The prisoner in the cell above me screams, “No! Don’t! No! No! Stop! Leave me alone!” I am often woken up by his screams. His groans and pleas for the pain to stop are something I’ve become accustomed to hearing. They are common in prison. I’ve never asked the man above me the cause of his nightmares, but I’m sure they are connected to trauma suffered either before or during his incarceration, possibly both.
To the millions of individuals confined within prisons across the U.S., trauma and depression are nothing new. All prisoners suffer on some level, whether that suffering is related to life on the outside or our time in the carceral state, or both.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we lived our daily lives in extremely stressful conditions. We are often alone, physically and emotionally, as we sit with the harm we were subjected to and the harm we caused that landed us in prison.
We often don’t have anyone to confide in or trust. We are separated from our family and home communities and micromanaged by an administration who rarely has our best interests in mind. We are forced to accept rules that are punitive, oppressive, and sometimes abusive. The list of traumas is never ending, yet we are forced to navigate this mental and physical minefield daily — sometimes for decades — on our own.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I used my time inside to work in restorative justice circles helping others to process their past traumas as we worked on a path towards accountability together. I was a shoulder for others to lean on and had shoulders to lean on myself.
While some people may think we deserve this treatment, 95% of all prisoners in the state system will eventually be released to live in the free world again, according to the Bureau of Justice. We will be your neighbors, your employees, your bosses. Allowing prisoners to be mistreated and traumatized on the inside has real negative consequences.
Of course, with the introduction of COVID-19, conditions in prisons and treatment of incarcerated individuals has gotten worse, and levels of depression in prisoners have risen to a height I’ve never seen before. People are on edge and easily set-off as our routines have been interrupted and our interactions micromanaged by the DOC supposedly because of COVID-19 precautions, even though the protection has been flimsy at best.Prisoners looking to rebalance and find ways to push through these difficult times often reach a fork in the road. Will they take the path towards healthy coping skills or veer off on a destructive path?
During the pandemic, this decision point has gotten much more complicated because the vast majority of the positive avenues to combat stress and depression have been denied during COVID-19 — visits with loved ones, educational and self-betterment programs, fresh air, and the ability to exercise on a regular basis.
Some prisoners who have spent years battling issues of chemical dependency have returned to the habit of using drugs — creating a whole new array of issues. Prisoners who resort to the use of drugs usually find themselves with larger problems than the ones they were trying to mask in the first place.
If they are caught selling or possessing drugs, they could find themselves in solitary confinement or lose accrued good time and various other privileges, potentially triggering more problems.
Many prisoners say the loss of visits has been one of the hardest things to live without. Maintaining positive relationships with loved ones has been next to impossible in some cases. During times where families struggle to feed themselves, companies like Jpay and Global Tel Link feed upon them as they extract every penny for services like phone calls, video visits, and emails — all services that are mostly free in society. Prisoners’ loved ones spend hundreds of dollars a month just to maintain a bond.
DOC and these companies have been offering two free five-minute phone calls a week, two free half-hour video visits, and free emails on Wednesdays, but that is merely a drop in the bucket.
Prisoners raising a child have been stripped of years they will never get back.
“I wonder if Isabella will even remember her daddy when visits return,” John, a BIPOC prisoner in his mid-40s who is a devout Muslim, said of his 2-year-old daughter. “It will be well over a year since we have seen each other… There are video visits, but half the time they don’t work, our families can’t hear us, the picture isn’t clear, how can a little kid understand that?”
Not having their support network has made it easy for some to lose sight of their goals, allowing the negative environment that surrounds them to creep back in and devour their minds.
Often, I find myself grappling with ways to remain focused and positive, striving to discover the silver-lining that lays within daily life behind bars, even more so during times of COVID-19. Wanting to continue to prepare myself for when I am reintegrated back into society. However, as the months continue to roll on and the effects of COVID-19 having no end in sight, it is becoming more difficult with each day, in some cases with each hour.
The weight of depression can be paralyzing.
Mental health services offered to prisoners have been laughable. During the last year, mental health staff walked the tiers a handful of times offering a few seconds of conversation or a crossword puzzle. If we wanted to request an in-person appointment, it costs us a $4 co-pay, the equivalent of 9.5 hours of work based on the average pay of 42 cents an hour here.
At the beginning of 2021, we received one memo that said, “These times, especially under quarantine, are stressful. Just remember that you are resilient and made it through it before.” It suggested that we tell the staff if we have “a mental health emergency,” but we all know that would earn us a one-way trip to a padded room with 24-hour surveillance, a sure way of making us feel more, not less, suicidal.
The atta-boy tone offended me. We need legit support. We need DOC to stop playing defense.
The DOC could step up and make communication with loved ones accessible and free. The DOC could be open and honest with prisoners and their loved ones about everything taking place during this health crisis. The DOC could offer prisoners more protective gear. The DOC could waive any costs for mental health services and actually talk to prisoners.
At this time it is in everyone’s best interest to help stabilize those struggling with depression. This is a time to look at each other as equals — we are all humans fighting the same fight. Maybe we should focus on that.
This story was originally published by the Prison Journalism Project (PJP), an independent news outlet that trains incarcerated writers to be journalists, so they can participate in the dialogue about criminal justice reform. Christopher Blackwell is an incarcerated journalist in Washington state and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.