where I know the answers.
Last week, I texted my friend Stacy, whom I met in late 2011 in a prison in upstate New York. Stacy did a lot of time in solitary for nonviolent rules violations.
The thought of lockdown incites panic in her. For the first time ever, she told me, she’d been prescribed Valium to handle the constant anxiety as she isolated herself inside her New York City apartment—“that caged animal feeling.”
But some people who have been inside think that prison trained us perfectly for long-term lockdown, even unrest and chaos. As little as incarceration did to prepare us to thrive in the free world when the sun shines, it did much to prepare us to survive when the world feels like it’s falling apart.
“Think about the dynamics of prison,” my friend Paradise told me, as we messaged late at night. “It forces you to constantly conserve. Be aware. Ration.
“Also creativity,” she said. “It makes you use what you have to get to what you need.”
She’s not wrong. Behind bars, we learned how to squirrel away necessities we couldn’t get enough of, devising homemade tampons and concocting makeup out of FireBall candies and lip gloss. We figured out how to cook jailhouse Mexican food out of ramen and Doritos, and how to make tattoo guns out of gel pens, ashes and sharpened metal.
We also learned how to survive in lockdown and how to keep getting up every day, even when we’d lost so many things that gave our lives meaning.
The habits I developed to make it through prison aren’t always helping now. There is a limit to how much I can run or how many crossword puzzles I can do. And when I scratch out days on the calendar, it doesn’t mean anything: There’s no end date to count down to.
But I remind myself: I got it wrong when that car pulled up in front of my house at the tail end of 2012. When an hour passed and there was still no knock at the door, I crawled out of the tub. I saw my glasses on the table, and I realized: I’d been walking around blind. I slipped them on and crept to the sliding glass doors to peer out.
The vehicle in the driveway was not a cop car; it was just a beat-up Honda Civic with a giant rust stripe.
This pandemic will be bad; it’s likely there will be many days of isolation ahead, people I love will die, and the world will never be the same. But the only possibilities are not an apocalypse or a rusty Honda. There are others in between; I need to put on my glasses and figure them out. Millions of former prisoners are having to do the same.