Back from the Edge

Prison Cell

Solitary confinement may be a far cry from solitary retreat, but for Jayaka, an experience in prison as a young man has things to tell him about his mind

It was during the tea break at the LBC’s Wednesday evening class that I first heard someone talking about going on a solitary retreat. Being on your own – why on earth would someone want to do that? I was left with a reminder of one of my own experiences of solitude.

It wasn’t voluntary. The morning it happened, the door of my prison cell was flung open and several burly prison officers came racing in. They’d got wind that one of us was in possession of drugs. There were three of us in this particular cell. All of us were marched to the punishment block – though we just called it ‘The Block’. I was told to strip completely and I was put into what is called a strip cell. It was a dark, Victorian cell designed to help you cool off: there was just a flat piece of wood on the floor in place of a bed, plus a blanket.

After a few hours I was moved to another cell which had a heavy, metal-framed bed and a chair and table which seemed to be made of a kind of thick cardboard. The furniture was designed so you couldn’t break it up and use it as a weapon. I had my prison clothes back now, but no personal possessions whatsoever. My shoes were minus laces in case I tried to hang myself with them.

Through a window, very high up, I could see a few inches of sky. The walls were painted a kind of speckled yellow colour which I felt sure was meant to confuse the mind.

My reflective faculty began to kick in: ‘How did I get here?’ ‘What has happened to me?’ And alongside those questions, an absolute rage. My instincts were telling me not to back down – just to keep fighting, whatever they threw at me. But there was no fight left. All I could do was reflect.

Despite doing lots of exercise in my cell, which would help me with my anger and my sleep, my mental states began to descend. I was being faced with myself as never before and it was very painful. I would fall asleep and wake up and have no idea how long I’d been asleep or what time it was. Ten days passed.

You don’t often hear men scream

On my first day, someone in the next cell was really going through it. I don’t know who he was but he was making a lot of noise, banging on a heating pipe that ran through all the cells. After lunch, a time when everyone in the prison would be locked in their cells and the place was generally quiet, there was a sudden noise of footsteps and a rattle of keys. I heard the door of the next cell open; there was a scuffle and someone started to scream. You don’t often hear men scream.

After about a week, the intensity peaked. I had nothing to identify myself with – no photos of loved ones, nothing. Later, when I recounted this to a friend, he said that it sounded like what happens at death. My conscience was heavy and I wondered if I would go mad. Prison officers would look through the spy hole in my door every few hours – what they call ‘suicide watch’. But I was too stubborn to resort to that. At the lowest point I was lying on my bed with my eyes open, and had something like a waking dream. I can only say that my aunts visited me and I felt an overwhelming love. I was momentarily transported out of the hellish states of mind I’d been in. This seemed to bring me back from the edge. Also at this time a more senior prison officer had noticed how distressed I’d become and had shown me some kindness, which helped.

When I finally made it back to the main wing of the prison I felt great. I’d had a close encounter with madness, but came out of there feeling confident and strong.

These days when I go on solitary retreat I love it. It can’t really compare it with solitary confinement, but I know I’m not scared of my mind now. And I understand what can happen when others are not around. I suspect the experience I had back then contains in it the seeds for all I really need to know. But for them to flourish I’ve needed the light of the Dharma. Solitary confinement was one of the defining moments of my life – it sent me in search of answers. ■

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