Saving Your Mind: Mental Health in the Age of COVID

November 1, 2020
By Leo Cardez
Illinois Department of Corrections

“This is some crazy ass shit; and I thought I’d seen it all after twenty years in the joint.”  Murder*, my COVID wing co-worker, lamented while shaking his head.  We were dragging yet another fellow inmate to the hospital wing of our prison.  Murder is a seasoned con from the streets of Chicago’s South side, but I swear I saw a tear in his eye.

            There were four of us glorified janitors working in the makeshift quarantine wing of our prison.  Besides cleaning, we were tasked with moving and caring for sick (even dead) inmates.  At the peak of our coronavirus outbreak, we worked seven days a week double shifts, sweating through our full PPE—too busy to even stop and eat.  It was only at the end of the day, during my shower, that I would finally have a moment to catch my breath.  Sometimes I would break down, hiding my tears as the warm water washed over me.  My co-workers and I suffered everything from nightmares to migraines.  We lost and gained weight at an alarming rate.  We slept sporadically and were often depressed or angry.  Double D, my morning co-worker, said it best, “We are never going to be the same after this… you cannot unsee or undo this type of damage.”

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Managing Uncertainty

By Leo Cardez

From PHN Issue 47, Fall 2021From the new Department of Corrections leadership to politics and the coronavirus pandemic, inmates live in volatile times. In prison, all we know for sure is that we don’t know shit—we live off of rumor and conjecture. And that’s not good for us. The damage caused by our unpredictable circumstances causes havoc on every aspect of our being.

  • Activity increases in brain areas associated with fear and hypervigilance. Persistent uncertainty can alter the brain’s architecture and increase the long-term risk of depression and cognitive impairment.
  • It affects our body through a cascade of stress hormones released as part of the fightor-flight response, making us sweaty, dilating our pupils, quickening our breathing, and tensing our muscles.
  • It affects our thinking as we become more reluctant to take risks and less likely to focus on future rewards. Also, our perception of time changes: The present seems endless, and we feel cut off from the past and future.
  • It affects our feelings, creating unease. Research shows that waiting for sentencing generates more anxiety than the sentencing itself, which may bring a sense of relief. (I can attest, the year I spent waiting to be sentenced was the longest and hardest for me.)

Incarceration during this historic epidemic seems to hold more questions than answers: Will I or someone I love get sick? Are my job, school and cell, assignment secure? What do the election results mean to our shadow community—are there any criminal reform initiatives on the horizon? And when will my facility go back to normal—if at all?

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COVID Prison Testimonies: Parish Brown

February 19, 2021
by Parish Brown
Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections

I wrote this poem in the beginning of this COVID pandemic. My first thought was, will I see my mother again? My second thought was, I should be safe because the only way I could get it is through the staff and the DOC is going to take extra care of their staff, right? But I was wrong. The COVID entered the prison as fast as the convicts that is housed in it. Before I even felt the symptoms of COVID it attacked my mental health. Everything I did became excessive. I washed my hands so much that my skin started to pull off around my fingernails. Cleaning my cell went from two times a day to five times a day. With only an hour for rec, I took a half hour shower. I did all of that and still caught COVID. I couldn’t eat for the first five days. I found out after I went to the hospital that I had pneumonia. I thought that I wasn’t going to make it because mentally I wasn’t prepared to fight it. I pulled through because I didn’t want my family to remember me for this. I have a higher purpose and through my poetry you’ll hear my voice. Continue reading “COVID Prison Testimonies: Parish Brown”

Mental Health is Essential

By Ethan Macks

From PHN Issue 46, Spring/Summer 2021

With all the concern going around about COVID-19 and what is essential and what is not, I feel that there needs to be greater consideration for mental health.

Being incarcerated, I see a lot of stigma concerning the issue of mental health. Being labeled as SMI (Seriously Mentally Ill) on the streets, I’ve had ample experience with mental health and how it should be treated. The National Institute of Mental Health defines SMI as a “mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” SMI commonly refers to a diagnosis of psychotic disorders (schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder with psychotic symptoms, treatment-resistant depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and personality disorders.

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My Experience with PTSD

By Bernard Lee Starks Jr.

From PHN Issue 43, Summer 2020

Hi, my name is Bernard Lee Starks Jr. I am a 30-year-old African-American male who has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Contrary to the belief that PTSD only happens in people who have experienced war, my PTSD comes from getting sucker-punched over an intense three-year span in a juvenile correctional facility. The degree to which I was affected was unknown until I became an advocate against sexual violence and began reading about rape trauma syndrome.

Being in confinement is very difficult, especially while fighting symptoms of PTSD. It’s always noise from people or machinery which adds difficulty to maintaining assertiveness. After speaking with a trusted psychologist at 20 years old, I was told I likely had PTSD.

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Promoting Mental Wellness in the Time of Coronavirus

By Rosa Friedman

From PHN Issue 42, Spring 2020

Being locked up is difficult enough under normal circumstances, and right now circumstances are far from normal. You may be experiencing a wide range of emotions, like loneliness due to lack of contact with peers and visits from loved ones, helplessness and anger at not being able to protect yourself, or numbness at the unrelenting nature of this crisis. You might shift dramatically between moods with little
warning, or have more thoughts about or symptoms related to other traumatic experiences. Whatever you’re feeling, remember there’s no wrong way to react to what’s happening. It’s normal to feel ungrounded, helpless, or just “off” in such an unusual situation, one where there’s so much uncertainty and powerlessness. It’s also normal to feel extra calm, especially if you’ve been through a lot of crises before. What’s important is to focus on what’s within your control and to do what you can to
care for yourself, mentally as well as physically. Here are some ways to practice selfcare during this difficult time:

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Complex PTSD

By Lucy Gleysteen and Brittany Mitchell

From PHN Issue 41, Winter 2020

What is complex trauma, or complex PTSD?

Complex trauma is a trauma that is repetitive, occurs over a period of time, and is frequently interpersonal in nature. Complex PTSD most often develops in childhood and can include experiences of abandonment at an early age, physical abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, living in a neighborhood that has high levels of violence, being impacted by war, repetitive and invasive medical procedures, or other experiences of being in a traumatic environment for a prolonged period of time. Not everyone who has had traumatic experiences develops complex PTSD. However, those who do might experience certain difficulties that can be painful to live with.

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Giving is Living

By Leo Cardez

From PHN Issue 40, Summer/Fall 2019

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” —Albert Einstein

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Could the secret to a better life be as easy as helping others? The published scientific research is compelling:

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