Shawn Elijah Williams //
My name is Shawn Elijah Williams, but someday soon I wish to change it to Abdul-Qahir Al Queens, inshallah (God Willing). I was asked to write about my experience in solitary confinement, how I dealt with it, and how it affected me. But before I start on that, I think it’s only right to give you a little background, as they say.
I grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, in the mid-eighties, early nineties. If you weren’t a New York resident then (nowadays, of course, you can Google it) but you’ve seen any genre of movies depicting and semi-glorifying the drug game, or have read any books about this time—such as True to The Game, Sugar Hill, New Jack City, American Hustler—then you can imagine somewhat the scenery and backdrop of my life in Forty Projects. I don’t want to go into too much detail about my upbringing, but let’s just say I was conditioned from early on to accept the fact that I had two major choices in my life and two possible outcomes. The choices were to sell crack and try to succeed that way, or find something or someone to rob and succeed that way. The two outcomes were either going to prison or becoming rich. You may ask what about dying? Growing up where I did, you knew that was going to happen eventually, and that it was inevitable. So you did not worry about that: it was going to happen either way.
Now, to the first time I can remember being in solitary confinement. It was in Spafford Juvenile Detention Center. I got into a fight and was placed in a housing area where there was nothing but cells. This place was reserved for the “tough guys,” the ones who were destined to graduate to Rikers Island and then upstate. When you’re young, you don’t realize these things because all you’re trying to do is survive, not to be labeled a punk, and not to get taken advantage of. But to others, and those others are usually the ones in charge, you’re seen as a “menace to society,” a “sociopath,” a “thing,” a “heathen,” an “apex predator.”
I was scared and lonely being away from my family. I wanted to be comforted. I wanted to be held. I missed my grandmother, the only person who I felt truly, sincerely, loved me on this planet at that time. I missed my siblings, I missed eating cereal on a Saturday morning watching “Thunder Cats.” I missed playing stick ball with my friends. I missed being able to eat a Big Mac with fries. But, back to reality. I was in this cell by myself, and all one could hear was yelling, sick laughter, threats. I didn’t want to be outside with them, the “predators,” either. So I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I learned to accept it, and I became very aggressive because one instance of weakness would put your manhood, your honor, and your respect in jeopardy.
I graduated to Rickers Island at the age of sixteen, but I lied about my age so I could go with the adults. You wonder why? Well, because I did not want to be with the “animalescents.” Yeah, that’s what they were called, because they really acted like animals. I wanted to be in the “adults,” and, believe me, that was just a title, “adults,” more like a misnomer, because many adults acted worse than the adolescents. The “adults” and its atmosphere was just a little more calm, but if anything went down it was “playing for keeps,” it wasn’t “scratching and few fights occurred”; it was “getting poked with an icepick or stabbed with an ‘Excalibur’.” I saw many stabbings before I reached twenty.
This adult confinement was different from Spafford, first of all because this confinement was called “confinement,” they used it as a punishment, and no one came around to check up on you or speak to you. Whereas in Spofford confinement was seen as a badge of bravery, even though all you wanted to do was cry all day to get out of the cell, here it was a stigma. It was accepted because I had to do what I had to do. I learned that if you gave the security captain some weapons you could get out of solitary confinement time. So I had razors brought to me on a visit, or other times I would buy them on the black market.
Being in that cell made me start to read a lot. I remember reading every article in every magazine I could get my hands on. At first it was just the articles that interested me, then I read all the other ones until I read every letter in every sentence. What truly helped me at first, before I found Islam, was the card game Solitaire. I would play for hours and hours and then find solace in any porn magazine I could get my hands on. I would bring up all the memories of all the sexcapades I had had with different women, until I fell asleep. Some other days I would imagine being in movies that I watched. My days consisted of playing cards, seeing if a female officer was working, looking at porn magazines, and waiting to eat because, for some reason, I stayed hungry all the time. I indulged in self-gratification many times over to memories of sexual encounters, until I fell asleep.
During that time, I became very spiritual. I started to read the Qur’an more and more. It gave me hope in life. I started to pray five times a day, and I actually found peace in myself. I felt like God was talking to me. HE put me in this confinement, so I could be in tune with HIM. The life that I had been living was heading to destruction real fast. But now I felt like I had more outcomes in life than the two I grew up thinking they were the only available ones. I started to become kind, and to practice more patience because the Qur’an showed me how powerful GOD is. But at the same time HE is kind, gentle, and very merciful. I felt I could be the same way. It’s been about ten years since I’ve been in prison, but I’m still working through the aggression that came about from decades of having either to be aggressive or to succumb and be a slave to someone else’s aggression. The best way I dealt with solitary confinement was to look to something greater than myself. That helped me navigate through the turmoil I was going through at that time in my life.
My advice to any who have to experience confinement in their homes during this pandemic would be to always think about those who have to be confined in places far worse, with minimal resources and no choices. You may say, “Well, they earned their confinement because of the irresponsible choices they made,” and that may be true, but there’s many other hidden factors to consider that played a role in those decisions being made. One of those very strong factors is institutional racism. I don’t want to get into all that because now is not the time, but do take that into account in order for you to understand what I mean when I say that while in lockdown, or “shelter-in-place,” or in a “paused” city, it would be good for you to consider those so much less fortunate who have to be confined to places far worse than yours, without a TV, with no cable service, no food that they love to eat at their disposal, no family near or distant that can be reached and, literally, touched at any moment, with no space to maneuver that is big enough to still be “confined” but doesn’t really feel like it, with no books or other entertaining things to occupy your mind, just to name a few. So the next time you feel claustrophobic because you are being confined to your home, remember that there are millions of others who would love to be “confined” in your place.
Shawn Elijah Williams, JIE Scholar, Cohort of 2016
Author bio: Shawn Williams is from Queens, New York. Throughout all the difficulties in his life, he has managed to keep God First and see the good in everything rather than the bad. He believes that even when one is tested with travails and tribulations, one has to have patience and persevere, and then any hardship can be overcome. While in prison he acquired enough credits to attain an Associate degree from Cornell University. He has spoken in all four boroughs of New York City, with the exception of Staten Island, to the youth who have had a brush-in with the law. He was a consultant at Teach For America to over eighty teachers throughout all five boroughs.
Image note: Several essays are accompanied by photographs that editor Neni Panourgiá took of flowers at Riverside Park in spring 2020. They are meant as temporal transitional points during the time that the workshop took place, from the last day on campus in the fall semester of 2019 to the last day of class in June 2020.