Strategies and Tips for Incarcerated Persons: How To Thrive During Covid 19

We are honored, privileged and very excited to have the opportunity to present the following humble thoughts. They are prepared by the men and women of JUST Listening (JL), an organization dedicated to bringing people together everywhere. JL believes that when we feel heard, we are empowered and freed to be our best self. During crisis events in our lives, even like the one we are experiencing with Covid-19, fear and uncertainty can amplify feelings of helplessness and voicelessness. During this unprecedented time when we are all in quarantine, our experience with incarceration, where physical separation and isolation are the order of the day, offers a unique perspective on how to cope successfully and make it to the other side.

In addition to the JUST Listening outside membersi, we are the inside Core Team membersii: Ace, Andre, Charlie, Felix, Chill, Fred, Juice, Kareem, Malik, Saleem, T, Black, and Yahya, like you, residents of SCI Phoenix. For the past several years, we have participated in the JL program. In addition to what we have learned personally from our collective decades of incarceration, we have practiced essential communication skills in this transformative program: how to listen to ourselves, how to listen to other people, how to be the best person we can be.

We have learned from our own experience what you also know: on a regular day in here it can be miserable, cold, and lonely. Covid-19 has certainly made things even more challenging for us. These “tips” are not offered as advice but are rooted in our own individual and sometimes collective experiences. We want to share them with you and hope you’ll be encouraged, know that you are not alone, and find ways to ease the burden of these days…at least a little! We will also be sharing Listening and relationship tips on the SCI Phoenix TV: watch for them soon!

The Value of Isolation (Or getting the most out of Isolation Time)

It is helpful to think about why we are isolated, and what we might be able to get out of it. This can help us combat the (fear-based) idea that isolation is something that we may have to get used to; the natural, free spirit of human character will instantly/unconsciously fight this thought, which is what builds the anxiety.

Our concern for those we love and care about is certainly greater during this time. But if you take that element out, our situation inside is not so very different from the average. And we here are used to some degree of isolation and the need, therefore, to structure our time. For us right now, isolation doesn’t have to feel like a punishment; instead it can be something to strengthen us.  We can stay positive and learn to structure our time in ways that benefit us and others. So you may want to try different things like practicing yoga and meditating, read books, exercise, take care of your body, mind, and spirit. And don’t forget humor: tell some jokes, learn some new ones, and find humor wherever you can.

Isolation can make us stronger, and knowing we are all in this together, inside and out, bonds us together as humans.

On the JUST Listening Core Committee, we are learning to celebrate a shared sense of purpose in the world. Committee members sacrifice their time for the purpose of building more human connection and understanding, all for the Common Good.

All of us here at SCI Phoenix are sacrificing our time for some purpose: now is a good time to make a decision to sacrifice our time for something bigger than 0urselves, to be of service. We can participate in the sacrifice of isolation for the benefit of the life of all humanity. Through this service, we stand in solidarity with the essential workers who have are smack in the middle of it. Our solitude is with and for them.

It is helpful to remember that this lock down is not only to protect ourselves, but is a way to help and protect others as well. Focusing on our common humanity in looking out for others makes us feel good…literally. Life is a journey and as we all know, full of challenges: we can weather the storm and know that we will get through this. 

Although it is not easy when we see people not heeding the warnings, this makes it even more important that we be intentional about how we spend our isolation time. We can settle in with an intention of calmness and focus, knowing and understanding that our sacrifice is making a difference.

1.Breathe

Many of us recommend working on your breathing practices: this allows us to calm ourselves and not be easily distracted by other thoughts. It’s challenging, but well worth the effort. The key to getting past the distractions is to be persistent, in other words, keep practicing. As you do, you will notice that your mind begins to clear, which allows you to direct your focus. You are in control of your thoughts: YOU get to decide what you are thinking about, no one else. So when feeling distracted or like you’re losing focus, BREATHE! Just BREATHE!

Deep belly breathing lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Take deep soft breaths and release slowly, fight through your distractions, you will regain focus. You can try clearing your mind of all thoughts as they come in, or find something, a topic, anything that you value, and place your focus on it.  Don’t succumb to negativity: choose positive thoughts. 10 slow, cleansing, deep breaths every hour is all it takes. Even 3 minutes of deep breathing lowers your stress level.

2.On the phone with friends and family:

Communication skills are key in order for any relationship to survive….

Stay in contact with friends and family and reach out to people you haven’t spoken to in awhile or even years. Enjoy phone time with family and friends. Feel and celebrate your deep connection to other humans.

3.Listen. Listen. Listen:

The problem is no one’s really listening. We are preoccupied with our own thoughts and feelings. Relationships improve with a different approach. Make yourself fully present by actively listening to the other parties. Let them know that you are listening, value what they are saying, and that you want to hear what they are thinking and feeling. This makes it much easier for us to hear and understand each other.

4.Meditation and Prayer:

Many of us find ourselves practicing different meditations these days, e.g., “active listening;” “self-inquiry;” and “gratitude and appreciation.”

Try practicing twice a day for 15 minutes at a time (or start with minutes and build up to 15). You can use this as a time for self-exploration and understanding. Making a list of three things we are grateful for every day literally changes our brain chemistry: we see everything more positively within 2 weeks of beginning this practice.

As part of this practice, look for ways to reciprocate by being actively and fully present for others. For example, envision yourself standing in the shoes of people with whom you often clash because you believe you have strong differences in values. What we are discovering is that our values strongly resemble each other’s: in certain ways, our intentions and end results are much alike. We are all human.

Being doubled-up can really be distractive and complicated. No matter how quiet and respectable your cellmate is; there’s still that subtle point of not having “alone time”. But we can adapt: with practice and intentionality, we can always find a quiet space inside ourselves.Take some time out every day just to relax your mind. Find or make a space where you could sit alone and let go of everything that is going on in the world: create space when you need to be alone and not interacting with your cellie. Or, put your earphones in and listen to some music. That can be alone time for you even though you are not ‘alone.’ Do this whenever you are feeling upset, frustrated, or just tired of it all. No matter where you are, your mind can be free.

5.Listen to Soothing Music. Listen to music for relaxation, meditation, and spiritual healing. This helps put you in the mood for deeper listening to your inner self: it opens our hearts and minds in search for broader meaning. Often, we here at SCI are so deeply involved in our own thoughts that no one else’s matter to us. This brings about unnecessary strong dislikes for one another over something that both sides really share some commonality around. If we “JUST Listen”, ask questions, don’t judge, we come to see that we are all in this boat together! 

6.Coping With Anxiety

All of us here have experienced isolation that produced heightened anxiety to the point of desperation. We also are all learning, willingly or not, to manage that anxiety.

  1. The first step is to change our self talk. Slow the mind down. Bring yourself into the present moment. You can tell yourself, “Things could be worse. Right this minute, everything is OK.” Look around your cell, your surroundings. Notice things, and notice what you really need. Are you tired? Rest. Sleep. Hungry? Eat.

2. Don’t neglect yourself. The best chance you have in overcoming anxiety is YOU. So do everything to stay in good physical and mental shape. Usually physical exercise generates feel-good chemicals that improve mood, improving mental acuity.

3. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Stay present and focus on what you can control.

4. Face the reality but keep the faith. This step should come after one has stabilized their emotions. It’s important to be realistic about the situation. False hope is as bad as no hope. So face the facts but stay positive. Realize that some things might change.

5. Find meaning. Viktor Frankel said that if you learn the meaning of suffering, it’s no longer suffering. No matter how difficult, try to understand your circumstances and how you can become a better person as a result. 6. Avoid bitterness. Take responsibility for your role in things and forgive those who’ve harmed you.

7. Develop an attitude of gratitude

8. Embrace your spirituality. Believe in God, or a higher being, believing there’s something bigger than I, does wonders for expanding perspective. 9. Develop a routine. Even locked up in a cell, get up, wash and get dressed, work out, read, etc.

10. Focus on others’ wellbeing. Be gracious. Be the bigger person.

7.Learn Something New

In light of our current circumstances, we are taking this time to work on ourselves. We humans are resilient and the mind is a terrible thing to waste, so don’t drive yourself crazy, make yourself sane! Only then will you be free. Learn something new: maybe about other cultures, or anything that interests you.

8.Enjoy Activities You CAN do

Enjoy taking your shower and how good it feels to get clean.

Savor time in the yard. Feel the warmth and comfort of the sun on your skin.

View positive information on the internet. Move your body: exercise, work out, or maybe even dance, even if you don’t think you can, like some of us!.

9.Notice Goodness and Positivity Around You

We are hopeful that all of the good and human connection that is evolving from the pandemic will continue to grow in all people, even when the virus passes. Each of us can help this process along: notice any and all empathy, compassion, sympathy, love, and unity that’s being birthed from such a devastating situation. Make it your truth also.

We are all in this together, and together, we can make a positive difference in our own lives and our common life together.

i Judy Miller, Lisa Feix, Donna Duffey, Tricia Way, Frank Palmieri, JoLynn Mokos, Kathy Flaherty, Catherine Mannion, and Sharon Browning

ii Ace Jamaul King, Andre Wright, Charlie Bassett, Felix Rosado, Chill Floyd Wilson, Fred Magondu, Juice Larry Stephenson, Kareem Sampson, Malik Kenneth Miller, Saleem Kevin Mines, T Terrance Graham, Black Virgil Shaw, and Yahya John Moore

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