Pandemic in Prison: “Seasoned in the Art of Solitary Confinement” – FAMM

Pandemic in Prison: “Seasoned in the Art of Solitary Confinement”

Celeste Monette Blair is serving 30 years in federal prison. Prison life is more chaotic than ever now, yet somehow she is able to find a sort of peace, and even to give something to us through her words. Here’s what she wants you to know.


Here in my prison cell for 23 hours a day, I can stand at my door and see out my little window. I can look right smack into several large flat-screen TVs. The one just outside my window is generally on CNN. I am able to see firsthand as Americans are placed on confinement. I listen to a woman confess to Dr. Phil that after just six or seven days, she is losing it. She says she’s struggling, as she can’t take part in her usual life activities. Then I watch the daily White House briefings, and so many things run through my mind. I think that perhaps America is only as sick as her secrets – that’s an idea I learned in recovery, here in the prison RDAP program.

I never dreamed that it would one day pay off to be seasoned in the art of solitary confinement. And it occurs to me that Americans could use some tips on how to “shelter in place.” An unlikely source, I know, but maybe helpful.

Spend some time in reflection. Get your feet in the grass, put your hands in the dirt — plant a garden, dig a hole or bury a time capsule. Squish your feet in some mud. Look up and smile at the sun. Dance. Keep a journal. Take time to make a list of everyone you hold in contempt in your heart and burn it. Ask Alexa to show you the top 50 most endangered species. Learn how to express gratitude in at least three languages. I can’t do all of these things – but you can.

As I stand at my door watching the global pandemic play out on TV, staring at the wreckage from my cell, I feel a little bit sheltered from it all, strangely, even though there’s always this simmering undercurrent of anxiety and fear. Will we all get sick? Will I die in here? Does anyone out there even care? There have been numerous occasions when men in hazmat suits have come into the dorm and entered a cell and packed up belongings, after the woman who used to live there has left or was taken away. Then another man comes in, suited and donning a giant plastic backpack like an exterminator would use, and sprays bleach into the cell. Sometimes the women who left comes back but not always. No one tells us where they are or how they are.

And then here I am in my little space, with my journal and my tight schedule of exercise, reading. Making lists of what I’ll eat and the tasks I need to perform each day in the hour I have in the dayroom: call mum, shower, send emails, request books, order crosswords, download meditations. I have a deepened sense of gratitude as I sit with myself, my thoughts, and with my truths — careful to keep my balance. Still, I find my eyes turned toward the news and the daily briefings that seem more and more like SNL skits every day. People are dying, the Earth crumbles and fades away — all for the fame and glory of a few and for the roar of the crowds of the coliseum.  History always repeats itself.

We have a chance to get it right, emerge with a much greater sense of balance. I am visualizing a painting I did, quite some time ago, “The Long Flight.” When I was almost done, while the paint was still wet in some places, I blew gold dust on it; where it stuck was where it was meant to be. Sort of abstract and haphazard. I think that the next phase of our lives requires it bit more precision, better engineering. Let’s not just throw money and resources at a wall and see what sticks. We have the time and the information needed to dive into the wreck and see what was weighing us down — and leave it behind. Take the example of a mobile. You can make a mobile of your life by determining what is at the core, a center that everything else hangs from. If your core is money or fame, you may be in trouble. Where does your balance come from? If you can figure it out now, you have the chance to emerge from this time of shelter-in-place with a greater sense of balance. There is hope yet.

By Celeste Monette Blair

Lawmakers, leaders, and the media need to know that there are people like Celeste in prison, people who manage to find grace and even hope behind bars. They don’t deserve the laws and policies under which they are caged. Share her story, and join FAMM to learn how you can help Celeste and others.

Celeste Blair

Issue: Sentencing