Ten years ago, I spent 410 days alone in a cell over 7,000 miles away from nearly everything I loved. I had no guarantee I would ever get out.
At first, the order to shelter in place felt like a return to that shrinking world. I felt my nervous system returning to the hypervigilant state that was once my only protection from a loneliness so vast and empty it threatened to erase me.
In isolation, your mind punishes itself. Though being held in an Iranian prison is a far cry from self-quarantining in my Oakland apartment, I knew I would have to find ways to counter my brain’s tendency toward spiraling, negative thoughts.
I also knew that I was better positioned to do this than many others. I began pausing to gaze out the window, grateful that I had a window. I took breaks from my computer throughout the day to listen to music, read poetry, and take deep, nourishing breaths. I found myself not just walking to the sink to wash dishes, but dancing to the sink.
I began to revel in how different this moment was. The whole planet was being forced together by this virus, being asked to slow down and make sacrifices in order to save the lives of the most vulnerable among us -- a radical shift for a culture normally focused on individual happiness and gain.
Then stories began streaming in of tragic COVID-19 related deaths, drug and alcohol relapses, divorce, domestic violence, and more than one suicide. I noticed friends freezing up emotionally, some too depressed to ask for help, others walling themselves off or acting out in selfish ways.
It began to dawn on me that though self-quarantine was nothing like solitary confinement for me, for millions of Americans this might be the closest they would ever come to directly experiencing the immense danger of isolation.
An exhausted nurse alone in a hotel room, a grandfather touching fingers with his grandson through the glass window of a nursing home, an abused teenager afraid to come out of her room -- these experiences share a lot in common with the suffering endured by millions of people in prisons and jails across America.
Since my imprisonment a decade ago, my work as a journalist, playwright, and survivor has largely centered on exposing the extreme overuse of solitary confinement in US prisons. Many of us have been taught that prisoners in solitary confinement are monsters undeserving of rehabilitation. The reality is quite different.
The majority of the 80,000-100,000 people in “the hole” on any given day are the most vulnerable of our prison population: victims of crimes by guards or other prisoners, LGBTQ prisoners, people with untreated addictions or mental illnesses -- people whom wardens are at a loss to deal with because they shouldn't be there in the first place. Instead, prisoners are subjected to conditions that exacerbate their mental illnesses, and eventually released.
I’m interested in the potential in this moment to draw parallels between what we’re suffering right now as a country -- the increased suicides and interpersonal violence born out of hopelessness and isolation -- and what we’ve long been suffering as a consequence of our prisons.
More than any other segment of society, it’s our young people whose lives will forever be altered by this pandemic. The understanding born out of this disruption and social isolation, as difficult as it is, will shape their future values, give them a window onto what’s most important in life, and radically change the paths they choose.
My generation’s most defining moment was the terrorist attacks of September 11th. For those in the anti-war movement, it planted a deep seed of outrage against our government for waging a racist war against Muslims in the name of the innocent lives that were lost. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was another moment from which there was no turning back, also exposing our government’s racism and ineptitude. The current administration needs no help in being exposed as racist, cruel, and inept, so perhaps this moment is more about exposing how we treat our most vulnerable, how we treat each other.
Does locking a mentally ill or suicidal person in a box with no windows and separating them from their loved ones give them the tools they need to improve themselves? Does putting someone in a situation with no constructive way to fill endless time lead to their rehabilitation? What’s it like to be trapped in a cell with someone coming down with a fever right now? Does any of this make us safer and healthier as a society?
Over the last two months, prisons and jails across the globe have dramatically reduced admission rates and released thousands upon thousands of people who are elderly, immunocompromised, and/or convicted of low-level crimes. This effort to decarcerate is both an act of compassion and in our collective self-interest. Prisons are incubators of infectious disease, which epidemiologists agree will inevitably leak out into the surrounding community. The pandemic has forced our carceral state to admit that the conditions they’ve created on the inside are a public safety risk on the outside.
But that’s long been the case. Our prisons, far from being places of rehabilitation, have become incubators of mental illness and violence and have long posed a risk to public safety. In the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, that risk has finally been acknowledged.
COVID-19 has both thrown us together and driven us apart. We drive by homeless encampments, and the possibility of getting out and helping becomes ever more remote. Daily, prisoners who test positive for COVID-19 are put in isolation for their own “protection.” In many ways we are more isolated and this isolation is not good for us.
My imprisonment called me to a bigger story, and my hope is that this pandemic can do the same for all of us. A story in which the people we put walls around are still our collective responsibility, treated as part of our community—a recognition that our survival is, and always will be, bound up in theirs.
Dear Readers and Subscribers,
A handful of pieces have been written by formerly incarcerated people about the dangers of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, and the above essay is my contribution. Some have drawn parallels to their own experience, like Lawrence Bartley’s How 27 Years in Prison Prepared Me for Coronavirus. Others, like Keri Blakinger’s Sheltering in Place is Terrifying, have described how retraumatizing isolation can be for survivors. Currently incarcerated Jerry Metcalf’s piece No, Your Coronavirus Quarantine Is Not Just Like Being in Prison, cautions against the insensitivity of false equivalents, while Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal’s Lessons I’ve learned from San Quentin offers advice on how to stay positive and adapt to isolation. Please share this with people you think might benefit from reading.
On another note: I have a call-out. I'm looking for stories of people around the country and world getting out of bad situations and figuring out new ways to get their needs met during the pandemic. Heard any interesting ones? This could be unexpected friendships, new love, finding and creating alternatives outside traditional social constructs and care structures—like nursing homes, daycare centers or the nuclear family. The catalyst could be something negative, like a break-up, divorce...even a death, which creates an opening or sparks a necessary change. Basically, people finding the strength to confront their fears, take a plunge and/or get out of their own way in order to do something they’ve long wanted to do. Please share this call-out to people around the country and world and/or let me know if you have sparks flying.
Lastly, if you enjoyed this piece, please consider subscribing to In Real Time: Society Questioning Itself.
Thank you, Sarah Shourd