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How can we cope with isolation during coronavirus? Formerly incarcerated women give advice. | Perspective

"I’ve been forced to live a version of this, but not while free."

Formerly incarcerated women serve as art and writing fellows for The People's Paper Co-op in Philadelphia. Clockwise from upper left: Aesha Barnett, Jamila Harris, Faith Bartley, Latyra Blake, Kitty Marrero, Paulette Carrington, Lisa Shorter, and Kerri DeLeo.
Formerly incarcerated women serve as art and writing fellows for The People's Paper Co-op in Philadelphia. Clockwise from upper left: Aesha Barnett, Jamila Harris, Faith Bartley, Latyra Blake, Kitty Marrero, Paulette Carrington, Lisa Shorter, and Kerri DeLeo.Read moreThe People's Paper Co-op

The coronavirus has imposed widespread isolation — an experience that is deeply familiar to incarcerated people, who confront unique challenges in jail and prison. As part of their art and advocacy work with formerly incarcerated women, the People’s Paper Co-op (PPC) recently asked eight people in its program to give advice on how to cope. They share tips for getting through, including how to deal with loneliness, what to do when you lack control over your daily schedule, and the importance of eating well even without regular grocery access.

Their stories of resilience and hope show the strength of the human spirit, when tested by extreme circumstances.

Being socially isolated has many of us struggling with our feelings. How can we cope with those complicated emotions?

I’ve been home from prison for 3½ years and I can tell you, being in quarantine, isolated from my family, my friends, my job, and my community, feels like I am in jail all over again.

After spending 40 years in prison, I know what isolation feels like — to be separated from your life, from your loved ones. It can take your passion, self esteem, dignity, and self-worth — but only if you let it. Serving a life-without-parole sentence felt inhumane, cruel, and heartless. I’m not sure if you’re a religious person, but praying constantly to my higher power helped me then and is helping me now.

We have the ability to fight against obstacles, but we need the courage for change.

Be determined, hopeful, confident. Find the humor in things; do not prolong a state of stress. Stress can cause long-term damage to your health: You can’t sleep, overeat because there’s nothing else to do, lash out, take your frustrations out on others — I’ve seen this 1,000 times plus one while I was incarcerated and since I’ve been home. Stress can make you less effective at maintaining your sanity, at simply functioning. Right now people don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills or rent; we’re afraid of losing our place or our jobs. This is a whole new norm. Most people aren’t equipped to cope with this. I’ve been forced to live a version of this, but not while free.

Helping others has been my truth and made me become a better human being. I am currently working with the PPC on a film about the need to abolish long-term sentences for prisoners (who experience this kind of isolation for decades). I want to try and raise hope for the parole eligibility of many deserving folks. Now is a hard time for all of us, but we need to stay determined — there are so many ways to connect virtually with individuals and organizations.

I have a heavy heart for those lost to this virus. We are at war with the coronavirus, but we must not let this stop our fight for justice. The folks I knew in prison are my family, and I’m trying to stay in touch with them however I can.

Paulette Carrington, PPC Fellow

What about missing hugs, high-fives, and other human contact?

In prison, I was not allowed to hug, kiss, give handshakes, or high-fives. This was very difficult because those are the things that make me feel human, and not like an animal locked in a cage where no one touches me.

“I had never realized how much human contact meant to me.”

Faith Bartley

While incarcerated, I developed my own language to express my humanness. When I would see friends in the yard, at the chow hall, or church services, I would draw or trace an air heart with my arms and fingers; really big and wide, letting them know I love them.

I had never realized how much human contact meant to me or the adjustment I had to make because of the prison protocol. Prisons dehumanize people, point blank. Not being allowed to touch or have any human contact other than by speaking may seem small, but it was huge to me, and something that I know many of us are going through now. To help you in this crisis, maybe you too could create a non-contact language similar to what I have, which helped me cope. When you see friends or neighbors from across the street, what can you do to let them know you see and love them?

Faith Bartley, Lead PPC Fellow

How can I eat well without many ingredients or grocery access?

When I was incarcerated, I did not have any family to put money on my books [a bank account that family and friends can add money to for you while you’re in jail or prison]. This meant I often had to eat the meals served by the jail; three meals that were always skimpy, lacking in nutrition, not appetizing, and made me sick. They were served at weird times (sometimes dinner was at 3!). I was always hungry.

» READ MORE: Racing against a coronavirus clock, Philly courts release 200+ jail inmates in the first week of fast-track emergency hearings

To get through my own struggles with hunger and lack of access to healthy food, I would try and make the most of whatever I could find and put together a creative meal. Which, when I was incarcerated, meant making what we called “chichi” — ramen we’d cook with cheese twists, sausage, peas, corn, whatever ingredients we had lying around. Everyone would cook together and then come to the table to eat as a family.

Making a delicious meal that seemed to come out of nothing filled our stomachs and our souls. It helped me fight the deep loneliness I felt while incarcerated.

Lisa Shorter, PPC Fellow

Any tips for rationing toilet paper and personal hygiene items?

When you’re locked up, toilet paper is one of the hardest things to get. We only have one roll to split between two people, and that has to last one week. You depend on the Correctional Officers to get more, and if they were in a bad mood, you might not get any TP that day or week. It was also really hard to get feminine hygiene products. You’d only get one or two pads and have to make it last a whole day. If they’re not giving you pads, and you don’t have toilet paper to use instead, what do you do then? It made you feel degraded, helpless, and less than human.

» READ MORE: Defuse the ticking time bomb of coronavirus in jails and prisons | Editorial

Items in the prison commissary (where we have to buy many items) were out of stock often. Some people would order so many of the same items that they weren’t available to others, or items would simply be out of stock from the distributor. Sound familiar to what we’re going through now?

My suggestions are to try switching brands from whatever you usually buy, to a cheaper or more available version. You could also contact a friend, neighbor, or family member and ask if they have any items you’re looking for — or vice versa — and offer to pay, trade, or gift. When I see people now hoarding toilet paper, hand sanitizer, food, and other things we all need, I think about my time in jail. I hope that instead of hoarding and taking advantage of others, people reach out, come together, and help each other.

Kerri DeLeo, PPC Fellow

How do I adjust to not having control over everyday life?

I, like everyone who has spent time in jail or prison, struggled with this. I was kept in solitary confinement for almost a year. Some things that helped were keeping my faith in my God; I read the word, prayed, and believed things would turn out good. I stayed busy working and signed up for all the programs I could. I called my family 3 times a day even though the calls were only 10 minutes. I calculated my commissary orders to stretch my money. Also, I read books and took naps, played cards, and took showers at a certain time every day to keep a routine.

“Know that when things get better, you will be able to go as you please.”

Latyra Blake

Try to do what makes you happy. I’m finding happiness in relaxing, eating something I enjoy, listening to music, or watching a good movie. While we can’t do many things the way we’re used to, you can still see your friends, go for a walk, share a meal, cook for each other — just make sure all are done from a safe distance or virtually. Know that when things get better, you will be able to go as you please. All I ever wanted to do was travel, and probation kept me from that (since you usually can’t leave your city without a verbal or written agreement). Now that I finally have permission from my probation officer to leave Philadelphia whenever I want, the world is shut down. Although I still struggle all the time, I believe my life — and yours! — will go back to how I like it to be. Stay safe and remain strong.

—Latyra Blake, PPC Peer Mentor

How do I handle missing my older relatives, friends, and neighbors?

When I was incarcerated, I didn’t have money on my books to call my loved ones, which was devastating and fed my loneliness. When I first arrived, I didn’t know anyone and had no money, which meant I went a whole month without talking to someone on the outside who I loved and missed. Can you imagine that?

Later, talking to people on the outside gave me hope, grounded me, reminded me of what was to come, and that what I was going through was not forever. I also would do favors, like washing clothes for other women, so I could get stamps to write those I love and try to make them feel extra special. What you’re experiencing in this moment is not so different. To get through this and stay connected to your loved ones, find as many ways as you can to reach out.

When this is all over, I hope you never have to experience this again. I also hope you think of those that are locked up and how hard it is for them, and us, not to see, hug, or talk to those you love on a daily basis.

Aesha Barnett, PPC Fellow

How can I survive being stuck inside, unable to travel?

The jail where I was incarcerated only allowed us to come out of our cell every other day. We used our “in days” to connect with our cellmates. We discussed common likes and future plans. On days we were let out, we utilized things we had access to, such as the TV, card games, getting our hair done, phone time.

» READ MORE: Isolation is linked to decline for seniors. That makes social distancing a frightening prospect

On days I was in complete isolation, I listened to music and used my creativity to draw, write, read, learn, set goals. The result was a published book, The Year We Didn’t Vote, that, sadly, probably would never have existed if I wasn’t forced to sit there. So use this time to try things: crocheting, meditating, house painting, clearing out old stuff, as just a few suggestions. Do things you never had time to do before and know that this too shall pass.

Jamila W. Harris, PPC Fellow

What about not seeing my friends?

If the situation is out of your control, you have to truly accept it. You really can’t do anything about it at the moment, so stop stressing. You have to be patient. In my experience, having tremendous faith helps a lot. One thing I’ve done that helped is remembering the moments you’ve already shared. Tell your loved ones what you dream of doing when you are reunited. More importantly, have faith this won’t last forever.

Kitty Marrero, PPC Fellow

A program of the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, the People’s Paper Co-op works with formerly incarcerated women to challenge stereotypes and fight for policies and programs to keep women free.