My View: What 22 years in prison taught me about self-isolation
Isolating myself is new for me. But I know plenty about isolation. After 22 years in prison I could probably make a living as an isolation consultant. Here's what I've learned.
The first hurdle is acceptance. You need to accept that you are being incarcerated. Or?isolated. Either way, outside forces are in control. It doesn't mean you have to be happy about it. Just accept it. Sometimes that's easier said than done. One cell I landed in still sticks out in my mind.
I had a life. Crime. It was a full-time job. I woke up, had coffee, read the paper and went to work. I lived in a house, had vehicles, a girlfriend and two stepchildren. I even had a dog. Then I was plucked out of the community by force.
This wasn't my first incarceration. But this time something changed. I was used to sacrificing myself. But not others. Should have thought of that, my criminal addict brain said. After sleeping off my criminal hangover, I awoke to the harsh reality of my isolation from my loved ones. This was the moment when clarity became my enemy — the moment I realized that life would never be the same. I stared at the door to my cell, thinking that it would open. But it didn't. Thinking that someone would bail me out or rescue me from this lonely place. But they didn't.
I tried to figure a way out. I noticed a worn-out track in my cell. Evidence that I wasn't the first. I went for a walk in my socks. I followed the trail of tears. It led me to strange places. You're screwed, the voice echoed in my head. I was lost. Thank God for the guard that counted me three times a day.
On turn four, I noticed the paint was a little less worn next to the bunk. A stopping point. I decided to give it a try. I sat down and began accepting the things I could not change.????
The second hurdle is hope. I had to know when the isolation would end. The search for hope. Even people with life sentences find hope. With the COVID-19 sentence of isolation, social distancing and future vaccines just a distant possibility, is there hope for an end in sight?
It doesn't change the fact. We want our lives back.
When I was in my 30s, I faced a life sentence for three robberies. I was transferred to another state to face the charges. Seeing my name in the same line with "life without the possibility of parole" gave a new meaning to the word "perspective."
During transport, the guards handcuffed us, providing no leg shackles. I thought it odd. Stuffed like a sardine into a van, a collection of offenders, including myself, made our way to settle the score. Suddenly, the oddest thing happened. The cuff on my right hand released.
I looked down at the open claw. Game time. Do I escape? Do I put the cuff back on like nothing happened? What if I am found guilty and face the rest of my life in prison? If I do, will I regret it? Do I stay home, in that van, or do I risk it? I think hope put that handcuff back on my wrist that day. I went to court. A miracle happened. I didn't get life. The law landed in my favor that day.
Stay home. Have hope. Otherwise, you too could be risking your life.
The third lesson for thriving in isolation involves creativity — the key to survival.
I went to the hole one day for selling contraband tobacco. Selling anything to another inmate is considered illegal. They called the hole "The Echo Chamber." A row of cells. A four-foot tier. There were no Bibles, no silence, just a few worn out paperbacks and my creativity to figure out the rest. I learned to fish there. Fishing in prison was an art.
Fishing involved making the longest string possible, by any means necessary. I tore threads out of sheets, then fastened an old romance paperback novel on the end of my string for a book/hook. Now comes the art of fishing. I held the string in one hand or between my teeth, grabbed the book/hook with my free hand, squeezed my arm through the bars of my cell up to my shoulder, reared back and cast.
Joe Rockhead was the best fisherman I ever met. One night after dinner, he threw his hook from one end of the tier to the other. Thirty feet. All the other inmate fishermen were trying to intercept his line and pull it into their cells. Then they shoved things inside Joe's paperback hook. Mostly notes full of private communications. But one night, he hauled in a pair of socks, a candy bar, a drawing, too. What a catch!
Most people remember the first fish they caught. I remember the first note I caught. When I think back on it, we should have called it "fly fishing." Cause time sure flew by while we were doing it.
We also call it convict ingenuity. Be creative.
I figured I would share what I learned with you now. That way you can use it. You can reach me after the stay-at-home order lifts if you still need some consulting. Of course, by then, it might be too late.
Harold "Bear" Cubbedge is co-founder and president of Criminals Anonymous Fellowship, an original 12-step recovery fellowship of men, women, youth, survivors and their families who are committed to supporting and living a crime-free lifestyle. www.crimanon.org
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