Gregory David Roberts
This update: 23 April 2020
Next update: 25 April 2020
Website goes live: June 2020
I hope this finds you strong in love and Faith.
Before anything else, I must thank the many people who have sent messages. I’m so grateful for their lovely welcome back to the lovely world.
Six years ago, I went into spiritual seclusion.
I came back to find the whole world in seclusion.
I’m very happy to be back, and I have new work to offer: a new non-fiction book about my journey into the spiritual experience, and an album of 16 songs.
But I’ll talk about that in my next post. The Covid-19 crisis we’re all enduring and facing down is so vast in scale and terrible in cost that it pushes other considerations to the margins.
This post, my first since my seclusion ended, is about the Covid-19 pandemic and the ways that prisoners learn to deal with the stress of enforced isolation.
First, my profound gratitude to all the brave, hard-working people who keep the electricity, water supply, sewage system, emergency management, food security, garbage disposal and telecommunications functioning, and to first responders everywhere.
Without your courage and Devotion, this stunning worldwide Rescue Operation of whole societies undergoing self-imprisonment would not be possible. Thank you.
Second, I’d just like to reiterate that I’m so happy to be back in the beautiful world of beautiful souls again. The last 6 years in spiritual isolation changed my life and taught me many things, but I’m so glad to be back and interacting in the social world again.
Covid-19 is burning its way across the world in fever, suffering and death. Quarantine initiatives require hundreds of millions to remain in their homes like … prisoners.
I was a prisoner for 10 years, and on 3 continents.
I did 2 years of my sentence in solitary confinement, as a punishment for escaping.
It’s one of the ironies of the Covid-19 pandemic that some hardcore prisoners are now in a position to be counsellors to the people who sentenced and confined them – justifiably, in my case, because I was guilty and deserved to do time.
That said, we’re all doing time right now, in one way or another, and there may be some help in the lessons learned from inside the experience of imprisonment and solitary confinement.
I understand that some people may find advice from a prisoner on surviving isolation and lockdowns unwelcome or even offensive. I apologize to them. My only intention is to share what I know of surviving confinement in the hope that it may help someone who is struggling with the stress of it, as I was, sometimes. Okay, more than sometimes; more like frequently.
So, for what it’s worth, here’s my Convict Counsel on surviving the Stay-at-Home Lockdowns.
1) WE ARE ALL STRONGER THAN WE KNOW
We put limits on ourselves, some of them fair and reasonable, but some of them just limiting.
Social experiences can limit us as well.
Long-term prisoners know that when the worst goes down, even the strongest men have their shaky minutes, and that the shakiest of men can rise to inspirational integrity and courage.
Cons don’t judge each other about hitting a low time, because they know everyone goes to the dark place sooner or later. They watch how someone climbs out of the dark and finds their way back.
They know that everyone has the stuff inside to survive, if we just find a way to believe. The real difference between men under extreme pressure is in how much Faith they have in themselves, and in something bigger or more important than themselves, such as God or family.
One of the things that keeps cons going, year after year, is the constant affirmation we see in men who believe in themselves, and dig deep. I’m guessing that it’s the same in women’s prisons: the courageous determination of a few give all the rest of us the hope that we’ll find the stuff we need, when we need it.
The first humane sentence I heard when I went to the Punishment Unit for the first time, many years ago, came from the cell next to mine: Hang in there, Kid. You’re way stronger than you know …
It was true, as I found out in the years that followed. We’re all stronger than we know, and just believing that helped me to find a strength I didn’t know I had, and get through.
2) PURPOSE GIVES LIFE MEANING
There comes a time, a few months into the Groundhog Day repetition of solitary confinement, when a kind of inertia sets in, and it gets hard to do anything.
Those of us who’ve been through it know that it’s just a phase, and that it will pass.
But when you’re in that phase, it seems like it will never end.
Snapping out of the lethargy isn’t always easy.
Thinking about what you might do when the solitary confinement ends doesn’t help. It becomes a loop that slows down the passage of time, because the sense of purpose is located in the future.
Cons know that having a sense of purpose that’s located in the present rather than the future is the only way to speed up the passage of time.
The sense of purpose can be very simple, such as committing yourself to walking 5 kilometers a day in a cell that’s 3 paces long. I did this once by tearing up 100 small pieces of paper and throwing one of them onto my bed each time I completed 2 laps of the cell, then collecting them and doing it again, until the paper drops gave me my 5 klicks, so I didn’t have to count laps.
The sense of purpose can be focused outward. One prisoner I never got to meet in person, but really wanted to, was a thief named Fabrizio. I only ever heard him sing, from his prison cell 2 floors below me. He always started with the same refrain: Who will sing with me tonight?
And he only sang when he heard that someone else in solitary was having trouble handling it.
We all knew what he was doing, giving us a shared sense of purpose, and we all joined in because we knew that next time it could be one of us who was calling out for help.
Like most prisoners, I spent all my early sentence thinking about what I would do when I was free. When I get out, I’ll do this … When I get out, I’ll definitely do that …
Then I escaped, and I actually was free.
I was recaptured, 10 years later.
In the fugitive years I’d traveled much of the world, I’d loved and was loved in return, learned new languages and met many teachers. My perspectives had changed.
I knew, while I was doing solitary, that I couldn’t live my life waiting for what I might do when my sentence expired. I knew that I could slip in the shower and die tomorrow. I couldn’t wait for my life to begin: I had to live in the moment, and do something meaningful.
I started a meditation group, calling out through the door, and through that initiative I was allowed to start writing, which was a sublime purpose fulfilled for me.
When I rejoined the mainstream of the prison to complete the last 4 years of my sentence, I collaborated with guards and prisoners and we started a program for life sentence prisoners who couldn’t read or write.
There were a lot of illiterate men, when even one is too many, and they did well in the program.
In the last few months before my parole hearing, I wrote to my Parents, telling them that if I didn’t receive my parole I wouldn’t be disappointed, because the work I was doing with the literacy classes was so needed, and the time was passing too quickly for me to finish all that I had to do.
Purpose gives life meaning, and long-term prisoners learn to constantly reboot their purpose to keep it current, interesting and needed – helping other cons write letters to their loved ones, for a simple example – to speed up the flow of time.
A high standard of personal hygiene is a good thing: in prison it can tell everything else about another convict on sight.
Prisons are dirty places, and a lot of dirty stuff goes on there. With access to doctors and medicine sometimes limited, especially in lockdown units, staying healthy can be life and death for prisoners. The cons who maintain high standards in their cells and personal grooming are always in the elite, and vice versa.
The hardcore cons don’t need to be told to make their bed or keep their cell tidy: it’s immaculate. They don’t need to be told to shave or get a haircut. Clean-shaven or bearded, crew cut or dreadlocks, they are impeccably well groomed, down to their shoes, which are never ignored.
These are outward signs of an inner self-discipline that only a few can maintain, year after year, without ever slipping. But those few run the joint, and are universally respected by officers and cons alike.
That’s not because they’re nice guys or cool: it’s because the level of self-discipline they demonstrate is exactly what it takes to survive the worst of the prison experience, and not be consumed or corrupted by it.
In solitary confinement, that self-discipline expresses itself in deferred gratification – putting off a reward or pleasure for long periods – and in setting simple daily routines and sticking to them.
In solitary, there’s a strong temptation to eat everything that comes through the trap in the door, as soon as it arrives.
When you’ve done enough time, you learn to split the small meals you receive into three portions, and to eat them at staggered intervals. And when you’ve done that for long enough, no matter how hungry you feel, you reach a day when the next meal arrives, and you realize that you’ve still got half of the previous one, and then you have a feast.
Old cons know that the backbone of any man is directly proportional to his degree of self-discipline. They encourage a new prisoner they may care about to be strong within the self, and set the bar harder, higher, tougher and more rigorously than the System does – if the System says be dressed and buttoned to the neck at 7am every morning, be ready at 6am – because when the worst happens, it’s that long practice of daily discipline that helps us to endure and survive.
When I started my time in solitary, the guard who locked the door gave me some advice: Keep up your fitness, not just for down here in the hole, but to help you deal with the shock of the real world, when you go back to the mainstream in 2 years …
Every long-term con knows that maintaining physical health is vital to maintaining mental health in a constantly stressful environment.
Every prison guard knows that the serious body builders are the most serene prisoners and have the lowest violent incident rate.
The connection between deep breathing, repetitive exertion, physical movement and a sense of well-being and calm is so clear to cons that if one of their friends is acting up, they’ll drag him to the gym and force him to do an exhausting workout, because flooding the brain-body matrix with good, natural chemicals and hormones is positive, and they know the alternative isn’t.
I did 10 years of exercise in prison, and know the many benefits. But I also know that in confinement you hit plateaus of achievement and valleys of flagging interest over years. And it’s a constant process of keeping it interesting, challenging and rewarding.
In solitary, for example, when I finally could do 20 sets of 20 pushups easily, I focused on doing pushups on my fingertips. I wasn’t very good at it and it took me months to achieve a set, but the degree of difficulty kept my interest level high. When I managed that, I focused on doing hand over hand pushups and so on, always setting difficult but attainable goals.
Each level of achievement had its own reward, set by my own mind. Each level took time and commitment, and I stopped to celebrate each one, alone but very content.
I discovered that the time I gave myself to stop and respect the achievement of a level I’d set was as important as reaching the goal itself.
While striving to reach a new level, I never allowed myself to consider what the next variation on the exercise might be. I always kept that delicious choice as a reward for completing the level I’d set for myself, and sometimes that choice led me in a completely different fitness direction.
With little access to rehabilitation programs, most convicts prep for their release themselves. They read, they study what’s going on out there in the world, they research among newly sentenced inmates and they get fit, because no matter how bad it is inside, there are some aspects of life on the outside that are tougher.
And after their release, that push to fitness helps them to keep the sudden flare-ups of anger that happen, because of the stress of isolation, under control before they become conflicts.
In many ways that Darwin didn’t intend, prison really is the survival of the fittest.
5) COMMUNICATE YOUR STATE
Prison messes with your mind, which many civilians (non-convicts) are learning now.
It becomes very important to learn how to express your feelings, and read the feelings of others.
There are 2 main aspects of imprisonment:
a) being locked away from people;
b) being locked in with people.
The convict world is reduced to these two parameters. How we deal with loved ones outside is critically important to sustaining relationships, and how we deal with not-so-loved ones inside can become a life and death question.
Old cons will tell you that relationships with loved ones on the outside are only as strong as the work that we put into them.
Separated relationships need 4 things to survive for years: trust, courage, empathy and humor.
Cons have visits by phone, letter and glass booth most of the time, as most of the world does right now. After many, many non-contact visits, prisoners learn that every single word we speak has tremendous significance, and a thoughtless remark can cause months of worry, misunderstanding or even disruptions to the visits.
Long-term prisoners know that honesty tempered with kindness is vital, that our loved ones’ courage often comes from the courage we show to them, that our interest in and understanding of their situation is the surest way to deepen their empathy with ours, and that if we’re cheerful and in good humor, no matter how hard it is to summon that jovial mood, our visitors will close the connection with us in good spirits, determined not to give up.
Prisoners learn that dealing with people on the inside requires finesse, rather than force.
Cons learn to anticipate the triggers to violence in violent men, and I think it must be the same in women’s prisons.
As an example, there was a very violent lifer I knew, who made a New Year’s resolution every year to give up smoking. The resultant violence caused collateral damage and did him no good with the parole board. So, every year after he started his cold turkey, cigarettes would magically appear on every surface he encountered, until he started smoking again and the violence ceased.
I’m not advocating smoking, of course. And that was only one of the hundreds of “tells” that cons study in their fellow inmates, learn to recognize, and move to de-escalate if they can, because that trigger to a man’s violence can lead to murder.
It might sound strange to civilians, but one of the things that keeps prisons safer for cons and guards, than they otherwise would be, is our attentiveness to the needs and worries of others.
We need to know what others are thinking and feeling, because some of those others are homicidal. And too many of the people in prisons are not criminals, as I was, but are further toward the disturbed end of the psychological spectrum than most of us, and reading them is a fine art.
Being attentive to the highs and lows that others are feeling stops the lid from boiling over.
In every prison in the world there’s an old con telling a young con that it’s okay to talk about how you feel, and much healthier to get it out through talking than through fighting.
You have to be stoic to survive lockdown, but even the most stoic cons know that suppressed and unexpressed feelings become serpents of resentment that can bite friends and foes alike.
For what it’s worth, the place where feelings are openly expressed in prison is either the chapel or the card table.
Being involved in a common pursuit, a game with accepted rules, allows otherwise taciturn men to bring subjects up with one another safely.
Hey, Bobby, you really spat the dummy yesterday. What was that all about?
The teasing good humor of the group during card play allows Bobby to reply to a question he might have rebuffed angrily in another context. And the advice floating around the table may vary, but it’s always predicated on how we can all live together in relative peace and harmony, and leave the confinement as soon as possible.
Learning to communicate our feelings openly and to be attentive to the peaks and troughs in the feelings of others is simply survival, in lockdown.
6) NATURE & ART
Many prisoners learn to cherish every encounter with the natural world, whether it be birds, cats or flowers.
Appreciation of the natural world is itself a form of gratitude, and gratitude is the engine of spiritual energy, but gratitude is sometimes difficult to summon in prison.
Many cons know that the hour or two permitted in the open air is most beneficial in any area with grass, shrubs or flowers, and where birds may be seen. You’ll find them there, expressing admiration and gratitude for the world of nature, and then returning to their cells recharged.
Where Nature is banned, and only concrete wears a crown, it’s art that helps to keep that appreciation of life and the gratitude flowing.
There will be a prisoner who plays guitar, another who will sing at night, another who paints, another who makes soft toys and other crafts, another who writes poetry and many who dance whenever music plays.
When you’ve spent enough time behind bars, you realize that Nature and art are healers, and you enhance your survival chances by engaging appreciatively with them, even in very small doses of time and very small spaces. That’s why gardeners and artists are revered in prisons.
7) KNOW YOURSELF RULE YOURSELF
The imprisonment experience is designed to change you, in many cases, and even when the environment is generally benign, incarceration and isolation tend to influence behavior.
Old cons will tell young cons to resist the institutionalization process by remaining true to yourself, by staying with your principles whatever they are, and by keeping contact with people who know you from before the imprisonment.
When I came up to the mainstream prison from solitary, I’d had 2 years to think about my life, and my own responsibility for the mess I’d made of it.
I resisted institutionalization by ignoring the colors of the uniforms, and seeing both guards and cons as human beings. I saw that the guards and the cons were all locked in the same hell together, all scared, all brave in their own ways, and all forgotten.
There were no billionaires among the cons, and none among the guards.
If a guard needs a blood transfusion, he won’t insist that it be only guard blood, and a con won’t insist that his life-saving blood transfusion only comes from convict blood.
We really are one human family, and seeing each and every one of us in that light was the only way I could survive my years in prison without becoming permanently imprisoned by it in my heart and mind.
Know yourself: know your strengths and limits;
Rule yourself: apply self-discipline and deferred gratification to the evolution of your character;
Be yourself: never allow yourself to become an actor in someone else’s movie, hold to your principles, stay connected to those who know your authentic self, and listen to them if they tell you that the situation is beginning to change you.
Those are the anchors that long-term cons use to weather the storms of solitude.
8) SPIRITUAL REALITY CHECK
Every good thing and every bad thing that happens is a test of Faith.
Cons know this, just as they know and accept, sooner or later, usually later, that all the pain and humiliation in their lives is only a beast of their own creation.
2 things you’ll hear again and again after riots, lockdowns, beatings and during extended periods of solitary confinement are:
THIS, TOO, SHALL PASS and RISE ABOVE.
After I’d received my second beating of several in the Punishment Unit one time, and was thrown back into my cell, the con in the next cell tapped against his toilet bowl, signaling that he wanted to talk. I used a T-shirt to pump the water out of the toilet bowl. He did the same, and we opened a line of communication known in prison as the Hydrophone.
It’s a test, he whispered.
Designed by the Marquis de Sade, I whispered back. How long does this go on?
For you? Not long. Few more days is all.
And nights. They’re worse. But it’s just a test.
A test of what?
Your Faith in God.
What if someone doesn’t believe in God?
Then it’s a test of Faith in yourself.
God, get me out of here.
You got yourself here, like I did, and the best you can ask God for without shame is to give you the character to deal with it.
How about giving the guards the character not to beat me?
First pray for change in yourself, brother, before changing others.
How did you learn all this?
By listening to another me, and one day you’ll be passing this advice on to another you.
I’d happily change places with another me, right now.
Hang in there. This, too, shall pass. Rise above.
How do I do that?
Forgive them, for they know exactly what they do.
Like Fabrizio, I never met that man, either. There are many living ghosts in prisons: voices in the darkness or on a toilet-telephone. He was transferred to another prison before I left the unit. But I wrote his counsel down when I was released, and I never forgot it.
In the worst moments it always helps me to stop, think, and reflect that even if only in a small way, a crisis I’m facing is a test of my Faith, to remember my Faith is stronger than any crisis that has ever confronted it, and to dig deep into my Faith, because Faith is freedom from fear, and fear is a blindfold on good judgement.
Every cell in every prison tells you everything you need to know about the prisoner living in it.
Some cells are tiny chapels, and those little rooms of light help to keep the balance of energy that keeps us safe in the inferno of imprisonment.
Cons are pragmatic: they want to know what works, what will fix something. The prison Chaplain is the go-to for spiritual intervention.
Listen, Padre, I’ll give you 50 bucks to pray for my sister. She’s having an operation. Put in a word with the Big Warden, okay?
But long-term prisoners and prison Chaplains know that the spiritual is not about asking for help: they both know that kind of help isn’t coming for anyone, any time soon.
The spiritual in prison is about opening up a space within the already confined life for thanks and Devotion. They know that’s the key to solace and prudence. In my experience, the wisest, kindest and most fulfilled people I met in prisons, whether guards or cons, were also the most quietly and humbly devoted, who kept the flame of gratitude alight in bitter darkness.
9) POST TRAUMATIC IMPRISONMENT DISORDER
Long-term prisoners will tell you that going back to the world you used to know isn’t all sunny beaches and starry nights.
There are many parallels between soldiers returning to civilian life and prisoners rejoining society. Recon Marines have a higher probability of dying in civilian life than in deployment, because the suicide rates among them are high, as they are with released prison inmates.
And in both cases the rate of suicide increases with each deployment or imprisonment.
We are all traumatized by traumatizing things: none of us are immune. Cons learn that the end of imprisonment and isolation isn’t the end of trauma, but the beginning of a long process of dealing with it.
At first, young gangsters will try to keep the revisiting trauma to themselves and deny it. When you’ve done enough time, you know that it’s brave, right and strong to tell loved ones and close people that what you went through hurt you, and that you still don’t feel right.
We let our loved ones know that it’s not easy dealing with it and that we’ll get upset or depressed sometimes. We ask for their understanding and patience in advance, because it’s always better than asking after the fact, and sometimes it’s enough to head off the occasional explosive emotion or blue depression of trauma.
Trauma stress happens to everyone who experiences traumatic things, and being locked in with fear and uncertainty is traumatic.
It will happen, as leaves will gather in guttering in the Fall, and if we don’t acknowledge that and deal with it, the leaks caused can undermine the foundations of the house.
Cons know that the trauma we carry is carried by everyone, until we let it go.
10) NEVER GIVE UP
We have no reason or right to give up.
The generations that came before us, that we carry within us, won’t let us give up.
The generations to come are relying on us never to give up.
Our human family has a sublime capacity to endure for one another and survive, and so far, we have carried the treasures of tenderness, caring and sharing through every terrible crisis that has ever confronted us.
We human beings are empathetic cooperators: when we stand together, nothing can stand against us; we are high-functioning adaptors: we can adapt to the arctic, the desert, below the sea and outer space; and we never give up.
I hope these notes prove useful to someone, somewhere, going through lockdown and isolation, and once again, if I’ve unwittingly offended anyone I sincerely apologize.
For anyone interested in what I’ve been doing for the last 6 years, and what new projects I have to offer, I’ll post again in 48 hours.
Be safe and stay healthy.
Love and Faith