Staying Sane in Segregation

by Alfonso Rodriguez Puente

I can't remember when I first started writing to Alfonso Rodriguez Puente, who is incarcerated in Texas. Was it six years ago? Eight? From the first letter, I knew I was dealing with an extraordinary man who had lived through hard times and made some pretty bad choices in life. Over the years, deprived of freedom, normal social exchanges, and a support system, Alfonso has somehow grown into a published poet, artist, philosopher. He has been totally rehabilitated and yet, because of certain affiliations, he lives in segregation, locked in a cell 23 hours a day. I asked him to write about how he survives such deprivation and what coping mechanisms he has developed. I hope you enjoy looking into the heart and soul of Alfonso as much as I do. - Judith Fein

Write, do exercise, read, play chess or draw. Don't allow your feelings to override reason. Segregation, especially in a tiny cell of about 8.5-feet by 10-feet, can break your spirit and make you lose connection with reality.

Being in segregation, a person is deprived of human touch, food is passed through a food-slot, and movement is brought down to four paces back and forth. A person remains inside the cell, at least, twenty-three hours a day. The convict may develop tendonitis or other illness associated with stepping, constantly on the hard cement. The challenge is not only physical, but also mental, because a convict may be reduced to an animalistic state of mind. Deprivation of contact with other people and communication are two important deficiencies that play an important role in developing psychological illness.

photo by Still Burning via Flickr.com

Sometimes, a convict may have communication problems with his family, wife, or other loved ones. Other times, he may have problems with the officers or convicts around him. In such instances, the convict may find himself in a situation where the moral codes and rules of prison life are at odds with his own physical and mental needs. A convict must find a way to deal with his problems honorably. Taking our feelings and dumping them in the hands of our loved ones can be an optional choice, but the convict must realize that it is he who is doing the time. Eventually, the convict is forced by circumstances to deal with his own suffering. Our parents and loved ones have to keep living their lives, move on with the free world, while we are frozen in time.

When the convict finds himself in the circumstances I mentioned, if the convict does nothing to release physical and/or mental stress, he may start developing physical and mental problems, such as psychosis or back pain.

What I do to avoid problems of this nature, I do a little stretching exercise, grab a book, write, read and play chess. I'm not immune to feelings of anger and hate, which are two of the main causes of trouble, but I do my best to control myself. When the negative feelings are very strong, I apace around my cell and force myself to think about something pleasant. If the negative feelings persist, I grab pen and paper and write my feelings down. Writing, after all, is a physical and mental action. I'm doing something to force my mind to go faster over the negative feelings.

Writing down my negative feelings and intentions is part of the process but not everything I do to get over my negativity. I also keep my mind open to reason. Putting down my feelings and intentions on paper may not be a direct action against the cause of my anger and hate, but it can become a reality if I stay focused on that which causes discomfort. Being open to reason, I keep the doors open to wise, mature options to solve my inner conflicts. This way, I may find that, even though the object of my fury may be in the wrong, I could have done something to bring such outcome on myself.

After the bitter feelings are gone, I can destroy whatever I put on paper, or I can select certain writings from there and make them into a poem. Either way, I win because I deal with my inner struggle without causing harm to others or myself.

There are times when a conflict needs a verbal solution. For example, if I accidentally earn an officer's displeasure. If such is the case, I use the "I-language" and avoid cussing words. There may be times when keeping a hostile tone out of my voice is almost impossible. In such instances, I think about what I will say before I speak. I avoid putting the blame on the officer and use phrases such as, "The reason I remain quiet is because I don't want to offend you with cussing words. I have trouble with my vocabulary so I'm trying to find respectable words to answer with the respect your deserve and not with my coarse language."

One thing I never do when I'm under duress is to remain inactive. I have seen and experienced the side effects of remaining inactive in times of crisis. I wake up with no energy, I feel down without knowing why, anything people tell me for my own good annoys me, I begin to feel that my neighbors are conspiring against me, and a strong feeling of helplessness afflicts me. These are human weaknesses that nobody can avoid. Not being able to deal with them is what can cause mental illness.

When I find myself going down a spiral of stressful thoughts and/or conditions, I share my feelings with the people I love. Don't confuse "dumping my feelings" with "sharing my feelings." When I share my feelings with those I love, I'm communicating with them. This helps me keep possession of my human identity at the same time that I'm releasing mental stress.

In segregation, a person can easily develop insanity. I know it out of experience. All feelings inside this tiny cell are magnified. Keeping a healthy body and active mind helps me deal with the limits of my physical confinement. I have to confess that the moral support of my loved ones is a strong pillar to my sanity. I don't confuse their kindness with weakness. I try to be as sincere as possible with those I love and with my own self.

Doing the things I do, it's not always easy because there are times when I have to put pride aside. Pride is an incentive that can motivate people to do productive things, but it can also cause people to do foolish things. Pride is one of the human qualities that define us, individually. Sadly, it can also be the cause to remain silent and go insane. One must have courage to put pride aside and have courage to embrace reason. Anyone who can stay open to reason, have the courage to put pride aside, and maintain the mind occupied, can stay sane in segregation.

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