October 10, 2023

Surviving the Cell with Light.


View this post on Instagram


It must be about 4 a.m.

It’s past the vicious shouting at new arrivals hour, which usually happens at midnight or one, sometimes two in the morning, I’m guessing from mere clock-worn memory. There is no time in jail.

It could be the yelling and pot banging that starts before 5:15 a.m. chow. No matter, one kind of clamor or another has jarred me awake from twilight sleep, the time of nightmares. I am up.

Despite the distant kitchen din, I am essentially alone among 39 other sleeping bodies bunked 20 by 20 in two rows. Only a few of the concrete ceiling fluorescent light strips remain lit, flickering dingy light over dirt and iron.

Time to sneak some contraband stretching.

Dragging the scratchy army blanket across my parched skin, I toss my legs over the side of the bottom bunk where I spent the last five hours of sleep—strafed by the nighttime hollering of hateful deputies, punctuated by the boom of locking cell gates announcing admittances and releases.

I bend over to remove my frayed soccer knee socks, pull my folded smock from under my pint-sized commissary pillow and arm-climb into it.

Walking barefoot on the filthy, cold cement is not only risky for contracting diseases but for unleashing the wrath of the screaming key holders.

It’s against the rules. But I have no choice.

The uniform dress code around here is state-issued pants, smock, panties, bra, socks, and sandals. Violations, from hiding lunch bread slices to ingesting smuggled heroin, meet with fury. Full dress is always required except for sleeping and showering.

Seemingly a small infraction for not wearing socks and sandals, the punishment is just as ferocious as for punching an inmate.

Socked and sandaled feet slip on the dusty floor as my body v-forms into downward dog, so I strip them bare. Luckily, it’s early, and all around me sleep; there is relaxed oversight of the dimly lit tank.

I begin.

My first reach to the sun’s imagined rays flicks on the electric heat of my awakening. I drop my outstretched arms ground-ward, hands on the cold cement floor, swooshing liquid cool up through my fingertips straight to my brain.

I hang, eyes closed.

I arise again, a quick flash of my now open eyes left to right on the way up. Still no signs of life. Again, I reach for the sightless sky on tip toes, inhaling deeply a wide swath of dank air. This time my arms float to the floor like feather flight.

It’s the closest to light I sense in a 24-hour day of darkness. I savor the sensation in my mouth and pores, behind my eyelids.

The warmth now channeling through to my extremities, I step back, flatten my feet and hands to the ground, and elongate the small of my back pushed to the peak of the mountain that is me.

I exhale.

In contra pointe, I invert my spine, concave to the convex, and arch my mind’s eye to the cabined sun’s unseen stare.

I inhale.

I always start with sun salutations.

In this pit of despair, I yearn for sun salutations, as if I could beckon the sun to me with willed movement. I reach for the sun beyond the cement walls, iron bars, and barbed wire, in my heart, in my outstretched arms atop a high lunge, with eyes closed.

And then, still with lids shut, I hear it—the slightest pit-pat of light-stepping feet. Unwilling to leave my blissful blindness and breath, I continue.

Folded forward, fingertips to the floor, I intuit the wafting warmth emanating from another body nearby, edging closer, one more step of those approaching feet…bare feet.

I raise my arms to the sky.

She follows.

I can almost hear the whooshing wind of her upsweeping arms.

She, like so many here whose only real crime is poverty and addiction, is a stranger to the practice of Yoga, but she is drawn to the peace in movement that communicates strength and equanimity. Somehow, she senses this hypnotic muscle movement, mystically performed with closed eyes, practiced in stealth, is important. I can tell.

Like others before her, she joins in wordlessly awhile and then quietly moves on, having brushed lightly against another’s spirit, a slight salve to the relentless dehumanization of this place. But some come back the next day, looking for stolen moments of breath and freedom.

They could punish us for laughing, talking, brushing each other’s hair, but they could not take the breath from our mouths, lungs, and cells.

Compassion’s gateway opened and my heart could finally see.

Part of surviving a short, unfortunate stint in county jail—something unimagined in my safe, suburban middle-class life—was finding a safe path, a negotiated space of compromise.

So much taken for granted like where to look, how to follow, what to do, feel, or think, and how to be alone but also committed to remaining human were always in the forefront.

I despised my jailers, throwing everything I had into that hate: fear, disappointment, protectiveness over my bedraggled tank mates, a revolving cast of homelessness, drug addiction, petty theft, and prostitution.

So, I stopped looking at them, avoided wherever they were, even if it meant never leaving the tank.

Court days were the worst. The strip search, handcuffs, barred window buses, long walks down musty basement halls, waiting in cages, behind courtroom walls in roach-infested cement rooms, bodies strewn on benches, wet floors, and paper lunch sacks thrown into the room implicated them all as cruel caste members.

Then one day it clicked.

I was staring at a cement wall, the shouts coming at my semi clothed back—hating—when the realization struck: I’m leaving this place. These guards return five or six times a week, every week, maybe for years, rabid, spewing disgust, to do their job. This was their job.

And I melted, my being swollen with care. I cried.

Soon after, I left.

My survival there was in reading a lot, learning to close my eyes and listen to what could not be taken from me—my own thoughts and beliefs, practicing yoga, and eventually flipping the switch from hatred to compassion for my jailers.

Yoga taught me a long time ago to reach, to seek gratitude and light, something my fellow inmates wanted to touch even if just for a fleeting moment.


Please consider Boosting our authors’ articles in their first week to help them win Elephant’s Ecosystem so they can get paid and write more.


Read 2 Comments and Reply

Read 2 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Pamela Gerber  |  Contribution: 915

author: Pamela Gerber

Image: hollysharpe_drawings/instagram

Editor: Lisa Erickson