Voices from Solitary: Stillness Is My Nemesis

An Incarcerated Writer on the Stark Obstacles to Meditating in a Women’s Prison

by | March 21, 2024

In her seventeen years incarcerated, Kwaneta Harris has spent the last eight years in solitary confinement in Texas state prison and is currently held at Lane Murray Unit. Her powerful and shocking stories expose how the intersections of gender, race, and place contribute to state-sanctioned, gender-based violence. As a mother and former nurse, she has a personal commitment to illuminating how the experience of being incarcerated uniquely impacts women. When she is not writing, Harris shares liberatory knowledge on reproductive justice with the other women in her unit.

Photo by Ariana Gomez from Lux Magazine.

Due to her activism, Harris has struggled to maintain contact with her children while regularly being denied phone privileges by prison officials. Yet, she continues to write uncensored, with the hope of reimagining effective non-carceral solutions for those who harm. 

In addition to being the recipient of a grant from our Ridgeway Reporting Project grant, Harris was also named a 2024 Haymarket Writing Freedom fellow. Her writings have appeared in PEN America, Truthout, Lux Magazine, Prism, The Appeal, Slate, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and elsewhere. Currently, she is working on a book about the kids who are her neighbors in solitary confinement and who arrived in prison from the juvenile system. More information can be found about Harris and her work on her website.

—Kilhah St. Fort

• • • • • • • • • •

Yogis love to quote the old saying —The best way to turn muddy water into clear water is to just leave it alone, in time the mud settles and the water becomes clear on its own —as analogous to meditation. I bet they never tried it from The Hole.

I tried to negotiate with my bad memories, even suggesting we go Dutch. First half are the bad memories, then the good ones. Extreme isolation, such as solitary confinement, revealed how poorly I get along with myself. I’ve struggled to let go of the harmful past. It feels like it’s holding me hostage. For me, meditation is a gun and my bad memories are the bullets. Staying busy means I’m a moving target, harder to hit.

Somehow, my loved ones have been conscripted. They call it an Intervention, I say Conspiracy. As they pile on the questions, my excuses multiply.

Why don’t you have time? You’ve been rotting in solitary for eight years! they say.

I’m very busy with my very regimented schedule —read, exercise, write chores and other stuff, I counter. The leader, my 21-year-old daughter asks about my “emotional hygiene.” I have no idea what she’s talking about. She follows up with: Why won’t you try it?

Fish eyeballs? My failed attempt to change the subject. Exasperated, she passes the phone to their secret weapon, her 15-year-old sister. She asks: What will it take for you to stick with meditation? Oh, that’s easy, I say, Memory Loss.

She rattles off the multiple benefits of meditation. I don’t need convincing. I’ve read the scientific studies and testimonies from trusted friends. Meditation helped them cope with the imprints of trauma, self-loathing, nightmares, flashbacks and was key to their mental clarity. In typical American fashion, I want the benefits without the work. That day, I promised my kids to meditate for 15 minutes.

My loved ones mean well. They’re doing their best to help me cope with PTSD and isolation-related stress. They aren’t aware my memories are too traumatic to be treated with journaling, meditation, and yoga. Following their well-intentioned advice to cope with this trauma is akin to purchasing the smoke detector as the house burns. I need urgent fire hose treatment before we purchase accoutrements. Once the fire is extinguished and safety is confirmed, then prevention. Same with mental health. The carceral system has only served to compound my existing trauma. My loved ones believe I’m the same person who left 17 years ago. But I’ve seen things in prison, things I can’t unsee.

A friend did over two decades in a Pennsylvania solitary confinement men’s prison. His advice was simple: Exercise, establish a routine, don’t watch TV, and meditate. He warned that if I fail to master meditation, I will lose my mind.

In Texas, we don’t even have personal TVs in General Population. Solitary only has one TV in the indoor recreation cage. We’re only permitted to watch one hour of mandatory Fox News while at recreation. Due to staff shortages, we seldom have rec. My friend’s other suggestions are harder in a women’s southern prison.

Sexual violence is worst in isolation. I’m constantly in a state of hypervigilance. Voyeurism is pervasive and normalized. As a male, I doubt my friend has experienced guards rubbing their genitals against him while being escorted. He probably hasn’t heard the bloodcurdling, wounded animal wail of a parent learning the state has relinquished their parental rights. Now, CPS has their children. The same parent is often discovered hanging the following day. I’ve watched women exchange sexual favors for a cup of cold water. Everything in prison is transactional, but in a women’s prison, it’s often sexual. His advice is for men in air-conditioned northern solitary confinement cells.

I give the same advice to the 16-and-a-half year olds entering segregation as I do to the 69 year old. Its only one rule—survive. I promise not to judge them for whatever they must do to survive. This is the other busy stuff I don’t tell my family.

I begin to meditate by stepping off the hamster wheel into an ashram. I breeze through the restlessness and distractions others find unpleasant to perform my centering breathing. It’s not the external noise of radios, yelling, screaming, banging cups (or heads) on the wall that bothers me. It’s the mental noise that’s deafening. I’m a passenger looking out the window into my mind when I’m attacked.

My internal viewfinder clicks to failure after failure. The movie features The Evil Twins: Trauma and Drama. Ignoring my suggestion to go Dutch, its 100 percent bad memories. I feel my pulse racing and palms sweating when I think it can’t get any worse. The sequel starts, a horror movie. Unlike during childhood, I can’t find solace knowing its make-believe. My chest tightens as I’m flooded with a roaring soundtrack of negative self-talk. I mouth, “Breathe, Breathe” over the mental chatter. The horror flick rewinds and continues on an endless loop.

I know I’ve sat here for at least a half-hour minimum. My kids will be so proud of me. Opening my eyes, my timer reads 4 minutes and 39 seconds! I’m discouraged, and excuses come easier. Maybe, prison isn’t the environment to revisit painful memories without someone to help me process them. It sounds good; I don’t believe it. I need to stop and face my fears. I’m tired of lying to my inner self.

Meditation, tomorrow? Of course, I would love to try again. That is, if I have time. You know, I’m very busy.


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