Meditations on life in prison under COVID-19

Pre-coronavirus, men prayed together during National Crime Victims Rights Week | Claudia Meléndez Salinas

VOICES FROM INSIDE |

UNDER THE SHELTERING SKY |

This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at admin@vomb.org.

By Johnny Angel Martinez

I’m pretty sure many people have no idea what the actual day-to-day life of an incarcerated person is like. Some people’s reference may be filtered through an incarcerated loved one, or, worse, the exaggerated stories portrayed in television and movies.

But in reality, most of us in the California Department of Corrections system don’t just sit around, and even more do not nefariously plot how to carry out the Next Big Score in hopes it will solve all our problems. Yes, that element does exist. Fortunately, they are in the minority, at least here at the Correctional Training Facility (also known as Soledad Prison).

No, most of us here are thinking about how we will contribute to society, what steps we need to take to ensure success and what we can do now to help those plans. Then we have our “firsts,” the things we dream of doing whenever we get out: meals, places to visit, and of course, how to get to the parole office.

We think of our families. When there is conflict in the yard, I’ve often heard men here say, “I need to walk away; my children are back in my life,” or, “This is the first time my mother told me she was proud of me.”

Before COVID-19 shut our programs down, many of us worked as drug and alcohol counselors (like myself); dog handlers who use bond-based methods to help veterans and first responders with PTSD receive a helpful canine companion; educational clerks; tutors; and a myriad of other jobs that help sustain our community here on the inside. Others were in educational programs, including English as a Second Language, GED classes, college courses and vocational training.

Before COVID-19, many of us didn’t return to our cells to relax after work or school. We shuffled off to self-help groups to dig into issues ranging from victims’ awareness, domestic violence, parenting, nonviolence, restorative justice and more groups that we ourselves facilitate.

It was usually about 9 p.m. when we got back to our cells, which I have come to aptly label as a restroom. Not because you get to rest here — it is a literal restroom and quasi-living-room-dining-room-slash-bedroom. Well, you get the picture. If not, go to your own restroom and imagine living there. Except you can’t have the full space, because, of course, you have a cellmate.

Why do I say this? It isn’t to get you to feel sorry for us, or for me. I made the decisions that led me to this. I don’t feel sorry for myself — I am solely responsible for my choices. And it is that very understanding and mindset that allows me and others like me to effectively cope with the stressors of living in a restroom. We know why we’re here, which, in its own way, makes us more resilient.

Shelter in place

In prison, we call what’s happening now “modified program” or “lockdown,” depending on the level of restrictions. I knew the COVID-19 pandemic was serious the day CDCR suspended all visits with our loved ones. That was March 11. Soon after, society was put on “modified program” and so were we.

Yet for me, it was hard at first to make the connection to the reality of life outside these walls. The world I once knew passed by almost a decade ago. So it took a while for the outside tragedy to sink in.

We too had our lives suspended. No work, no school, self-help groups or socializing. Red X’s are all over the prison, marking boundaries for social distancing. Half our phones are covered so only every other one can be used. Waiting outside for three hours to try to call home — and hope someone answers— has become the norm on certain days when calls are free.

What was already a frustrating experience — well, it didn’t get any better. With signs posted everywhere reminding us to wash our hands for 20 seconds and above all, to social distance, we prisoners ask ourselves, “Why do we have to social distance? We aren’t the ones bringing the coronavirus inside here.”

Yet we comply. Not only because it is the safe and logical thing to do, but because it’s pro-social behavior.

I have a TV, but I watch very little news. It’s quite depressing and mind-numbing. But one day I decided to watch to get some insight. Death! People were dying all over! As I watched I grew sadder. I felt it in my chest. My throat constricted, and my eyes watered as I watched the suffering. Above all, I felt helpless.

I looked out my window and saw no traffic on Highway 101.

In my past, I did not do well with feelings of helplessness. I found ways to suppress or ignore them, or I’d try to push them out with drugs or violence.

Seeing the empty highway, I asked myself: Why do I feel so helpless? Feel your feelings, I replied. What’s going on?

Okay, first of all, I’m stuck in a viral tinder-box, a cruise ship indeterminately docked in a prison yard. (Oddly enough, the housing units at CTF are long and narrow, three stories high, and they look like the inside of a ship.)

But what’s going on at a deeper level?

I’m going to say the obvious and it’s a fact that sickens me. I’m a hole in the ship of society, siphoning away resources that could be better allocated, especially in times like these.

Sure, I’m creating change in here. I’ve changed my life and I contribute. I could argue that I should have been home already but am instead waiting for the wheels of our judicial system to release me under a year-and-a-half-old law, SB 1437. The courts have moved more slowly than anyone imagined and I am still in prison, five years past the maximum sentence the law now says I should receive.

But the fact remains that I am a drain on the system and it stings me to my very core.

I am costing the state an unknown amount of personal protective equipment. Families are struggling to eat and I am fed. I don’t have a mortgage, rent, credit card payments, bills or mouths to feed. All my basic needs are met. I feel like a body taking up space. I want to help.

The thing about prison is that — especially now — you have time to think, to really reflect if you choose to. I may very well die in here if COVID-19 makes it inside these walls. It’s sobering to think how many bullets passed me growing up in East Salinas, yet this is how I might go.

Still, I’m at peace. I strive to be a loving, compassionate, kind, thoughtful, giving and responsible being. It has taken a lot of work. It has taken a lot of support, from judges, my former prosecutor, friends, family, my wife, fellow men in prison, and yes, from the department of corrections and the taxpayers.

I turn it around in my mind. The great citizens of our state have made an investment, essentially saying, “We believe you can reach into your depths and extract that person we all need and can depend on as a society. You are worth those tax dollars.” This is a debt to society that today I take very seriously and it’s moments like the one we’re facing now that bring that debt to the forefront of my mind and heart. I yearn for the day I can return to society and do something to help.

Then it comes to me: I can write about it. Connect with society through words. I am not helpless after all. Maybe I can bring our separate worlds together. Maybe I can help.

Finding hope

In these days of pandemic, I rise very early and greet the day with a positive mindset. I tell myself good morning and that it’s a chance to create, learn and experience life. I don’t focus on the fact that I’m confined to a cell. I don’t fixate on things I can’t change. I simply cannot afford it.

I practice deep breathing through my nostrils. After my morning ritual of washing up and making my bed, I open my window and breathe the fresh, crisp air. I listen to the birds. I stare at the beautiful Santa Lucia mountains or the swaying eucalyptus trees. If it’s still dark, I look at the stars.

I sit and enjoy the moment. I read as I drink my coffee. I escape to Mexico as I dive into its history, or read about philosophy, astronomy, world religions, restorative justice, genealogy.

I clean the cell and thoroughly sterilize it. It’s therapeutic and connects me to my childhood, as cleanliness is a value taught by my family. I stare at the only picture I have of my son and daughter, on her 16th birthday. They motivate me to be a better person. My daughter’s smile illuminates my day. My son’s kind eyes bring peace to my heart.

I begin to stretch, exercise and do Siddha yoga. Lastly, I meditate in a half-lotus. I shower, or on days I don’t get to shower, I “bird bath,” which means I use the sink and a cup. It’s about an hour-long process, and messy. Concrete floors come in handy for this.

Under our current modified program, I can’t go to work, so I listen to music or paint. I sew masks. I eat, talk to my cellmate, stretch, look out the window. I spend hours reading.

When I get overwhelmed or am having a bad day under the weight of loneliness, sadness or fear, I turn on the jazz or reggae and my spirits lift. I think about goals, dreams and plans. I think about my children, wife, family and friends.

I find hope in humanity. I ease myself into safe, healthy thoughts. I use an “attitude of gratitude” and think how fortunate I am to be alive. I think of the potential this moment brings to change the course of my life. Of our lives.

I resolve to make the best of these times because that is truly the only thing I have any control over.

It is my last great freedom. The freedom to choose.

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NOTE: You can track COVID-19 cases in California prisons here.

Johnny Angel Martinez

About Johnny Angel Martinez

Johnny Angel Martinez is a certified drug and alcohol counselor, writer and practitioner of nonviolence and restorative justice. He can be reached at #F28640, CTF-North WB, PO Box 705, Soledad CA 93960.