While many are struggling to follow COVID restrictions, prison taught these situations can be freeing. It all depends on your attitude.
I found out pretty quickly in prison that the establishment did not provide much in the way of constructive activities for inmates. There was no funding for therapy, I was considered too low risk to be eligible for rehabilitation, and as the education department explained, they didn’t have the resources for me to pursue tertiary education.
I didn’t know how things would go when I went for sentencing in late 2015, and I’d told myself over and over that if I was sent to prison, I could at least use the time to go back to university. When that silver lining disappeared, I spent a couple of days feeling sorry for myself before I realised I still had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I was sentenced to ten months of isolation. No internet. No computer. No social media. No mobile phone. No invites to social outings. Or in other words, nothing to distract me from accomplishing something.
We were let out to work and exercise, but the majority of my day was spent in my cell. Chances are, it was smaller than your laundry. The bed was about half the size of a single. I had a tiny desk in the corner, some shelves for clothes, and enough room to turn around. Standing in the middle of my cell I could touch both walls by outstretching my arms. All I really had in terms of possessions was a clock radio, some sketch and writing pads, a few pens and pencils, and whatever books I’d borrowed from the library. But most importantly, I had a positive attitude.
I’d been thinking about writing a novel since I was in high school, but life on the outside kept getting in the way. I started writing it three days into my sentence. It was no easy task, especially without a computer. Every time I wanted to go back and change something, I had to rewrite an entire chapter by hand. I was writing every chapter twice as it was, posting one copy to a friend for safe-keeping, in case the draft in my cell was stolen or destroyed somehow. But I persevered and had it finished five months later. It was picked up by a small publisher in late 2019.
Prison taught me if you can’t turn the government restrictions due to coronavirus into something positive, you’re not trying hard enough.
I’d also always wanted to teach myself another language, but with no way to order textbooks, let alone play the audio files that typically come with them, I realised I needed a different goal to work towards. I looked around my cell and figured I’d teach myself how to draw. After three months of practice, I was making a considerable income (by prison standards at least) selling artwork to inmates who had never bothered to even try and draw themselves. Earlier this year, I illustrated the book This is Ear Hustle under a contract with Random House.
Prison was not enjoyable by any means. For starters, I was lonely as all hell. If I wanted to call a loved one, I had to join the queue for the phone during our two hours a day in the exercise yard. Sometimes I’d wait over half an hour, just for my chance to make a call that was time-limited to six minutes. I quickly learnt that writing letters were a much better way to stay in touch. As restricted as my opportunities were, I made the most of my situation wherever possible. I caught up on pretty much every book I’d ever wanted to read while I was there. I finished 63 books in those ten months, a feat I daresay I’ll never accomplish again. We didn’t have any fancy exercise machines as you’d find in a gym, but I made use of the yard for jogging and basic equipment outside. Plus, push-ups on the ground have and always will be free.
We’ve all been inconvenienced by coronavirus. Once again I’m isolated from visiting friends, my next art exhibition has been cancelled and the release of my upcoming podcast series on the prison system has been postponed. I could feel sorry for myself, but instead, I’m making the most of what I can do isolating myself at home. I’m working on new art and writing projects, plus the second season of my podcast.
And hey, if you can’t turn the government restrictions due to coronavirus into something positive, you’re not trying hard enough.