In the midst of this pandemic, the one weapon any of us can truly count on with any degree of confidence is our immune systems. On a good day, when one of us falls ill, maybe we get to see a doctor. On a really good day perhaps the doctor even provides some remedy to return us back to health. But this is prison. Good days are few and far between.
It didn’t take long to figure out that if a person intends to survive long enough to have a decent life after prison, it’s a good idea to keep oneself healthy. Just like out there, it’s easy to make excuses for a lack of vigilance. It’s easy to gravitate towards comfort foods. It’s even easier to stay inside on a rainy day and forego exercise.
For many of us, that quickly becomes the norm. Every winter, those are the guys who catch every bug that goes through here. Sometimes they even catch them twice. Normally that’s a good reason to steer clear of them. These days, that’s reason to live in mortal fear of them.
I get up in the morning and mix several single serving packets of powdered milk into a cup of cold water. Often while I’m doing this, one of my neighbor will come walking past my cell with a frosted honey bun he’s just heated up in the microwave room. As I pour my milk-like concoction over the gritty cardboard testing cereal they feed us, I smell the cinnamon sweetness lingering in the air.
After breakfast, my neighbor crawls back under his blankets and either watches TV or falls back asleep. Sometimes both. I head to the recreation area and whether I feel like it or not, make myself engage in some vigorous physical activity until I’m soaked in sweat.
Some days it’s difficult to make myself do these things. That honey bun smells awesome. I could easily purchase a sack full of those instead of the things I buy to supplement the limited protein content of my diet, with my meager monthly earnings.
The same holds true for the vigorous physical activity. The older I become, the more things ache when I climb out of bed each morning. The prospect of shrugging that off to immerse myself in a western Washington rain storm is often an exercise in personal discipline without parallel.
Yet as I sit on my bunk trying to talk myself into actually doing what I know in my heart I need to do, I’ll hear someone cough in a cage near the one they keep me in. I’ll recall how guys spend all winter suffering from some respiratory ailment, while I enjoy vigorous good health. It’s through this negative modeling that I am able to strengthen my resolve and drag my aching joints out into the rain to give my immune system a needed boost.
A few hours later, the aches in my joints will have subsided. I’ll enjoy the gait and fluidity of a much younger man. All the while, those who chose honey buns and the passing comfort of curling back up under their blankets will be coughing away and struggling to breathe properly.
I was fortunate. when I first arrived, decades ago, I was deeply impressed by all the guys walking around these places looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a fitness magazine. Initially my motivation was to ward off predators, but over time, good health went from being a thing I do into becoming a defining characteristic of who I am.
It started with weight lifting. Within a few years, I found myself lifting poundages I’d have never thought possible. I even began winning powerlifting competitions. it was the first time in my life I’d ever been really good at anything.
This success soon empowered me to apply myself to other pursuits. It didn’t take long to reach the realization that I possessed the capacity to excel at nearly anything as long as I applied myself and put forth a sustained effort.
The next step in my rehabilitative journey was to share my success with others, with younger versions of myself so to speak. Perhaps I could help them realize their potential more quickly than the rather lengthy path I had followed.
During this process, a clear and perhaps defining goal emerged. When I finally took stock in my progress, and the potential I took so long to comprehend, it became obvious. My goal is to walk out of prison a better man in every way than I was when I first came to prison.
Of course that should be everyone’s goal in these places. The fact that it isn’t is an indictment on a broken system. But at least there are some of us who have eventually figured this out, albeit after years of trial and error. Having to fight against the system that should have been facilitating this transformation sure hasn’t done anyone a service.
So when the COVID crisis emerged as the defining event of this entire year and perhaps longer, this mindset became the best protection possible short of a vaccine.
The sound of coughing still invades my cage with regularity. When I stand in line to pick up my meals, when I look down I see my feet, while many of my peers have been viewing ever expanding bellies for some time now. When I have to stop occasionally because my mask has fogged up my glasses, the guys with their masks stretched across their chins breeze right on by.
But when COVID eventually arrives at this facility, I know who is likely to be at the head of the line to collect their issue of the virus. I have a pretty good idea who will require hospitalization too, and, sadly, it’s not difficult to surmise who might not make it through.
When I walked out into the rain storm this morning, full of powdered milk and tasteless cereal, I did this knowing that there already is a vaccine against COVID. Sweat has served me well so far. I take comfort in the belief it will see me through this crisis as well. I will walk out of prison a better man in every way.