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In Prison, It’s Impossible to Practice Social Distancing

As a prison legal aid, Steven has assisted people for years with their legal cases by reading trial transcripts, diagnosing errors, and preparing the appropriate pleading. He wrote an essay about his experience in prison toward the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here’s an excerpt:

Any expert worth his or her salt has explained that to beat a virus such as the coronavirus, all of society must practice social distancing. Experts direct that we stay at least six feet from each other. Given the constructional scaffolding of the American prison system, this is impossible for prisoners to do. Prisoners, in the best of situations, live elbow to elbow with each other. In order to enforce social distancing, prisons around the United States have enacted quarantine lockdowns, thus forcing prisoners to spend at least 23 hours a day in tight quarters with their cellmates. This type of isolation leads to extreme mental and physical deterioration.

Common side-effects of solitary confinement include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.  This nationwide quarantine could continue for several months. Moreover, given the dimensions of the cells, confinement with a cellmate makes it impossible to practice social distancing.

It is high time we end the binary perspective that incarceration is the most effective form of punishment, let alone a societal good, in respect to rehabilitation. Data has shown it is not. Recidivism rates have always been high and more often than not leave victims unsatisfied. Communities are likewise left sour when recently released inmates reenter society without the means to care for themselves, resulting in the overuse of public assistance.

Old habits are hard to break, so I do not suggest that changing hundreds of years’ worth thinking will be easy. But it starts with a discussion. One hundred years and fifty years ago, Dostoyevsky began this discussion by writing that “[t]he degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  In the aftermath of this pandemic, many American cells will second as tombs, and our degree of civilization will truly be measured.

Read Steven’s full essay, Prison Pandemic.

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