Questions abound about this new normal we are entering: How do we start up a conversation? What new skills am I going to put on my resume after a year like this? How am I supposed to manage my anxiety about being in crowds again?
I think back to 17-year-old me sitting in a jail cell more than 20 years ago trying to answer similar questions. I was a teenager who had made a choice that was a major mistake. I was arrested, charged and convicted for stealing from a department store in London and was sentenced to a year in a young offenders institute in the United Kingdom. You may think you know the brutality of prison, but unless you’ve experienced it, no words can describe how torturous it is.
My turnaround began because my family fought for my survival. Through their advocacy, I sat for my A-levels (exams high schoolers take in the UK) while in prison and once I was released, my grandfather helped me find my first job. Rather than judge me, that employer asked me what interested me and what I wanted to do with my life.
So much emphasis has been placed on socializing after quarantine and worries about being able to get back into the “swing of things,” yet many can’t understand how people coming out of prison need help adapting to avoid the cycle of reincarceration.
It’s a thought that weighs heavy on the minds of the more than 600,000 people who are released from prison each year in the United States, where the lack of reintegration support for newly released incarcerated people factors into why more than 65% of people being rearrested within three years.
The difference in the way we seem to readily offer support and understanding for folks struggling to mentally, physically and economically adapt to the world after the Covid-19 lockdown versus what is available to formerly incarcerated people should force people to think about prison conditions and how they make it virtually impossible to reintegrate into a free world.
Concrete walls, little natural night and a lack of overall stimulation weigh heavily on mental health. People in prison have few ways to relieve stress. They can’t go on YouTube and learn how to make sourdough bread. Boredom itself is a stressor. Prison cells are small, typically less than 50 square feet. Confinement in such small spaces can stunt mental and physical health for the current and long term.
Another mental toll: People can experience a loss of purpose when they’re locked up. When someone is incarcerated, they are no longer known for their profession, such as being a designer or a driver, and they aren’t known for their skills, talents or knowledge. If there is work, prisons are not obligated to pay their occupants a minimum wage for labor. Imagine pay somewhere between 14 cents and $1.41 per hour. You want to call family? The fees are usurious. According data from the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit research group, a 15-minute in-state jail phone call continued to cost more than $20 in some states.
Now, imagine being separated from your kids. Video-only visitation is on the rise in county jails while in-person visits in prisons are often difficult and inconvenient for families. Separation and not being part of loved ones’ daily lives increase feelings of isolation and loneliness. Additionally, incarcerated people do worry about those they can’t support, such as an elderly family member. They may also suffer guilt over missing out on a child’s activities or not being able to be there for a partner.
Most of us can’t comprehend the pain and suffering incarcerated citizens and their families and communities experience. In this pandemic, we all do worry what will happen to us and our loved ones. However, we do have vaccines, masks, video calls and social distancing. For incarcerated people and their families, “What will become of me, of us?” is a question that never goes away.
It’s the hallmark of American prisons to dehumanize, punish and subjugate millions of people, disproportionally the poor and people of color. While already in horrific environments, prisoners are often subjected to assaults by guards and other prisoners. Their liberties are taken away. They are denied medical care. They are tortured by being placed in solitary confinement.
And sadly, when prisoners are released, they are not truly free. There’s no vaccine that lightens the weight of judgment formerly incarcerated people face the rest of their lives. They are sent back to the cycle of deprivation that put them in prison in the first place. They have little support in reintegrating properly and face a high risk of recidivism. Further, they are over-supervised and over-policed, pushed out of employment, housing, and school, and often, harassed back into incarceration for technical violations such as missing an appointment or being late to a court appearance. We take for granted every day that we won’t face consequences for things like being five minutes late to a Zoom call.
Covid-19 created uncertainty and isolation, limited access to employment and kept us from moving about freely. The struggles people face in this pandemic are real and, in many cases, tragic. I’m not trying to minimize those experiences, but we must contextualize perspectives.
In prison, the withholding of all the things that keep us balanced in tough times — a home, access to family and employment — are the baseline. So, if you feel yourself going stir-crazy because of the pandemic-restricted confinement, take a pause, inhale a few deep breaths and look around at all the things you have to be grateful for. Getting back into the swing of things won’t seem to be that hard.