Going stir-crazy in lockdown? A former prisoner has some advice

A former inmate turned prison coach says the key to good mental health during quarantine is looking at the time as a gift rather than a curse.
By Dana McMahan

Justin Paperny may have been better prepared than most of us for sheltering in place, or, “lockdown” orders. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison following a felony conviction for violating securities laws, and now through his prison consulting business White Collar Advice, coaches clients headed for confinement on how to use the time as an opportunity.

There’s a key difference in serving time in prison, Paperny says, and serving time in quarantine. People confined to home are there through no fault of their own while he went to prison due to his own bad decisions, he says. Which is harder?

“For someone who may be in their home and is free to surf the internet and use their own shower and still go to the store,” he says, “I can see how that experience would actually be harder than what I endured in prison.”

Why? “I chose it,” he says. “They did not.”

Put things into perspective

These confinements have a key thread in common, though. While in lockdown we can look at the time as a gift or as a curse, Paperny says. And he believes that perspective will determine whether we come out on the other side better equipped for not only life afterwards, but for future challenges.

Justin Paperny is the co-founder of White Collar Advice.Courtesy of Justin Paperny

“Some people feel like ‘there's nothing I can do right now,’ he says. “And I heard that every single day in prison. [But] if you're open minded to the fact that you can do it, the days can turn out to be incredibly productive. And you look back on this with a sense of accomplishment, like ‘Wow, I did more than I ever imagined I could do.’”

“That better prepares us for the next adversity that as human beings, we'll all face, we all face pain and suffering,” Paperny says. “When something else comes, you have a history to draw from which is, ‘Oh this happened. This is how I got through it. This is what I learned. This is what I did well.’ Without that kind of introspection the next time something comes we’ll have no lessons to draw from.”

Find a sense of control

But it can seem hopeless — in both situations — Paperny acknowledges. “See, what happens when you're in prison or even in quarantine is it’s easy to feel like a puppet or others are pulling the string and there's nothing that we can do.”

In quarantine the loss of control might land with us drinking more than before, on our couches with ice cream and Netflix (raises hand), not preparing for what life will look like in a post-COVID world.

In prison, ceding to feeling helpless would lead to Paperny hearing from people at the end of their term that they were scared. “When they would look back on how they served their time they'd say ’in retrospect, I would have done a lot of things differently,’” he says.

“So somehow finding a way to get a sense of control can be very helpful,” Paperny notes. Particularly when it comes to learning to manage our response to events that are beyond our control. That’s very freeing, he says. “It's very empowering. … By beginning to respond better, we can feel stronger, we can feel like we have some control over our lives.”

We can also control, at least to some extent for many of us, structuring our day. Paperny encourages his clients to get up early, to maintain a schedule. For them it relates to staying out of trouble, but for me I’ve found it provides a sense of normalcy, gives me things to look forward to. Part of what I love about doing Instagram dance classes in quarantine is the feeling that I have somewhere to be on a defined schedule.

It's essential that people understand the end of this will eventually come. And we will get back to work and life will feel more normal.

Justin Paperny, prison consultant

A turning point for Paperny in prison was recognizing that while his body was confined, ”my mind was free to create and work and contribute.” And there are a number of ways to do that. He blogged and read and studied, preparing for what would eventually become his post-conviction business.

If people aren’t working during quarantine, he says, “to the extent they can, their full time job should be developing a skill or looking for work, nurturing relationships, reaching out to people, cultivating contacts ... Without those clearly defined plans or schedules it’s very easy to drift, and then rationalize, ‘Well, it's tough, it's hard, it doesn't matter anyway.”

Look for the light at the end of the tunnel

We need to look beyond the right this minute, Paperny says. “It's essential that people understand the end of this will eventually come. And we will get back to work and life will feel more normal. The question is, can you force yourself to do some things today ... some things that may be difficult? One of the hardest things is to prepare for release from prison because you're in a hopeless environment. It’s kind of the same thing here, you’re quarantined, it’s a little bit desperate and difficult, it's tough. … But life on the other side of this will be easier or better based on choices you make right now.”

For someone in prison, Paperny says, who wastes their time complaining, sleeping, blaming “and then gets to the end of their term and begins to realize, ‘Well what do I do next?,’ now there's going to be tons of regret for how they serve that time. What I encourage anyone to think about, what I try to do for our clients, is to choose some shorter term pain — like waking early, watching what you eat, developing a new skill, avoiding alcohol, challenging yourself in new ways — some shorter term pain versus a lifetime of regret.”

It sounds simple, he says, but “pain versus regret has helped hundreds of our clients, it’s the way to get through a prison term. And sometimes it can be boiled down to the most basic question. ‘If I do this right now, will it make my life better?’ If the answer is yes, do it.”