When I went to prison at age 19, my greatest fear was being hurt by other people serving time. So when I passed through the prison gates, I took on the persona of a deadly gangster. I did things that landed me in “the hole” — slang for administrative segregation — over and over.
At Potosi Correctional Center, the Level 5 maximum security prison in Missouri where I’m currently serving life without parole for murder, the hole is typically a 7-by-9 foot cement room. This room has a steel door with a slot for receiving meals and a small window to see outside. Inside there is just a cot, a thin mattress, a toilet and a sink. You can only shower once a week and spend one hour outside each day. Sometimes you can’t receive mail. And while you can yell out to other prisoners, you can’t see them. If you aren’t prepared for these conditions, they can make you crazy.
In early 2022, when I turned 50, I had just spent a year in the hole in another Missouri prison following a riot. Rev. Mary Mitchell, a minister and longtime friend, asked me how I made it. She wanted to share any advice I had with the other prisoners she corresponds with. Now, to reach an even larger audience, I present my top 10 tips on surviving the hole:
Do the time, don’t let the time do you. For me, that meant getting up after breakfast and staying up. I refused to sleep the day away.
Exercise will be one of your most productive activities in the hole. Set goals you can actually see and feel based on how long you think you’ll be in there. For instance, I wanted six-pack abs. I started off doing 500 sit-ups and leg lifts every day and gradually increased that number to 3,000. Now I am a unicorn, the rare 50-year-old with a stomach that looks like a Spartan warrior’s.
Read anything you have access to — the Bible, the Quran, “The Science of Mind” or even the dictionary. The guards — I call them “Demogorgons” — would rather see you driving yourself crazy than reading any type of literature.
Learn new things, even if they’re small. I increased my vocabulary by studying the dictionary. I also taught myself how to write legibly with my left hand. Every morning I would write down a positive affirmation with my right hand and then rewrite it with my left. Simple things like this can produce beautiful benefits.
Stay out of frivolous conversations with other captives. For example, discussions about government politics, street politics and prison politics only lead to arguments. Instead, focus on topics that sharpen others, like spirituality, history, business and legal issues.
Because the Demogorgons often have an agenda to keep you in administrative segregation, they will try different methods to make you angry. Learn to observe but not respond to their antagonism. When a correctional officer jacks you for your recreation or shower time, don’t get mad, act out and end up with 30 more days in the hole. Just do your exercises in your cell and wash up in the sink.
Always leave the cell when the opportunity allows. Go to the shower. Go to rec. Go to medical. Go anywhere you’re allowed because getting out of that cement box destroys the onset of what I call cell anxiety. This form of anxiety occurs when you avoid leaving your cell because you believe the guards are going to do a search and take something you deem valuable. To be sure, the Demogorgons will take things from you. But when you are always leaving, they tend not to enter your cell because you don’t exhibit the fear that most do.
Write letters — to your loved ones, to ministers in your faith tradition, to libraries and organizations that send literature to prisoners. Write to the courts about issues you find unfair. Write to legislators about potential laws. Just write.
File grievances about any legitimate issues. I have filed complaints about live electrical wires hanging out of torn outlets and water coming from the ceiling. I’ve written grievances about how the case managers handled my legal materials while I was in the hole. I’ve also advocated for my right to have a religious text besides The Bible and The Quran. Administrators hate prisoners who file paperwork because it forces them to do something other than torturing you. They may release you more quickly than they would a man who has no complaints about his situation.
Always practice your faith. Day in and day out, I prayed, meditated and took Bible-related correspondence courses. I also practiced martial arts and breathing techniques, and I worked on improving my foresight. For me, faith is the most important survival tool. Faith is what got me through my worst-of-the-worst times in the hole.
The Public Information Office of the Missouri Department of Corrections did not respond to all questions by publication time. The deputy warden at Southeast Correctional Center, where Nichols spent a year in administrative segregation, said the prison could not respond to questions, including those about his filed grievances.
Michael J. Nichols, was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. At age 19 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. Now 50, Nichols is the co-author of “My Search for Ancient Wisdom: A Prisoner’s Journey of Transformation.” He is also the founder of Kiwa Thinking Network, a spiritual organization, and he is working on a new book, “Penitentiary Science.” He is currently being held at Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point, Missouri.