Surviving the Virus Lockdown: Lessons From Behind the Wall

So, here we are, a month into our shelter-at-home exile from society. The virus, or more accurately, the response to it, has been difficult for some folks to wrap their heads around. One particular group seems to have coped exceptionally well during this isolation and quarantine — the convict.

hands on cell bars

Shelter-in-place orders and doing time have a few common elements and some have suggested that being cooped up in your home is like being in jail–I’m looking at you Ellen DeGeneres. Granted, it’s all what you’re accustomed to and not all jail cells are created equal. I’d rather do time at Pelican Bay SHU than Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. Ellen may have a more “Club Fed” kind of lockdown experience, I’m guessing.

Those who have spent any time in prison, behind cell doors, or keying them shut, have developed a certain skill level when it comes to surviving a lockdowns in prison, and as it turns out these key survival skills translate well within our own home.

Planning: Every prison lockdown I’ve ever experienced was caused by an event, a stabbing, a riot, a staff assault, and someone knew it was coming. Experienced prison folk know to look for a run on canteen purchases before the ‘big event.” Convicts want to make sure they have all the top ramen, peanut butter, and Doritos to ride out an extended lockdown in relative comfort.

When the COIVID-19 stay-at-home orders went out, we saw a run on groceries, gas, cleaning products and, yes that golden commodity–toilet paper. Because that’s what you need for a respiratory virus.

It’s really about control. Convicts want to feel some level of control over their cell-bound existence within that 8 by 10 box. A few creature comforts give them that sense of self-direction. Apparently, toilet paper has become the security blanket for the stay at home crowd.

canteen SQ

Once you find yourself in a lockdown, there are a few strategies that help make that lockdown just fly by. These convict approved methods include:

Communication: Staying in touch with the outside world, and your fellow detainees helps maintain a sense of connectedness in the midst of isolation. In a lockdown, communication becomes a bit more difficult, but not impossible. Leather-throated calls down the cellblock to check on the welfare of a gang cohort, or to express ill-will toward the gang faction that caused the lockdown are common expressions of communication inside. Paper “kites” are tossed down the tier, cell to cell, guided by string “fish lines” to pass on that communication that shouldn’t be shouted out for all to hear.

Prison communication methods may have the upper hand here. A private note from Johnny Two Knives is better than a Zoom conference call.

kite in prison

Physical Activity: During a lockdown, convicts get very creative with their in cell exercise routines. Some gangs will chant an exercise cadence that their members are expected to perform. Sit ups, pull ups, bar dips, and even water filled trash bags as makeshift dumbbells are common physical distractions from the day to day boredom of a long lockdown. Running in place doesn’t get you very far in a small concrete box. A downside is that working up a sweat when you don’t have access to a shower makes for a smelly cellmate.

We, on the other hand, do have access to outside spaces with proper social distancing.  And showers… Please use them.

cell excercise

Mental Distraction: During lockdowns some gangs will enforce “education” programs on their members. Northern Mexican street gangs will require their soldiers to memorize their rules and constitution. The Black Guerrilla Family teaches Swahili phrases and modified African stories. The Aryan Brotherhood instills snippets of Germanic language and Nordic folktales into their members, as if the Vikings ever invaded Modesto, California. Not too different than some public school distance learning programs we’re seeing during the virus response.

A shared past-time between the public and our incarcerated brethren is reading. We use the shelter-in-place as a time to catch up on that pile of books we’ve been meaning to read. The convict will wait their turn to thumb through a limp, worn, contraband issue of Easy Rider Magazine.

banned books in prison

Self-Care: Some prison factions will shave their heads to prepare for a lockdown. Then, to find an excuse to get out of their cell, they will claim an illness to get a trip to the prison infirmary. Visiting is usually suspended during a lockdown, except for legal visits from an attorney, leading to a sudden increase in “urgent” legal issues sprouting up during a lockdown. Rules violations require a hearing, so another escort from the cell to the hearing officer. All these excursions require some creative planning by a convict.

We, on the other hand have yoga videos on YouTube, endless Netflix binges and any excuse we can dream up to make our trip out of the house somewhat seem essential. Driving three counties away to walk on a crowded hiking trail–not essential. Picking up tacos–essential.

escort in prison

Dwelling on the Future: Something that shut-ins and convicts have in common is looking forward to when the lockdown ends. “The first thing I’m gonna do is ___.” The underlying sentiment is universal, to get back to what was once normal, to make up for lost time, and recapture missed experiences. We’ll surface from our bunkers after the shelter-in-place orders are lifted and gather in numbers, celebrate, and try to move on. Many of us will pretend it never happened and blissfully ignore the signs of another looming outbreak.

Convicts, though, they’ll hit up the canteen line and stock up for the next lockdown. They know another one will come. Maybe we should be more like convicts when it comes to preparing for and surviving a long-term lockdown.

midnight express

Stay safe out there…

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  1. I never thought a day would come when I would see similarities between aspects of prison life and my own. It’s a little scary

    1. We are coming up for release soon, aren’t we?

      1. From your mouth to God’s ear.

  2. […] Extended lockdowns like the six-month slog we’re going through can take a toll if you’re not prepared. As we talked about in March when the COVID lockdown orders were popping off across the country, a little prison wisdom can help ease the pain of long-term confinement. […]

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