Arts & Culture News

House Arrest: Former Inmates Give Us Their Best Advice to Get Through the Lockdown

No amount of Orange Is the New Black has prepared us for this.
No amount of Orange Is the New Black has prepared us for this. Matthew Ansley/ Unsplash
The stay-at-home life isn't exactly like jail. We can take walks, shop online, call whomever we want, have conjugal visits, Netflix until our brains fry and watch real prisoners on the screen, who have it much worse.

No matter how necessary, complying with the stay-at-home order feels like a very close form of house arrest. With no visitors and limited human contact outside of the people we’re home with, the lockdown can be lonesome, boring and one big serotonin suck.

Real jails, meanwhile, are dedicating space to house petty offenders. Some jails have accepted that they’re unequipped to handle the spread of coronavirus and are releasing low-level offenders, which raises a question we should remember to ask when the pandemic is over. Why jail them at all?

In the meantime, let's take lessons from those who have served real time about how to survive being grounded as adults.

Richard Haskins, the famously wild frontman for Denton punk band Wee Beasties, has been candid about his experience in jail and prison, where he was held for two years for attempted bank robbery.

Haskins says he never became sick while locked up except for the occasional cough or mild infection, but he still learned the healing powers of exercise and fresh air, as well as some unorthodox tricks.

“Make sure to piss on your feet in the shower, since it's slightly antifungal and will help keep your feet clean,” he says.

While incarcerated, the singer relished in small delights and focused on the things he could change to make his small corner of the world more pleasant.

“I made my bed a lot, took pride in my small piece of the jail and scheduled a routine: At 8 a.m. I ran, at 10 a.m. I wrote or drew something creative and then wrote letters to friends ... after lunch, I'd walk on the rec yard and listen to songs in my head. I wrote a lot there,” he says. “Eventually, I got a radio and could listen to jazz when I walked. I'd read either a classic piece of literature or something informative every single day ... textbooks. No one wants to be bored and dumb.”

The silver lining to the lockup life, Haskins says, is its refreshing change of pace, which allows time for reflection and discussion.

“Everything is so fast nowadays. In there, everything was slow,” he says. “The way it is now kinda, only in the free world we have the gift of instant communication and the burden of instant gratification.”

Reid Davis, a repair service company owner, has served three years in DFW jails for possession of a controlled substance and DWI. He says he found that even being under high stress without the chance to make decisions about his own life or circumstances, he could still choose to be happy.

“There were many men that chose to be grumpy all of the time; some people chose to be happy, and in many situations that choice is all you need,” Davis says.

The best way to keep a sense of purpose while locked up, he says, was to help others in need.

“I'd read either a classic piece of literature or something informative every single day ... textbooks. No one wants to be bored and dumb.” — Richard Haskins

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“I wrote county clerks all around the state of Texas getting men who were incarcerated out early by forcing the corrupt courts to recognize back time those men spent in other counties,” Davis recalls. “Most of us have a lot of personal paperwork that we need to get taken care of — I know I do — and getting those taxes together, getting your unemployment paperwork filled out, is also an exercise in patience, persistence. ... If you can help someone else with their situation, in this horrible situation for all of us, you might just wind up feeling pretty good about what you were able to accomplish even under restraint.”

Tin Man Travis spent a total of a decade locked up for firearms possession and used his time to serve the music gods by learning to play the blues. He’s now known for his guitar playing, which wails with jailbird cries. Travis remembers the first 30 days in jail as the hardest and advises following a regular schedule to take care of one’s mind, body and soul.

“Incorporate things to strengthen you physically, mentally and emotionally,” he says. “Wake up, wash up, read some quotes for the day and work out your body.”

Confiding in mentors and playing games that strengthen the brain can help us get through the age of coronavirus with some semblance of hope.

“Set goals — daily, short term and long term and keep a daily journal to monitor progress,” he says. “Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Rinse, repeat. To sum it up: Shit, shower and sleep.”

Sarah Battle, a Dallas DJ who has spent a year in custody for a drug-related charge, sees a strong parallel between jail time and shelter-in-place.

“Like, toilet paper is gold in a woman’s unit,” she says. “We have been without, and it’s a shit show, pun intended. If you had money, you could prepare for shortages. But on the cool, there was a lot of stolen toilet paper, and some women resorted to using their socks. So when the city set limitations, it reminded me of those times.

“There’s significant differences between institutional incarceration and quarantine. … I value freedom and time. I’m thankful for my freedoms and try to make decisions that benefit us, everyone. I had to learn patience in there … and for me, last month went by suuuuper slow.”

While she missed her loved ones while she was in jail, Battle says she’s grateful for the fact that during this lockdown, she’s in good, and chosen, company.

“I think relationships and mental health are very important; it’s important to have someone to talk to, processing and divulging feelings, emotions, thoughts, et cetera,” she says. She’s using her time now to engage with others through social media by performing live sets. “I love how people are coping together and that this pandemic has created stronger bonds between us, and experiencing entertainment gold in a time of crisis.”

Battle believes that jail specifically prepared her “for adapting to adversity, abrupt lifestyle changes and allowing myself to appreciate life in those moments.”
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Eva Raggio is the Dallas Observer's music and arts editor, a job she took after several years of writing about local culture and music for the paper. Eva supports the arts by rarely asking to be put on "the list" and always replies to emails, unless the word "pimp" makes up part of the artist's name.
Contact: Eva Raggio