The Lockdown Continues : Lessons From Behind the Wall

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.

In prison, when the place comes off lockdown, it’s not unusual to gradually release small segments of the population back to the yard. It serves as a litmus test on what you can expect when more convicts come back to the mainline and “mingle.” If a small disturbance kicks up during one of these small releases, It serves as a caution to prison folks that it’s too soon for a widespread unlock.

The public health agencies are operating on the same principle, a smattering of businesses have received approval to open at partial capacity and the COVID watchers are ready to slam it shut at the first raspy cough.

To help avoid a return to a deep-segregation cell, here’s advice from convicts to survive a long term lockdown:

Do Your Own Number: Convicts have been through the lockdown and unlock game so many times, that they know the rhythm of the changes. A dust-up between rival prison gang factions has rules, and if you know the rules–you survive. Don’t follow the rules, then you may earn a trip to the prison infirmary. Behind the walls, you mind your own business and you keep to yourself. It’s often called “doing your own number,” meaning don’t take on anyone else’s problems, or you’ll end up doing more time because of it.

That translates to keeping your COVID to yourself. Wear a mask. Don’t take on anyone else’s infection, or you’ll be the one in quarantine.

Mask Up

Don’t Snitch: A cardinal rule in the prison world is you don’t snitch on your fellow cons. A stand-up convict wouldn’t tell an officer that Johnny-Two Knives has a shank hidden in his cell if Johnny was part of your gang. Giving up Johnny that way would be a sure way to get that shank used on you. But, here’s where the Convict Code gets a little fuzzy. If Johnny is a member of an opposing gang, then it might not be considered snitching if you let it leak that the weapon is hidden in his cell. You might owe Johnny a gambling debt that you can’t repay, so that shank might be meant for you. It might be an indirect nugget dropped in a note on an officer’s desk. “Hey, Officer…you might want to check the white inmates on the third tier for weapons under their mattress. The convict didn’t really rat out Johnny, but the outcome is the same.

In the public sector, it’s not really snitching if you report a restaurant for non-compliance. Their refusal to wear masks, or limit occupancy, poses a threat to everyone on the tier. The same applies to public health when they call you after a possible COVID exposure–you need to rat out who you’ve been in contact with. It’s not really snitching, if that COIVD weapon, hidden under Johnny’s mattress, might be coming for you.

Communication with the Outside World: The longer a lockdown lasts, the more important communication with the outside becomes. When you’re locked away in your cell, reality takes on a new dimension. Your entire world reflects off of the concrete walls that press down on you and if you don’t have a connection beyond those barriers, the isolation can take a toll. Convicts with the experience of riding out long lockdowns read, make phone calls to family when their allotted time comes around, and they focus on the next out of cell activity, like yard time, or a doctor’s appointment.

In the outside COVID world, we must find avenues of communication that keep us connected with the world outside our doors. Since, the original lockdown in March, I’ve read more books than I did all last year. Some report that they are so caught up in the separation of the lockdown, that they have trouble reading. A convtict would tell you to power through–you can’t do time, focusing on the negative. I’ve connected with the outside world through Zoom, CrowdCast, podcasts, and phone. If you’re lucky enough to earn a furlough from your COVID prison, take the time to appreciate it. Roll around in it and recognize what you’ve been missing. Who knew a trip to curbside pickup at a local bookstore could be so rewarding?

Plan Your Escape: Convicts always have an eye on the door, either how to earn a legitimate release, or uncover the ways to beat the system and escape. The lockdowns end–they always do. Seasoned convicts ride it out and at the first unlock, prepare for the inevitable rollback. Stock up on canteen supplies to ride out the next lockdown. When longterm inmates can’t handle the lockdown, they find a way to work around the system. Some might fake a medical illness to get out of their cell or manipulate a new housing assignment. A few might plan to Shawshank their way out and escape like Andy Dufrane to a warm deserted beach.

That’s what we need to work toward in the outside world. We need to prepare for the next power outage, hurricane, tornado, wildfire, and stock up on supplies (not make a run on toilet paper) because we live in a world where that it’s going to happen–it’s only a matter of time.  Folks have gotten creative in beating the system to get around the COVID restrictions. Shopping and restaurants closed in your area? Some quarantiners feel driving to a neighboring county to take advantage of their less restrictive public health rules is an escape. It’s not what the public health officials had in mind, but if that gets you by, good on you. Just remember while your out there Shawshanking, someone is out there ready to snitch on you for not doing your own number.


Be safe out there.

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