America is Isolated. I’ve Been There Before. Lessons I’ve Learned from San Quentin

By Kenyatta Leal | April 10, 2020
USA Today

When I walked out of San Quentin prison in 2013, I left behind the despair, violence and uncertainty rampant within its walls. Like a suit of armor I had to wear for decades, I gladly shed the protective gear of survival skills that were no longer applicable on this side of the wall. I never imagined that any of those skills would prove useful to my life today.

However, when the coronavirus hit the United States, and shelter-in-place orders were put into effect, it reaffirmed the fact that everything we experience in life is meant to teach us something useful. And my incarceration is no exception.

I spent more than 20 years in the California prison system in one of two ways: in “normal program” or some form of “lockdown.” During normal program, I had privileges: I could exercise in the yard, work on school assignments and have visitors. During lockdown, I was confined to a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell 24/7. Lockdowns are an inevitable part of the prison environment and so is the stress associated with the uncertainty of how long it will last.

Today, on the outside, there’s a familiar anxiety in the air. People are unsure and nervous. People are confined to their homes without an idea of when life will return to normal.

While incarcerated, I survived those periods of uncertainty with a particular mindset and practices. Both helped me endure long periods of isolation.

Below is a guide to some of what I’ve learned:

Develop a practical daily routine. A daily routine that works for you will keep you productive, feeling accomplished and focused on the moment rather than the overwhelming amount of stress in the unknown.

Exercise. Most of us aren’t moving as much as we normally would. Over a long period of time, this could have detrimental effects on our muscle tone and cardiovascular health. Furthermore, exercise has a positive, calming effect on our mind. It can help improve sleep, which is often impacted by stress.

If you think that you can’t exercise while staying inside your home, you’re wrong. I exercised in a tiny cell that I shared with another person for months at a time. There is always a way. Today, we have access to online exercise programs. We can also go outside and take a walk or a jog or a bike ride, as long as we practice social distancing. Find something that works for you, and do it regularly.

Read. Nothing like a good book to stimulate ideas and open one’s mind to possibilities beyond a given set of circumstances.

Cleanliness. Keeping your space clean and organized helps to improve your mental health and, in this case, reduces your likelihood of exposure to the virus. Make your bed every day, clean the dishes right after you use them, put your clothes away. Maintain the order of your house. It will make a big difference.

Create some privacy. Being limited to a confined space for an extended period of time can be stressful. So if you’re sharing a space be sure to define places where you can have a bit of privacy, no matter how small. This alone space can be in the bathroom, on a walk, in the garage. Take some time for yourself every day, no matter how short.

Make the most of what you have. In difficult times, how you think about your circumstances directly impacts your experience. We can always think of what we don’t have and what we can’t do. This can lead us into despair. Instead, think of what you do have, and what you can do. If you have a home base that is safe and comfortable, be thankful. If you have access to food, supplies and the internet, rejoice in how these resources are keeping you and your family safe. Having a perspective of gratitude can change your mental well being and ability to function.

Focus on what you have control over. Lack of control is extremely stressful. If you only think about the uncertainty of your current circumstances and what you don’t know, your anxiety will increase, potentially affecting your physical and mental health. Instead focus your mind on what you do have control over. This approach will keep you focused on the moment and reduce your stress and anxiety.

Stay connected. Communicate with family and friends. During prison lockdowns the only way to stay connected to family and friends was through good old fashioned snail mail. Now, we can leverage technology like Skype and Zoom.

Maintain a positive attitude. Your attitude is the only thing that can change an obstacle into an opportunity. Even though you may be facing the same tough circumstances as someone else, your response to it can change your results.

Embrace that your survival is up to you. Remember that you can choose to follow the rules about social distancing, wearing some sort of mask and self-isolating for the recommended time. People who are incarcerated don’t have the luxury of social distancing. It is very difficult for them to avoid such a highly contagious virus. Prisons are extremely vulnerable, not just for the people who live there, but for the staff, the guards, the nurses and the prison administrators. I think about my friends who are incarcerated today and worry for their safety.

Make a commitment to personal growth. Every time I went into lockdown, I made a goal to be a better, stronger person by the time I got out. This virus affects us all. But we have a choice: We can continue business as usual, or we can change. We can come out of this stronger than before.

We humans have an incredible ability to endure the most difficult of circumstances.