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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