This story is part of a partnership between Prison Journalism Project and Atmos to bring more voices of incarcerated people onto The Frontline. Jeffrey Shockley is a writer with Prison Journalism Project.
The air is crisp in Pennsylvania now. With the recent winter solstice ushering in the New Year, the cold season is in full swing. Prisoners in general population have swapped short sleeves and baseball caps for winter coats and wool hats, the same cocoa brown as the rest of our state-issued apparel. The trees have shed their leaves, and a gray haze hangs over the State Correctional Institution at Fayette, a 2,170-bed maximum security prison south of Pittsburgh, where I am serving a life sentence.
I am one of the fortunate ones. I have a view through a small window in my prison cell and can see the naked pines standing tall on a hill, beyond the razor-wire and chain-link fences. Nearby, smokestacks climb into the sky.
Winter turns nature skeletal. I am moved by what remains of the trees, how they outlast time and changing conditions. That’s something us folks confined here can relate to. Despite harsh, uncertain, inevitable changes, we are sometimes capable of remaining bright and vibrant, full of life. For a season, at least, for a moment.
But, like the trees, we can also be stripped bare. Time wears on you in here. Family and childhood friends fade, leaving you alone, forced to look at the life you led, the season ahead. No longer is your name what warrants attention; a prison number marks who you are.
Still, we go on, determined to endure like trees.
Prison is different. Monotonous, strange. For some inside, a calendar can act as a map, a predetermined journey to an expected end—your parole date, or the day you’ll max out your sentence. For others, the coming and going of winter orients us in time.
But there is nothing to look forward to when you are serving a life sentence. The calendar serves no purpose. There is no expected end, save the final end.
I have a view through a small window in my prison cell and can see the naked pines standing tall on a hill, beyond the razor-wire and chain-link fences.
During the winter, life inside is influenced by what happens on the outside. When closed roads prevent on-duty guards the relief of their replacement, that does not bode well for us. Lockdowns result, our movement restricted so as to not overwhelm tired staff. And as the temperature drops, we get less time in the main yard and fewer opportunities for outside activities.
One nice thing around here is the hustle and bustle of the inmate snow crews. Guys come out in the early morning with shovels and rock salts. They are soldiers, attacking the walkways, dispersing the snow, spreading the salt, making the ground safe for everyone.
Another nice thing: winter gives us cold tap water in our cells. The temperature makes it so frigid, you can fill your sink and set your milk container in it to keep cold.
And the snow. It falls freely, unencumbered, and blankets the ground. At night, the prison’s towering mast lights cast a glow over the white powder.
But moods plummet this time of year, and sometimes, wills crumble. The dark winter marks another end. Too often, anger and frustration surge in men for having placed themselves in this position. They lash out. It makes sense that violence tends to rise during the holiday months. Some individuals have lost so much on the outside. Why go on if there’s nothing to look forward to?
Sometimes, one of us is the only family another guy has. As a state-certified peer specialist, I look out for people who have been isolating more than usual, those who are withdrawn when usually outgoing. I have learned that a simple “hello” can go a long way. This helps me from falling into despair myself.
There is a quote by Albert Einstein on the wall in the cell I occupy: “You can’t solve a problem on the same level it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.” Next to it is a Bible verse, Luke 6:36: “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”
I am not perfect. I, too, fall down from time to time. I miss my daughter, who had a life without her father but summoned the courage and strength to find me five years ago, and even came twice to visit. My mother, who turned me over to my grandmother when I was 3, is my best friend today. And the many friends gathered along this journey hold me accountable, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is for them that I march on.
Our lives, like seasons, change. Some days are bright and sunny. Others are dark and gloomy. The winter can be bitterly cold. Inside or out, it is best to try and find some joy in the season, to remain strong and enduring, like the pine trees on the hill outside my window.