An Essay By Pete Russell, Texas
Overcoming Solitary Confinement
Ten steps for maintaining peace of mind
There are many ways to destroy a person, but the simplest and most devastating might be solitary confinement.
Truly, solitary confinement is inhumane. It has become a ‘hot button’ issue and more and more people are beginning to speak out and organise around the issue. So, hats off to the activist community for keeping the issue front and centre, and let’s not forget about Anthony Graves, Texas Death Row inmate, who was exonerated in 2010 of capital murder. He is not only a survivor of solitary confinement, he is a fighter and advocate for a fair and better system.
Now, if you find yourself in solitary confinement the first thing you must do is remain calm. Don’t panic! Yes, you have been placed on an emotional roller coaster and you will experience psychological ups and downs, from yourself and others. Even the guards are affected by solitary confinement. However, the most important thing to protect is your mind. The mind is like a baby, very impressionable and easy to shape. The environment you are in is designed to break you down, starting with the mind. I cannot stress this enough. Solitary confinement is no different from Guantanamo Bay when we take into consideration the torturous an psychological effects it has on inmates. When we think about solitary confinement, we think about inmates locked away in small cells, twenty-three hours a day, isolated from other people. Some inmates hit rock bottom and slide into a mental abyss of toxic and twisted thoughts, drowning in a sea of hopelessness, whilst some inmates are heavily medicated, slowly drifting away in a delusional world.
For fifteen years I have been housed in solitary confinement on Texas Death Row and I have witnessed first-hand a lot of mental illness among inmates in the form of self-mutilation, suicide, dropping of appeals, floods, fires, throwing faeces and urine, assault on inmates by guards, screaming, hollering and grown men crying for no reason. And let’s not forget about ‘Squirrel’ who plucked his eyeball out and ate it. This is the American horror story that takes place here on Texas Death Row. Now, despite the doom and gloom there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel. I do not claim to have all the answers to the problems, but I do have some solutions that will help.
1. One of the ways I maintain peace of mind is through meditation. I always say that meditation is the only medicine for the mind. Therefore, I highly suggest that you order the ‘free’ meditation course on Siddha Yoga. I’ve practiced Siddha Yoga for over a decade and believe me, it works! Write to Syda Foundation, Prison Project, PO Box 9910, Emeryvill, California 94662.
2. Another way to maintain peace of mind is to stay in contact with your family, especially if you have kids. The thought of knowing that your family and kids are safe and sound will allow you to maintain a peace of mind. So it’s very important that you write to them and keep the lines of communication open.
3. There are many people incarcerated who don’t have any family at all, and so reaching out to pen pal organisations is a good way to maintain peace of mind. Some organisations like Human Writes cater for inmates on Death Row, whilst other groups like Inside Outside and Inmate Resource help inmates in general population. There is nothing like meeting people and making friends.
4. The more you read the more you learn. Reading a good book will help you to maintain peace of mind. You can check out books from the prison library or your penfriends can send you some, including magazines, if allowed.
5. Exercising is a good way to maintain peace of mind. Also there are several books on Hatha Yoga that will help you with the basic movements, like the sun salutation. The general idea is to keep the body moving - jumping jacks, push ups, sit ups etc. These exercises will also help you overcome stress and depression.
6. Painting, arts and crafts. Some prisons allow inmates to paint and create other crafts inside their cells. Here on Texas Death Row they sell water paint, coloured pencils and illustration boards, so inmates can draw, paint and create nice gifts for their friends and families. This is a good way to maintain peace of mind and tap into your creative side.
7. Maintain peace of mind by furthering your education by signing up for a college course or getting your GED. You can write to the prison school principal and ask what courses are available to inmates. There are some colleges in the free-world that allow inmates to take their courses and receive credit for them.
8. Writing poetry is a good way to maintain peace of mind. Every day you should write a poem, or start on one.
9. Maintain peace of mind by reflecting on your situation. Start a journal about your day-to-day activities. What did you eat for breakfast? What book did you read? Did you like it? Write a memoir about your life.
10. You are in solitary confinement in a small cell and you know some people are catching hell. However, to maintain a peace of mind, and to free yourself from any other negative energies, it is best to first forgive yourself and second forgive others who have wronged you in the past and present. When you do that, the healing begins from the inside and you become a walking, talking source of positive energy and inspiration.
Pete Russell, Texas (August 2016)