Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Depression is debilitating. Depression saps one’s energy, induces whole-body numbness, and stimulates streams of negative thoughts. In the extreme, those negative thoughts can provoke suicidal ideation.

As a prisoner serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, I know about depression from first-hand experience and observation. Fortunately, I’ve learned to utilize a number of practices that make me resilient. I bounce back from adversity fairly quickly. Yet I’ve witnessed too many successful suicides. Sadly, many of us prisoners have. California’s prison population had the highest suicide rate in the nation as of 2016, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

Consistent with this contagion era, depression in the free world has skyrocketed as well. According to a Democracy Now article, an informal survey by the World Health Organization found that 45% of the U.S. population was depressed in the COVID age. Iran self-reported a 60% depression rate, and China reported a 35% rate of depression. Yet we will get through this; we must get through this!

There are many triggers of depression. As with those in larger society, prisoners wrestle with long-term loss of autonomy and uncertainty. Prisoners suffer thick bouts of anxiety and isolation. And while it may seem ironic that persons thrust into overcrowded conditions would suffer from loneliness, the paradox holds firm. Human beings — whether confined in a home of luxury for a few months or in a barren cell of concrete and steel for decades — tend to withdraw when depressed. We self-isolate.

Free Americans are largely depressed because they understandably want to get back to work, visit their families, and have some control over their lives. There’s no question that prisoners can relate to those needs. The one disconnect from prisoners and the larger world is that for most free persons, staying in their homes offers both physical and biological safety. Not so for the average prisoner. Prisoners have no control over with whom they are forced to share a cell (i.e., a serial killer, a severely mentally challenged person, or a violent and unreasonable person).

Some readers may retort that prisoners are criminals, therefore they do not deserve such considerations. Yet rarely is any human phenomenon so simple. In recent years DNA has proven that there are innocent people behind bars; and we now know that race plays a huge part in who goes to prison and who gets probation. Likewise, what of those who suffer from substance abuse disorder and would be better served in treatment centers? And what of those who have reformed themselves after years of decades of self-help? After all, isn’t that what we want and expect from the department of corrections?

All human beings are susceptible to COVID-19, depression, isolation, and other vulnerabilities. The difference is context. Some Americans suffer adverse institutional and environmental contexts that others do not, thus driving different traumas, reactions, and outcomes. 

Whether imprisoned or free, it appears we all have quite a bit in common. If anyone can relate to the concept of situational lockdowns, it is the American prisoner. And when it comes to debilitating depression, anxiety and loneliness, the prisoner’s collective expertise goes far beyond any textbook or misdirected media account; so prisoners empathize, more than one could ever imagine.

We wholeheartedly empathize.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Dortell Williams

Dortell Williams is a writer, who holds a B.A. in communication studies from California State University, Los Angeles. He cares about empathy and healing to solve America's many divisions, hate and injury.
Dortell is incarcerated in California.