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Sheltered in Place: Profound Lessons from Solitary Confinement

Trium: Dialogues on the Future of Leadership

Like most people today, my conversations with clients and friends inevitably turn to the topic of sheltering in place and the challenges it presents. If I had to label it, I’d say that we are feeling sorry for ourselves, even though, many of us are still living in our homes with our families…and with most, if not all, our normal comforts. And yet, as a business leader, father, and husband I feel that it is imperative that I make this challenging time a unique opportunity for learning, connection, and growth. To better understand how to do that, I recently had the privilege of interviewing Eldra Jackson, who spent 24 years in prison with numerous stints in solitary confinement, including one that lasted two years. Who better to learn from than someone who lived through more than two decades in a small room, and came out stronger, clearer, and more compassionate? But I underestimated what I would learn from Eldra in this interview – his wisdom was frankly just extraordinary.

Andrew Blum (Andrew): Tell us about your experience with solitary confinement.

Eldra Jackson (Eldra): I was in solitary confinement several times – probably six or seven, in total. The longest period was for two years. The one that might be most relevant to this current situation, though, was the last time I went in (to solitary confinement, also referred to as “the hole”), which lasted for about a week. At that point, I was no longer in the gang and was less than a year from getting out. It was a setup and completely undeserved. Every other time I’d gone into the hole, it was because of something I’d done…but this time was different. Someone who didn’t want to see me get out of prison was gunning for me. At this point in my personal development, I was in a different state of mind. I no longer had a criminal mindset, so this was a shock to my system – it was completely out of the blue. I was not mentally, emotionally, or physically prepared.

Andrew: How did you manage the shock of it?

Eldra: I knew that going into the hole was unnecessary, so my first thought was that I would not be going home. I was so close to being paroled and returning to my community, and yet, the only way I could get through this was to resign myself to the worst-case scenario…which was that the parole board would deny me, and I’d spend another seven-to-ten years in prison. I knew I had to recognize those things I had no control over and let those things go. If I trip on the things I have no control over, I’ll go crazy. So, I steeled myself for that. I had to make peace with it, and if I could, then I knew everything else would be cookies and cream.

Andrew: But how do you make peace with something that seems so unfair?

Eldra: Once I came out of my period of shock and grief, I resolved to approach this in a way that wouldn’t break me mentally or emotionally. I had come so far. I knew I didn’t want to revert to the criminal lifestyle and didn’t want to be on medication or dope. So, I had to mentally construct a reason to live—a reason to put one foot in front of the other.

Andrew: What was that reason for you?

Eldra: For me, life was way too precious and valuable to give up. All those things I mentioned before (criminal lifestyle, medication, drugs, etc.) would have been me giving up on what “real life” is. All of those things for me were just my experience of existing. There is a very big distinction between existing and living. I was resolved to not go back to just existing and succumbing to the fear of the unknown and not being able to plan for tomorrow. That shit will paralyze you. I refused to be paralyzed by that fear – fear of these people having control over me, getting what they want, seeing me broken. I refused to allow myself to succumb to that.

Andrew: Talk to me more about that. What is the difference between existing and living?

Eldra: Existing is what we were doing before COVID-19. People were doing things by routine. “I’ve got to get up. I’ve got to go to work. When I get there, I have to do this…I have to do that. I have to do all of these things to get to an end result.” When you are existing, you don’t think about any of it – it is just muscle memory. You’re not really connected to any of it.

For me, the difference between existing and living is that I’m connected. I’m taking stock in what I’m doing. I’m moving with a purpose. I value the things I’m doing and value the things I put my time and energy into. When I’m living, I appreciate the people I’m interacting with. I see them as humans. When I’m just existing, people are objects – people just either help me get to my objectives or they are in the way of my objectives.

The primary distinction is moving from an unconscious pattern of just getting through each day – which doing drugs does, becoming a criminal does – into a conscious pattern of getting through each day, which is about making choices to honor yourself, your body and your mind.

Andrew: Your level of awareness and clarity will be hard for many people to really relate to, especially given your daily living situation. Tell me about that. What did your life look like when you were in solitary confinement? What did you do each day with such limited resources?

Eldra: When you first go into the hole, your privileges are limited. You have to get to a point where you are classified before you get things like a television. You start with maybe a few pieces of paper and state-approved envelopes…you get a pair of boxers, a couple of pairs of socks and t-shirts, and you can request some books, but you have to wait for them to get there. In the interim, you have to find ways to occupy and entertain your mind.

Andrew: How did you do that? What was your routine day-to-day?

Eldra: My routine day-to-day started with internal meditation and focused movement through tai chi…from that into physical exercise…and then into mental exercise. So it was spiritual first, which lasted for at least an hour, then physical for two-to-three hours, then mental, which could be upwards of eight-to-ten hours.

Andrew: Tell me a little more about each of these practices.

Eldra: I began each day with activities that helped quiet the spirit to find that place in myself where there is clarity and peace. It was about sharpening my mind and keeping my brain moving so it didn’t go into a vegetative state. So, I started my day by meditating and finding my very still and centered place, so I could then engage in other activities – like physical exercise and having the WILL to request books that I could look at that would advance me in this situation.

My earliest days of meditation were steeped more in a resolve to not lose. It was a victor vs. vanquished mentality. It was me vs. the people or the situation that put me here. I was determined not to lose to those people and not get to a place where they could stand over my carcass and claim victory because I was broken.

My physical exercise included very traditional activities like push-ups, burpees, and sit-ups, to all sorts of made-up crap. We used to turn our mattresses into weights by curling them into a tight ball and then tying it off with a sheet in the middle so it looked like a great big ho-ho. You could then use another sheet to tie up underneath that, and it would give you a weight to do curls, squats, and tricep exercises. Or you could take books and put them inside a t-shirt that was tied off at the bottom, then put your arms in through the sleeves and do exercises that way.

Mental exercises involved many different things. I “traveled the world” watching PBS, which taught me about different places in the world, different cultures, different rituals. It also included reading history books to see how people got through difficult situations—how they went from point A to point B. And I did a lot of writing about my personal experiences and sent them to my niece because I had no kids at the time. I wanted her to benefit from the things I’d learned – to have a head start on life. I was under the impression I would die in here, so I used writing to “smuggle myself out.”

I also had some “leisure” time, but that was more like vegging out. Leisure activity may have included watching sports on TV or having the news on – it was time that I wasn’t really engaged. It was just white noise that allowed my mind to shut down.

Andrew: Why was your meditation so important and how did it shift over time?

Eldra: As I grew in my practice, my meditation later was about strengthening my mind and strengthening my spirit, because without those being strong, people break, crumble, and fall. I’d seen it happen to too many people around me in the same situation. I came to the realization that it was a result of someone’s will being broken…their mentality being broken…their spirit being broken.

So, I started to reach out for different ways of steeling my mind, of steeling my inner being…and finding quiet, because when you’re in an environment like this, there IS no quiet. When cells are super close together, you can hear everything going on constantly. For me, it was a practice of trying to find calm within that storm—being aware of everything that was going on IN the storm, but not being overwhelmed by it or caught up in it. It required having a so-called “spidey-sense,” so there was something inside of me that could connect with those external things that needed my attention when my spidey-sense started tingling, but otherwise being able to block all that other stuff out.

Andrew: How did these experiences transform your life?

Eldra: After spending years following that spiritual/physical/mental routine, I strengthened my inner world so much that I projected a much different way of being. After my two-year stint in the hole, I was sent to New Folsom, and that new “way of being” put me in a place where I could immediately be approached and be part of Inside Circle. I projected a different light. I still carried a lot of energy, but I was less violent; I moved differently. I used to pride myself on being a hand grenade. At any minute, I could pull the pin and go into a crowd of people and “fuck some shit up.”

The Eldra that emerged after two years in solitary was a man that was on a quest to find himself. I was uncertain about where I was going, but I knew that how I had gotten to this point wasn’t working for me. The new Eldra projected energy that was more open and inviting. I was somehow able to be confident and clear. I didn’t show up as a victim anymore. I no longer felt it necessary to be “armored up,” disconnected, or scary.

Prison is crowded with men who are full-grown in the body…but on the inside…in their minds, you’ll find a lot of young boys looking for leadership. So, when someone steps onto the scene who is confident in himself, the men see it, they respect it, honor it, and leave it alone. Many aspire to emulate it, so in their own way and time, they come around seeking and trying to find answers – to learn how you got where you are. They may not be able to step out on that branch, but they would like to know how it’s done – they want to know if this could work for them. And that is what led me to the place where I am today.

Andrew: Anything else you’d like to share with people that is relevant to the situation today?

Eldra: When you ask people, “who are you,” most will give you an answer that includes their career.  But “who you are” is not “what you do.” We have a prime opportunity as a society to discover who we are today.

When I look at where we are as a society collectively in this pandemic and compare that to doing solitary confinement, what I see is a huge opportunity to look at ourselves. Right now, we have nothing but a lot of time to do just that – to look at ourselves. We are no longer moving at the speed of light that we were before the COVID-19 situation. People are now forced to shelter in place – they are stuck with themselves, and they are not liking what they see. We have been going through the motions, but we are now faced with a choice – we can exist, or we can live. When my mind is running the show, I’m existing. When my heart is running the show, I’m living.

This interview with Eldra reinforced, once again, a truth that I know well but sometimes still forget: that your mindset and orientation are yours. They are controlled by you and determine the quality of your life. Eldra used his mind to transform his way of being so that he could show up from his heart. This process required discipline and practice, which he experienced under the most extreme circumstances. Eldra has continued this important work as Executive Director of Inside Circle, an organization that – with a mission of empowering system-impacted people to lead change from within – facilitates transformational work both inside and outside of prison. I am a Board Member at Inside Circle and, after this interview, remain more committed than ever to sharing and practicing the wisdom Eldra imparted. If you want to learn more about Inside Circle and see Eldra in action, watch the  documentary, The Work. This award-winning movie documents the process of healing and honest self-examination that Eldra got involved in after his two years in solitary.

In summary, I took away four key lessons from my dialogue with Eldra:

  1. Make friends with the worst-case scenario;
  2. Find a deeply personal reason to get through that worst-case scenario;
  3. Systematically strengthen your spirit, body, and mind; and
  4. Choose living over existing – every day.

This period can be one of growth and transformation for you…or you can numbingly go through the motions. If someone like Eldra can emerge from solitary confinement with such wisdom, awareness, and clarity, surely we can all use this time of quarantine and restriction to connect more deeply not only with the people that we love, but also with ourselves.

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