8ight Things I learned in Solitary Confinement, That Will Help You Keep Calm During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Shaka Senghor
March 13, 2020

Grocery stores across the nation are being swarmed by people hustling to buy as much hand sanitizer, water and toilet paper as they can. One by one districts across the country are shuttering school doors, leaving children and parents asking the question “What are we going to do now?”. Major Conferences and festivals like SXSW, Coachella and Something In The Water have been cancelled and many employees have been ordered to work from home. The feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are palpable both on and off line. Our collective stress level appears to be rising, as bad news unfolds in a digital river of press conferences, news clips and uninformed blog post. The reactions people having are understandable and reasonable-these are scary times. For many people its the first time their lives have been thrown into the chaotic world of uncertainty. Its also the first time in a long time that a pandemic of this magnitude has impacted the global community since the Spanish Flu in 1918.

While reflecting on the countless news articles, news segments and text I have received, I found myself in a calm state. Instead of panic and stress I began to think about what I can do to ensure my 8 year old son Sekou is washing his hands properly and what measures I need to take to adjust to our vastly changing world. The calmness I feel is born out of an experience that forced me to control myself when things around me felt out of control. From October of 1999 to March of 2004 I spent every waking morning inside a 6 by 9 solitary confinement cell. For years I witnessed the men around me suffer the mental anguish of being in an environment designed to crush souls. For the first two years I suffered alongside them. I was anxious, stressed out and deeply depressed, until I discovered the root cause of my state of being-an indeterminate sentence in solitary confinement. I simply didn’t know when or if I was ever going to be released. The not knowing when the torture was going to end, nearly drove me the brink of insanity. Every time an officer or counselor approached my door, my body would tense up and my palms would start sweating. “Is this the day they are going to tell me the nightmare is over?” I would ask myself silently.

When they whisked past my cell, my heart would sink into my stomach and my mind would drift deeper into depression. What I learned in the two years to follow was that I was trying to control something I had no control over, and suffered as a result. On my third year I began to journal and two of the things I discovered, were that the only thing I could control were my thoughts and my actions. It was a pivotal moment in my life. I went from being a victim of my circumstances, to being a master of my destiny. I stopped worrying about when the prison administration was going to release me and focused my energy on becoming the best version of myself. I realized that I could turn my prison cell into a space of enlightenment, creativity and higher learning.

It wasn’t easy, but with hard work, dedication and a commitment to come out on the other side of the pain healthy and whole, I was able to do it. For many adjusting to our new reality isn’t going to be easy. There are many lifestyle adjustments we have to make that are scary and uncertain. For parents with school age children, we are adjusting to our children being out of school for a few weeks. There are many who are uncertain about their financial future due to being out of work or running a small business whose revenue depends on customers who are now quarantined. Stocks are plummeting and 401Ks are at risk. Many have family members who they have to care for or protect from contracting this potentially deadly virus. With so much going on, the idea of self or government imposed quarantine is compounding the stress to an already stressful situation. As scary as all of this may be, I believe there is an upside for all of us. In the middle of every crisis, there is an opportunity or series of opportunities that will make us better in the long run. There is the opportunity to grow spiritually, become more resilient mentally and to physically be a help to others in need. Below are eight small steps and a bonus step,that you can take from my experience in prison and apply to our current reality. Together I believe we will get through this and come out on the other side better than before.

1. Meditate: When I was in solitary confinement, I suffered from the constant banter in my head. “When are they going to let me out. When will this end?” When the voices got too loud, I sought out a way to quiet them. During one of my earlier stints in solitary, I came across a pamphlet on meditation. The word meditation was foreign to me, but the thought that a practice could alleviate the pain I was experiencing, made it intriguing enough for me to read. The pamphlet was pretty straightforward and offered some breathing exercises to try out. I mean how hard could it be to inhale and exhale? Turned out that breathing with a purpose was a bit more complex than I initially thought. Some exercises were for advanced practitioners, however there were some simple ones that worked out for me. When I started feeling anxious and the voices became too loud I would lay on my bunk and focus on my breathing. I would inhale for a count of five and slowly exhale for a count of five. I reminded myself to release all counter productive thoughts, while inhaling the liberating energy of a quiet mind. It was hard in the beginning, but the more I did it, the easier it got to bring my mind to a state of stillness. You don’t have to focus on mastering it, but I promise you will reduce your anxiety significantly if you give yourself permission to be present with your own breath while freeing your mind of toxic thoughts. Find a quiet moment for thirty minutes or so, and practice breathing in slowly for a count of five and exhaling for a count of five. Give yourself permission to let go of the things you can’t control while embracing the empowering energy of being in control of how you think and feel.

2. Write letters: Writing is and has been one of the most important parts of my journey and healing. When I was in prison I wrote letters to my family and friends on a regular basis. Writing to others about life in prison, helped me get my thoughts out and process what I was experiencing. I often wrote no expectations of receiving responses from anyone I wrote to. I just needed to share my experience and writing was my only way of connecting with people I loved. I also wrote letters to myself to help me process what was going on inside of me. I still have letters I wrote to my younger self and to my future self at the time. It’s amazing to look back at those letters and see how much of what I wrote then lined up with where I am today. Take this time to write letters to yourself and to those you love. Most of us have family members and friends from a generation that still have an appreciation for the written word. There is also the pleasant surprise of being able to reflect on your thoughts years from now. Just imagine being able to look back on this moment and read something you wrote to yourself. Hopefully you will be able to look back at your letters with a sense of pride, and a deeper sense of self love.

3. Write a book: I wrote my first book while I was in solitary confinement. It was the first time I had completed anything of substance. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined. I didn’t have a laptop, iPad or smart phone, I had the old school tools of the trade-a pen and pad. I took the flimsy pen they gave me and rolled it up in prison stationary and wrote at a minimum five pages every day. There were many days that I wrote more, but I made a commitment to at least five pages. You don’t have to commit to that many pages, maybe you just want to write a paragraph or sentence. The key is finding what works for you and then holding yourself accountable to doing it every day. Today we have the luxury of technology to make writing easier, so take advantage of this time away from work and society and get those thoughts out. Be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to not be perfect. The most important thing is getting that story out of your head on to paper. Before you say But Shaka You’re a writer”, recognize you’re a writer TOO. If you have made a social media post expressing your opinion and thoughts you too are a writer. You can incorporate your children or other loved ones into the process. Its a fun and engaging way to connect with others. So write that book and tell the stories that matter to you.

4. Journal: The greatest gift I gave to myself while in solitary confinement was the gift of journaling. I poured my heart and soul into my note pads. I wrote about all of the experiences, life choices and traumas that led me to prison. I was lovingly honest with myself. I talked about all the things I had stuffed deep down inside and it was the most liberating experience I had, outside of walking out of those prison doors nearly ten years ago. Journaling created a level of intimacy between who I thought I was and who I actually am. It was like meditation on paper. When is the last time you had an honest conversation with yourself, or processed that one thing that doesn’t seem to go away? Been awhile? Well now is your chance to get reacquainted with your authentic self. One of the things about challenging times is they will always reveal to us who we truly are. Journaling will help you see yourself clearly and has the power to help you rediscover your inner magic. Take yourself on a sacred journey of discovering all that you are.

5. Create a vision board: Late at night I paced my cell floor thinking about the life I wanted for myself. With each step I took my vision of a world beyond bars grew more vivid. I imagined the kind of car I wanted to drive, the food I wanted to eat, the woman I wanted in my life and the goals for my career. When I was finally released from solitary I found magazines and cut out the images that matched up with the vision I had conjured up in solitary. I pasted the cut out pages of the magazine on my bulletin board and reflected on them nightly. I wrote out the goals I wanted to accomplish and spoke them out loud daily. I can say with a great deal of confidence that most of those dreams came true. I wrote down that I wanted to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and it came true, I wrote down that I wanted to be a New York Times Bestselling author and it manifested. I now look at my vision board as more of an action board. Once I had a clear vision of what I wanted, I took the steps to make it happen. What does the world look like on the other side of this pandemic for you? Who do you want to become? What do you want to accomplish? What do you want your day to day life to look like after we get through these tumultuous times? Find magazines that reflect your vision and create that board, and then prepare to put actions in place that will allow you to bring those things to life. You can also see it as an opportunity to get free of those old magazines you have been holding on to.

6. Learn a craft: Let’s face it people underestimate the genius that exists behind bars. As an MIT Medial Lab Fellow Alumni I have brushed up against genius on both sides of the fence. One of the qualities that I learned is true to all genius is the ability to innovate no matter what the circumstances are. Whether it’s making fish lines out of sock strings to share information between prison cells, or making premium prison wine with fermented orange or grapefruit juice, people in prison are always innovating on ideas that we take for granted in the free world. One of the crafts I learned in solitary is the fine art of making incense out of toilet paper and deodorant. I learned how to make deodorant because prison stinks both literally and figuratively. It’s a smell I will never forget, even though its no longer my daily reality. While inside I did everything I could to counter the terrible smell of prison funk. I would take toilet paper and roll it into a long tight string, I would then coat the toilet paper until it was saturated in deodorant. I would get a light (not telling y’all how lol) and light it. The handcrafted incense would burn for hours, blocking out the smell of pepper spray and feces that permeated the air. Take this time to learn something new and useful, hopefully you don’t need to make incense. However there are all kind of things to make at home, especially with young children. They have all kind of cool video hacks to help you imagine and learn something new and useful. Learn to knit, sew, draw, or make prison wine, I mean I am sure there are recipes on line. Whatever you are passionate about, take this time to learn something new about it.

7.Go back to school: When I had my breakthrough in solitary and decided to live my life differently, I knew I had to do things different. Growing up I was an honor roll and scholarship student, but my life got derailed by things that had nothing to do with me. Once I had that epiphany, I realized I had a love for learning that had been suffocated by my circumstances. In that moment I decided to go back to school, well not a school technically. I couldn’t enroll in college courses or any courses for that matter in solitary. Instead I set my days in my cell up like I was at a university. I ordered books from the library on a variety of subjects and studied a different one each hour. I studied African History, World History, Political Science and even got into Philosophy. I learned a lot during that time and it has served me well. Three years after I got out of prison I began teaching at the University of Michigan. I remember helping design the curriculum and how empowered I felt as an educator. I still teach classes online every now and then, and its just as rewarding today as it was the first time I walked onto the U of M campus. What is something you always wanted to learn about? Take a minute to think about it. They have all kind of free classes online and different curriculum that can help you become that scholar you once was or always dreamed of being. Whether its taking online courses or listening to educational podcast, now is a great time to go back to school. Google free online courses and find something that intrigues you join up.

8. Exercise. It’s no secret that women and men coming home from prison are often in better shape than people in larger society. It’s not only due to not having anything to do, as there is plenty of things to do in prison. The reality is, prison is one of the most stressful and volatile places to be, and exercise is a great stress reducer for women and men inside. When I was in solitary I didn’t have access to the weight room or the track, instead I used what I had at my disposal. I took my sheets off my mattress, before rolling my mattress up and wrapping a sheet around it. I would then slide the other sheet through it and use the mattress for an assortment of exercises. I did curls, shoulder presses, and squats. I would also take my books and put them in laundry back to do isolated curls and presses. I did step ups on the concrete slab they used as a bed frame, and ran in place. With gyms either closing or being spaces that you may not want to go, finding things at home to exercise with offers another option to get or stay in shape. In addition to shedding some pounds, it will help you and whoever joins you relieve a lot of stress. Its also another great way to engage your children and friends.

Bonus. Discover new recipes or remix old ones. Now listen its hard to come up with new recipes in an environment with limited resources. However like everything else, when you are in survival mode you figure things out. In solitary confinement I didn’t have access to commissary so I was limited to whatever they served me through the food slot. There were foods that I would have never ate under normal circumstances, however I found different ways to make those items appetizing enough to get down. It often time required me squirreling away different things from various meals. I would save half of my peanut butter from breakfast, mix it with a little bit of butter and water and create a peanut sauce to drizzle over the hard rice and bland chicken they served. Then there were times, when I would save jelly from one breakfast and make peanut butter and jelly waffle sandwiches when they served waffles. In General population we used Ramen Noodles for the bases of every supplemental meal. We mixed summer sausage pickles and cheese with our noodles and put them inside flour tortilla shells. Sometimes we used Tuna, or roast beef bought out the store or whatever protein we got smuggled back from the chow hall. These supplemental meals were life savers, especially when the prison would go on lock down. In these days of uncertainty if you can buy or have ramen noodles be sure to try out different ways of making them. With grocery stores being overwhelmed its a great time to learn how to make different things with whatever food you have. Dig into those cabinets and try different spices and seasonings for foods, cook food in different ways, but most importantly enjoy the process of discovering a new way. I call this one a bonus, because cooking stresses some folks out and I don’t want to add and unnecessary stress during these times.