Letters: Stay in touch with family and friends by Michael Clark

During the first summer at my first prison camp, I was on lockdown. There are a lot of things to explain about this situation, so bear with me for a moment. My first prison camp was in Waycross, Georgia, and it was a close security camp which also had the distinction of being a medical/low-level mental health camp. The tight security part meant you were at the highest security level outside of Death row, and guys who got thrown into Max security for killing or stabbing someone in prison. Needless to say, it was not the place to be. Close security camps had a special status amongst state camps, where when a gang war popped off, they not only locked down that camp but all surrounding close security camps to save themselves any more headaches.

To my greatest luck, I happened to be in Waycross when such a lockdown occurred. It was the day before game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2016. No one believed we would be on lockdown for the game because we figured that would cause too much of a ruckus amongst the guys, and the staff would not want to deal with it; how wrong we were. We came off lockdown eighteen days later, not knowing the when or why until long after. Now, lockdown in prison is much different than lockdown while in quarantine. For starters, there are no smartphones, no TVs, no electronics (minus, maybe, a cd player), and no easily accessible means of distraction or entertainment to anyone. That is just the start. There are no refrigerators to hold food, there is no a/c to keep you cool in the high heat of the summer, there are no books to read (aside from what you had before lockdown), there are no open doors to let you out to enjoy the fresh air and find some minor rejuvenation through the green grass, blue sky, and high sun. There is none of that.

For the extent of our lockdown, we laid around in our underwear. Not to sound weird or anything, “walking around in our underwear,” but during the summer in Waycross, days averaged the mid-90s, with a 60-70% humidity. That meant it was roughly ten degrees hotter inside the dorm and an additional couple of degrees hotter if you were in a room where the sun hit during the day (which I was). Every night, I left a pool of sweat on top of my bed (as I didn’t sleep with any sheet, which would just trap more heat around my body). It became a habit to get a birdbath three or four times a day, which was nothing more than taking a wash rag, putting it under cold sink water, and then washing your body down to cool and clean yourself throughout the day. Why, you ask, would we do this? Glad you asked. While on lockdown, you only have the privilege of showering on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. Unless, of course, one of those days happens to be a holiday, in which case you will not shower.

On top of everything else, we did not receive any commissary for the first three weeks while on lockdown. If you didn’t know, commissary is the equivalent of a local store for us. Our family and friends put money on our books (a prison account for us to spend money), and we used that money to buy extra food from the Commissary store. Now, this was nothing glamorous. It was something like old gas station food sold at a higher margin. Ramen noodles, honey buns, cheap sausages, stamps, etc. Bunch of stuff with high salt or high sugar to put it tersely. Since the State hardly provided enough food to satisfy a grown man, commissary almost became a necessity. To be fair, during lockdown, you aren’t expending much energy as it is, but with the lack of things to do, you start the now-infamous habit of bored eating… unless you don’t have anything to eat.

This was the state of affairs for 1599 other men and me during the summer of 2016 (not counting those from other close security camps). During the first week, you don’t think about it. You kinda assume it will be over eventually, and you can make it through, no problem. During the second week, you start to ask, “when will this be over?”; a question you will never get an answer to while also speculating why there is a lockdown at all. But you still hold on tight to what little resources you have and plan for the long term. During the third week, when your resources are gone and your mental fortitude is shaken, you begin to wonder if you will ever come off lockdown or if it will be months of this depressive state. Anything beyond that is a scramble to maintain your sanity. I use weeks as a simple time frame to break down these mental stages. In reality, one could measure their mental decay in days, hours, some months. In any event, you will have to contend with the ever-present notion of not being in complete control of your surroundings, which, notwithstanding everything else, is hard enough to accept.

It was at this time, laying around in my underwear all day, sweating off five pounds of water weight a day, barely staying out of an hungered state, with only one other person to talk to, that I received a letter from an old friend. Her name was Taylor, and we had been friends back in high school. Although we were never close friends at that time, we bonded over the fact that I was in prison, and she had just finished a six-month stint in jail for a drug charge, so she understood the struggle better than any of our old friends. I was caught unawares by the letter as I had not spoken to her in some time and had only heard about her recent jail time through my mother, who was good friends with her mother.

The letter was brief and direct. Taylor wrote about what she had been doing since getting out, how she had full custody of her daughter, and how she was going back to technical school, concluding with “I will hold you down until you get out.” In the convoluted mind of one on lockdown, there would be a lot of different ways to read into her letter. I simply read it as a sympathetic outreach to me, someone who understood her situation better than most others in her life at the time. The last sentence struck me, though, as I had not spoken with her in quite some time and did not presume our friendship to be as close as her closing would seem to assume. Therein lies the difference for an incarcerated person. Having just done six months in jail, she had a taste of what we were going through in prison, with years to do instead of months. She understood the crippling degree of loneliness we all were going through. Her last sentence was not a hint to some deeper relationship upon my release but a sympathetic appeal to the plights we both went through.

What does a letter symbolize? It means that someone out there cared enough about you that they took the time out of their day to sit down and write something, anything to you, to spend their time thinking about you. For what reason? To remind you that you are still relevant in the free world. Not only that but on a grander note, that on this little dot called Earth, in the great black cosmos, you matter. Someone is thinking about you and hoping for the best for you.

It was this realization that you still mattered that kept a lot of guys going who I knew during my bid. Obviously not physiologically; you will always need food to survive. Mentally, however, these letters served as a crux for a lot of men. So much so that, I believe, some of these individuals, had they the choice, would rather receive consistent letters from loved ones than money on their books for commissary. Why is that? Food keeps you satiated and allows you to keep going, but what would be the point of continuing to go if you felt you had no purpose? How would we find purpose if there is no community, family, or person upon whom you may shed your light?

I bring this point to light for one reason: to remind people to reach out to those family members and friends you haven’t spoken to in months or years. Write a letter checking in on them. Ask them how life has been, both good and bad. Remind them that they do still matter. Do this, and you will be surprised how the sentiment is returned in your own life.