T. M. is in his mid-thirties and has been incarcerated since he was 17, after being tried as an adult. After a fight with another inmate he was sent to the “hole” or the “box,” technically called administrative segregation, what the public knows as solitary confinement. Here he writes to a Dharma friend about his experience of living and trying to practice Dharma in the hole.
Our life is a simple gleam which comes and
is gone as springtime
Offers blossoms to fade in the fall.
Earthly flourish and decline.
O’ Friend, do not fear at all. They are but a drop of dew on the grass of morn!
Long-term segregation throws you into this ocean and there’s no paddle or boat to cling to, such is your luck you can’t swim!
I too desire to evolve and become a human being that is capable of cohabitating with society. Everyday is new for me and each night as I sit in the wee hours, I contemplate that experience: the obstacles that I faced (staff, other prisoners, depression). It’s a daily gauntlet, and all that running breeds anxiety, fear, and paranoia. Replacing them with the Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dharma. You, Venerable Chodron, Venerable Robina, and others. You guys can talk about that essence that I only dreamed about: compassion, virtue, loving kindness. It’s your strengths that feed this change in me, on my mind!
As far as my practices, well I am able to sit and meditate and do prostrations in my cell. I’m still locked in my cell 23 hours a day so there’s no Buddhist service to attend. I’m also subject to be released from “seg” this June. Six months in the hole is a bit much for a fistfight.
My biggest obstacles while practicing are my next-door neighbors. They call me all the time wanting me to spell this word or to talk about the bible and so forth. They’re good guys, they just have no concept of silence unless it’s sleeping. Actually, I believe that my biggest obstacle is my fear of failing; it’s that which hinders me most. There’s always this thought of not being good enough. Do I have the courage to walk away from a past that is so haunting?
Yes I’ve changed; I’ve changed in here! Freedom is another thing that requires more than just words from my mouth and my aspirations to succeed. Even in here, trouble comes in many fashions. The goods and the bads are the same for me in practice. “Wow, I’m really feeling like I want to read or visualize.” Is there a big attachment there, T.? “No, I don’t want to practice today. It’s cold.” Is that a lazy attachment T.? Monks in my sleep, om mani padme hum when I’m awake, T. doesn’t own this body any more. I’m at these crossroads!
Isolation????? Wow where can I begin? The ”box,” also known as the “hole” or “seg,” is the one place that the jailers use to control you. The threat of “You follow my orders or to the box you go!” Control, that’s it! Every convict came to prison for some crime or another. Most guys are victims of a failed system. No jobs; no schools; no hope. We are relegated to these dismal institutions ordered to rehabilitate. Once here though, there’s nothing similar to anything called rehab. Instead, we walked through these doors and found degradation at its highest. We found racism at its core: poor suburban whites dressed in uniforms of gray and black told by the system that it is their duty to guard these deviants. Rulebooks where everybody is good but the language smelled bad. They wrote this book with a disingenuous heart, trying to determine how I walk, how I talk, how I eat, think, and believe! These rules that we must obey challenge the very fiber of my being. There’s no sane reason for asking me to change if you’re only going to place me in a place that contradicts your request of me. For example, Rule number 1 is “No loaning or borrowing.” So you move into a new cell and are still wearing the funk from the county jail. Your cellmate wants to loan you soap and toothpaste and a stamp to write home, but that’s not allowed. These are common items that human beings use, but that staff will either make you beg them for ten times or more, or things that require money to purchase. Most prisoners are broke coming in and need a common courtesy. I know I’ve been there but staff will ticket you if you’re caught loaning or borrowing these items.
They also create conditions that are dangerous by doing this. No cellmate wants to smell another’s funk. Remember we are already challenged by having toilets in the cell, by being in a cell that is 8 feet by 10 feet and is double bunked. With two people in such a small place 23 hours a day, fights, stabbings and rapes can occur.
The rulebook contains rules that are contradictory. They say no smoking in the cells, but they allow you to purchase smoking items and then lock you down for 20 or 23 hours a day. Do you think we are being set up? Smoking is like the number 1 drug in prison. So, guys are going to smoke regardless of that rule of not smoking in the cells. If I’m addicted to cigarettes then I’m bound to catch a lot of tickets.
Staff again… most of them are just a bunch of poor white farmers dealing with a change in employment. These poor souls have never had to deal with a guy like me—a city kid that knows more than the average dirt farmer. Come on, seriously. Imagine a farmer trying to outwit guys who have had to spend their whole lives caught in deception in order to survival. So we clash, and clash hard. The system is mostly comprised of non-solvable alchemy. How do we solve this problem?
Both can conclude that when thoughts clash and one is a prisoner and the other the “system,” well let me introduce you to this 8 x 10 cell known as punitive segregation. You get a brick slab for a bed. This slab comes with a plastic mattress that covers 4 to 6 steel rings that are bolted to the slab to use for restraining unruly prisoners. You then have the lights, which are controlled by the staff. These lights are often used to torture the prisoners. The light is left on late into the night and often in the wee hours of the morning. This light is so bright that once it comes on, you awaken instantly. Then we have sink and toilet—these two together when flushed or run sound like construction companies building New York. Then we have the heat. This cell is made of steel and cinderblock, so the temperature depends on if you’re upstairs or down: downstairs means you’re about 6 feet underground and it’s always freezing cold and damp. If you’re upstairs, welcome to the sweatbox. These are just a few insights into “seg.”
What does living in this situation do to one’s mental stability over long periods of time? When you first get to seg, there’s nothing but anger and your own silence. Maybe you’re washing someone’s blood off your hands. Maybe you’re thanking God that you’re alive. Maybe you’re just crying these silent tears, frustrated that life holds no real meaning. There’s nothing you want to say. All you want to do is go to sleep. Dreams are your only escape. But you’re always awakened by an officer banging on your cell door screaming chow time. That’s when you realize that the fighting never stops. The first 10 or 15 days, you spend in limbo waiting to be found guilty of your offense. There’s no radio or television, no books. There are only bricks to count and the newest form of death to engage in because solitary confinement means you are doing this time alone. But that’s not really true because you can hear the other prisoners yelling, calling each other bitches and whores. You can hear the screams of the guys that are mental patients. Daily, your cell is being invaded by floods of doo-doo water or the banging that is ritual when staff refuses some guys their meals. Then the goon squad gasses those guys and laugh because actually the gas affects all the prisoners to the point of thinking, “Wow, is this my last breath?”
As always you’re found guilty of the offence; innocence is a right that only staff can maintain. So now you’re pissed off because you were fighting to protect yourself. Anger rides you. The noise rides you. The smell rides you. Staff rides you. And last but not least, your sanity rides you. Without your sanity, it would be easy to throw your feces on staff or play with your private parts every time a woman worked your unit. Or even flood or bang or yell or cut my wrists. Sanity. How does it stand the test of time? If I had one wish, I would gather my teachers, my friends’ mothers, and my friends into one room and I would say to you all “That because of you, I am alive. And because of you I am able to gather myself and begin to heal.”
All those long stretches in seg hold a bunch of sad times—times that still to this day give me pause. My own ignorance was adding fuel to the flame, and the scary thing is I may fall victim to my ignorance again. The body is weary. The mind is alive with new ideas. But there’s no satisfaction either. We’re caught up in this struggle called life. My “one step at a time” method keeps me practicing. I’m following the finger (pointing to the moon of enlightenment), but I haven’t been able to let go of that edge that embraces that fight or that challenge by staff. My cell is full of photos from my teachers that are of the most beautiful places or backgrounds. I have some of the best Dharma books to read. I even have a little black and white TV and a tape player. But when the cell doors come open, it’s like a bell in a prizefight. All the egos come out and your life could be the next one to become a target.