Author, Expert & Speaker

prison-bound-check-your-claustrophobia-at-the-sally-portMy recent MRI stirred up memories of passing through a sally port (controlled entryway) and living in a prison cell. Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a system that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take detailed images of the interior of the body. Lying on my back, noise-muffling ear gear in place, I was slowly inserted into a large tube after having been admonished not to move by the technician in charge. I lay strapped down with my head immobilized. My nose was about three inches from the top of the tube.

During the MRI process there was a series of loud penetrating sounds: banging, whirling, clicking, and beeping. Imagine being trapped in a tin container that is being slammed with baseball bats and pelted with large rocks. Boom! Kaboom!

The saving grace to making it through a two-hour MRI scan was the constant flow of air through the machine onto my face. The air was fresh, clean, and constant. There was light in the tube, but I found it less stressful to keep my eyes closed; staring at the inside of the machine was very unsettling.

Before being put into the tube, I was asked if I was claustrophobic or disturbed by loud noises. Wanting to get the procedure over with, I simply gave the anticipated answer: no.

Prior to prison, I was uncomfortable in crowded elevators, crowds of holiday shoppers, windowless rooms, and close spaces. Having no way to escape these situations triggered a claustrophobic response of wanting to run—anywhere—or of mentally breaking a window or busting through a wall. I had occasionally experienced panic attacks with an accompanying dose of fear for survival, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.


Prisons Are Claustrophobic

Being an inmate does not square with being claustrophobic. Prisons and jails are designed to enhance the feeling of being shut in, locked down, and restrained in one’s freedom of movement. Coupled with rotten air and incessant loud noise in windowless environments, the mind games begin to rid claustrophobia from one’s awareness. This takes time, and getting there can be agonizing.

I once was put into a padded cell while awaiting processing at the Orange County jail. All that was in the cell was a drain in the floor. The lighting was dim; I could see my outstretched hands but not much past them. The space smelled like a fouled dog kennel. I sat on the floor leaning against the padding and took a mind trip to Miami, Florida, where, as a child, my family had vacationed over the Christmas school break. I don’t know how long I was in that cell—inmates have no watches or clocks in jail. It felt like hours, but I’m sure it was more like thirty minutes.

In two-man cells there’s no fresh air. There are no windows to open. Typically, the cells are constructed with three walls of cinder block and one wall of thick Plexiglas. The COs (correction officers) control the door in the Plexiglas that allows entry and exit. Oxygen is pumped into the cells through a single vent in a block wall via a pump somewhere in the facility. Stale air is sucked out of the cell via another vent in the wall. The air smells slightly of motor oil, but it’s cool and life sustaining. At night I’d listen to the soothing sound of the air blowing into the cell and being sucked back out—like through the diaphragm of some large, invisible beast in which I was trapped.

One night my greatest fear came to fruition. An electrical outage brought the diaphragm to a halt. Because my housing unit at Ironwood State Prison was in the Sonoran Desert, the cinder block construction of the cells absorbed the heat from the harsh desert sun, creating an oven effect on the inside. When the lifeline of air stopped, the cell heated up fast, taking with it the oxygen from the cramped quarters. My cellie and I instinctively jumped out of our bunks and put our faces to the relatively cool cement floor. I recall a crazy feeling of anger that my cellie was breathing my air—I know he felt the same about me.

Again, without a clock, it’s impossible to know how long the air stood still. We were not allowed out of our cells, and the inmates’ loud curses and demands for relief went unheeded by the COs. When the diaphragm finally came alive, my cellie and I were drenched in sweat and physically exhausted. That night I slept well, drifting back in my mind to the beaches of Miami.

An important part of prison reform is making housing of inmates less stressful without compromising the security of inmates and staff. Changes in prison architecture can allow natural lighting. The delivery of fresh air to enclosed people is another area that needs improvement.


What Can Be Done to Make the Prison Environment More Humane?

In my next blog, I will review the August 5, 2016, report by the American Psychological Association (APA) entitled “Nature Imagery in Prisons Project: The Impact on Staff and Inmates in Solitary Confinement.” APA researchers identified some simple ways of using videos and other images of nature to enhance the lives of inmates, resulting in a reported 26 percent decrease in violent infractions by hardcore inmates.


Photo: lassedesignen/

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