Bob Shell: Things I Don’t Have to Worry About

Pocahontas State Correctional Institution



Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2020


Things I Don’t Have to Worry About


You folks on the outside don’t know how lucky we are to be in prison. We’ve been on lockdown since March 20, staying in our cells twenty or more hours every day. There’s so many things I don’t have to worry about in prison. Here’s a.partial list:

— When to get up in the morning. I never have to worry about oversleeping, because at 5:30 each and every morning the bright lights come on and an officer screams over the intercom, “Wake up call. Wake up call. Get up and get properly dressed!” We have to do it, because at 6:00 there’s a standing count, where we stand up in our cells and officers count us to make sure no one was abducted from his locked cell by aliens during the night.

— What to wear. I never have to.worry about deciding what to wear. It’s always the same, light blue button-up shirt and bluejeans, plus state issued socks, underwear, and boots. We also have one lightweight jacket for cold weather. Gloves, knit caps, heavy jackets, shoes, we have to buy if we want them.

— Replacing clothes — If anything wears out, I fill out a form and they give me new clothes, and they replace everything automatically once a year. I’m allowed to have four shirts, four pairs of jeans, and four sets of underwear and socks.

— Doing my laundry. I put all my dirty clothes in a mesh laundry bag and they’re picked up Monday and Thursday mornings, washed and sorta dried, and returned in the afternoon.

– What kind of soap to buy — Once a week they give me a brand new little bar of bath soap and a roll of toilet paper. It’s up to me to make both last a week.

— Finding the bathroom at night. If I have to urinate in the night, the toilet is less than six feet from my bunk, three steps away. Of course, that means I’m living in a toilet.

— Picking up my mail. Mail is brought to me and pushed under my door, Monday through Friday, often late at night after lights out when I have to wait until the next day to read it.

— Turning lights on and off. The lights come on at five thirty every morning, are turned on and off all day at purely arbitrary times, then turned off between nine thirty and ten every night. The first prison I was in, from 2008 until 2010, was an old facility that actually had light switches, but none of the newer prisons have them. I’ve learned to keep a bookmark handy to put in whatever I’m reading when the lights go off and pick up again the next day. Prison teaches you patience and accommodation to arbitrary actions by those in authority.

— Turning the water off in the sink. We don’t have knobs or handles, we have push buttons. I push the button for hot water and it runs for ten seconds or so, then shuts off. To wash my hands I have to push it four or five times. Our sink doesn’t have a faucet. It has an upward-pointing nozzle like a water fountain and often overshoots the sink, leaving a puddle of water on the concrete floor.

— What to eat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are planned for us by a ‘dietitian’ and a menu is issued once a week. However, we often don’t get what the menu says, especially if it’s something good. Portions are small, like they’re feeding children instead of grown men. Due to some prisoners with dietary restrictions, they don’t season the food, so most is bland. What isn’t bland often just tastes bad.

In a rare moment of honesty, the kitchen manager here told me one time, “You know, Mr. Shell, we don’t get anything here unless there’s something wrong with it.” When we see a food recall announced on TV, we know what we’ll be getting in the near future. We can’t expect much when they feed us for less than a dollar a day. Much of the food is donated.

— Paying medical bills. Starting the first of the year, 2020, visits to the doctor are free. Before that we had to pay $ 5 to see a doctor. That may not sound like much, but most jobs here pay around $ 12 a month, so for most men here it was a substantial expense.

— Paying for medications. As with doctor visits, prior to the first of the year medications cost $ 3 for a 30 day supply. Now they’re free. I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but they’ve signed us all up for Medicare. I know that now pays for many medical costs.

— Getting COVID. Since March 20, we’ve been on modified lockdown. That means we never leave our pod or building except for things like doctor’s appointments. We spend around twenty hours a day in our cells, get out in the pod a few hours each day, but we have no contact with other pods, which are three to a building. This isolation has kept the virus at bay, and we’ve had no cases among inmates, and only two staff catching it. There are just over one thousand men here at Pocahontas State Correctional Center, where I’m housed. They don’t call them prisons anymore. Same thing, different, more PC, name.

I won’t catch COVID from another inmate. Our lockdown has worked in that aspect. We have zero cases of COVID among the isolated inmates and only two among staff who come and go from the facility, when the surrounding counties have many cases.

— When I finally get out of this nightmare, I’ll have to learn to do all the things the DOC has done for me all this time all over again.


About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here:

Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on

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