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Hindsight: Former Inmate Reflects on Life Inside and Out

Peter Biello, NHPR
Nicole Belonga takes a yoga class at NHSPW before the pandemic and prior to her release

As we approach the end of a tumultuous year, NHPR is checking in with some of the people we spoke with early on in the pandemic, to see how things have changed. It’s part of a series we’re calling Hindsight.

Earlier this year, as part of our series Lifelines, we reported on a group of inmates at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women in Concord who were using yoga to heal from emotional trauma. One of those inmates was Nicole Belonga. When we spoke in March, lockdowns at the prison had ended in-person visits with friends and family. That policy hasn't changed, but things have changed for Belonga: she's now moved out of the prison to a halfway house. We spoke about how this year has gone for her.

Peter Biello: When we've spoken before, we've spoken about how you have been doing yoga. You used to do it in a classroom setting there, to what extent are you able to do yoga now?

Nicole Belonga: I actually just started my practice up again last week, but it reminded me, like why I do yoga and like why I need it because it was the first day that I really felt good.

PB: Why did you end up letting the yoga practice lapse? What happened?

NB: The adjustment was just really difficult. And I, like, get stuck in my head and it's hard for me to get out of that and get back into my practice. I realized last week, like, how important it is for me to do it because I just feel better entirely when I do it. And I forget about that part when there's a lot of almost like chaos going on.

PB: Yeah, and this year was kind of a strange year because of the pandemic, whether you're in prison or not. It's strange for everybody. But can you tell us a little bit about what it was like for you to be incarcerated this year, both in prison and then at the halfway house?

NB: The hardest part of it was I haven't seen anybody except for my lawyer since March. And I'm used to being able to see my friends and my family like twice a week. So that's been extremely difficult and just like more and more restrictions. When I was still in prison, we were all separated from each other. So you weren't mixing with anybody from any other unit. And like, if you have friendships or whatever with people from other units, you didn't have the ability to talk to them or see them or be around them. And for all the transitions that I went through, that was probably the hardest because I felt like I did them all by myself, because I didn't have my friends in the prison. I didn't have my friends or family being able to see me. It was all on the phone. That's probably what made it the hardest. Other than that, I mean, being locked up is being locked up.

PB: Can you name one of your best moments of the year?

NB: I got to put on jeans for the first time in 12 years.

PB: [Laughs] Really?

NB: [Laughs] Yeah.

PB: Is that a special permission you get for living in the halfway house?

NB: Yes.

PB: How did that feel?

NB: Weird - jeans have come a long way.

PB: How did how did you remember jeans and and how are they now?

NB: They were like, I don't know. They just seemed more uncomfortable back then. Like, I mean, they were comfortable, but they were definitely not like the stretchy kind you get now. And I really like the stretchy kind now. They're way more comfortable.

PB: With respect to COVID-19. Are you worried? Are you worried that you'll get it?

NB: I mean, there's a part of me that's a little worried, but there's the other part of me that's like with the environment that I live in, I feel like if I'm going to get it, I'm going to get it. Around a bunch of different people, some of the people work in the community. You got officers who were in and out because they go home, they don't live with us. So, you know, just do what I can to stay safe.

PB: Well, Nicole, is there anything else about this this past year that you think people should know about, about your experience?

NB: So being locked up is hard enough in itself. And I know that, like, COVID-19 has been difficult on everyone. But there's like this massive, increased feeling of isolation when you're already restricted from everything and then you lose the ability to see the people who keep you going and trying to figure out how to mentally handle that and get through it was hard.

PB: So if anybody is listening to this, who has a friend or a family member who's incarcerated in New Hampshire, is there something you can recommend to those people as far as reaching out to the people they love who are incarcerated?

NB: Answer the phone, write letters and make sure that they know that they're not alone. Because it really does feel like you are.

You can find all the stories from our series Hindsight right here. We also want to hear how you’re doing - let us know by taking one of our surveys.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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