What Prison Taught Me About Life on Lockdown

In May 2015, my producer and I were arrested while filming a documentary in Indonesia. We were put in a small jail cell for one week, then placed under house arrest in a hotel for two months before being sent to prison to await trial. The charges hanging over us could have led to anything from immediate release, to 22 years in prison.

As social isolation measures to contain Covid-19 ramp up all over the world, I would like to share some of the methods that got us through what ultimately amounted to a total of six months in confinement. During that time we didn’t know how long our detention would last or when we could be moved to a new location. 

From a psychological perspective, facing that degree of uncertainty was a marathon, just as it is for many people confronting Covid-19 today. The suggestions I’m making here are all strategies I am using again while isolating in my flat in London.  

Take it one day at a time

Losing my freedom in Indonesia was overwhelming at first. Catastrophic thoughts flooded my mind. To survive I had to force myself to scale things back in my mind. Instead of focussing on all the possible long-term consequences, I took things one day at a time, asking myself these two questions:

‘What is in my control right now?

What am I going to do to get to the end of the day?

It is hard to accept that we are simply not in control of what is going to happen. For me, focussing only on what was possible for the next 24 hours gave me a sense of agency in the midst of chaos. That was key to building resilience for the long-term.

The importance of routine

As the days and weeks in detention dragged on and bled into one another, aimlessness took over. The best thing I could do to orient myself was to create a routine. I’d wake up at roughly the same time each day, shower, eat breakfast and then write down a schedule and my goals.

The other structures in my life had completely fallen away. I’d been fired from my job, and I couldn’t cook, go shopping or go out for a walk. I couldn’t see any friends, who were thousands of miles away. Creating a routine gave me new boundaries and kept me accountable to myself. It also connected me to what was most important to spend time on: food, loved ones, security and wellbeing. I made sure to schedule things to look forward to: playing games, time to do nothing and a cup of sweetened instant coffee.

Committing to a project can create structure. In prison, I started a yoga class with some of my cellmates. For self-isolation under Covid-19 this project could be to grow a plant, volunteer in a mutual aid group, develop a teaching plan for your children or reorganise your living space.

At times, I found it impossible to stick to my schedule because I was just too emotionally exhausted. When this happened, I just tried to be gentle with myself. It would have been unrealistic to expect to be functioning at the same level as I had been before lockdown, and sometimes I just needed a break from structure to feel a little freedom.

Avoiding burnout

If you are continuing to work while in self-isolation, it’s important to play the long game and pace yourself.

Dr. Aisha Ahmed, an International Security Professor at the University of Toronto who works in and out of warzones, tweeted some advice for academics which is easily applicable to journalists:

The anxious transition to life under Covid-19 is going to severely dampen people’s capacity to do complicated tasks. Normalcy has radically shifted and things will likely be weird for a while. When it comes to work, strategise for the long term. Dr. Ahmed recommends to simplify where you can, question whether a new workload is appropriate and be realistic about your mental capacity as you are making the shift to this new reality.

For journalists who are continuing to report from the field, the Global Investigative Journalism Network has a dedicated tip-sheet for working during this time.

Looking after your body

In prison, I was scared that I would get very sick and not be able to access healthcare.  I was very fortunate that the infections I did get were mild and treatable.  So, for weeks after my release from prison I had a profound sense of gratitude toward my body for getting me through in one piece. 

On reflection, although I had a lot of anxiety around illness, my body ended up becoming a site of comfort and actually provided me with the resources to manage the mental fatigue of detention.

With the pandemic, many of us are experiencing a surge of emotion: panic, anxiety, sadness and helplessness. Fears about contagion and our bodies failing us may be amplifying these feelings and shifting our usual relationship with ourselves.

Throughout detention, I found checking in with my body as often as I could to be immensely helpful, both to acknowledge my emotional state and to physically self soothe. For me, that involved stretching, deep breathing and self-massage.

There are many ways to manage this:

  • When sitting, try and see how you are feeling in various parts of your body; acknowledge your emotions and where you are tense. I try to work out what is going on physically when I feel panicked or anxious. For me, recognising emotional reactions as physical makes them less intimidating and lets them pass through me more easily.
  • Get to know your physicality. Roll a ball under your foot, sing, stretch, massage your scalp, punch a pillow or take deep, long breaths.
  • Take heed of the basics. It is being widely advised to take care of your body by eating well, washing and doing whatever exercise makes you feel good.
  • Do not forget that self-isolation will radically change what your body is used to doing each day. It needs extra attention. 

Staying connected

Throughout detention I leaned heavily on my friends through a WhatsApp group. Going through it together deepened our relationships and our ability to support one another. Remember that this experience has the capacity to increase your empathy and bring you much closer to people in your life. This is what I found most helpful:

  • Allowing myself to be open, even vulnerable with my friends and family. It helped to admit I was overwhelmed or having a bad day, as did asking for quiet time when I needed it.
  • Humour. This may sound glib, but during my detention I really did find that remembering to laugh proved to be one of the best coping strategies of all. Watching comedies, listening to light-hearted podcasts and sharing memes all worked wonders for my mood. It also helped me to embrace the paradoxical moments of absurdity. For example for a few months, I had to wash myself using an old KFC bargain bucket. This silly situation managed to tickle me and my cellmates every day, and it somehow made everything a little easier.

Helping Others

Use what agency you have to support more vulnerable people. In prison, it became clear that we had implicit privileges – we were the only Westerners there, and our case was high profile. I felt I could push for changes with less fear of being punished than my friends in prison could.  By taking suggestions from cellmates, I convinced the head of the prison to allow female fitness classes and helped create a vegetable garden in the women’s compound to supplement the horrible prison food.

Using my agency in this way gave my time in prison some real meaning. Not only did I get to enjoy some fresh veggies from the garden, creating change meant I didn’t feel helpless. Recognise your resources – whether that is money, time, emotional energy or material resources – and share them if and when you have the capacity to do so.

Most of all, be gentle with yourself and others. There is no rulebook for what is happening now in this pandemic; most of us are doing this for the first time. Ask for help when you need it and offer support on your good days.

When I entered detention, I had no idea I had the ability to get through it. By the end I was convinced we are all far more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for.