Photo by Elyas Pasban on Unsplash

I’m serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. I know depression. Depression is debilitating. Depression saps energy, induces numbness and stimulates streams of negativity. Extreme negativity can lead to suicide. 

I’ve learned practices that make me resilient. I can bounce back from adversity. Yet, I’ve witnessed too many successful suicides. Too many prisoners have. California’s prison population had the highest suicide rate in the nation, according to a report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2019. 

During the pandemic, 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. 

Just like in the 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 people 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 — withdraw when depressed. We self-isolate.

Suicide was the leading cause of death in jails from 2006 to 2016, and accounted for 31% of jail deaths in 2016 alone, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And in 2018, there were over 300 suicides in state prisons, according to data from Statista.

Free Americans are depressed because they want to get back to work, visit their families and have control over their lives. Prisoners can relate. The disconnect is that people in their own homes experience physical and emotional safety. Not true 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).

All human beings are vulnerable to COVID-19, depression and loneliness, but some Americans suffer adverse institutional and environmental contexts that others do not. Readers could say prisoners are criminals and do not deserve such considerations around safety. But what of injustice and those who have reformed themselves after years or decades of self-help, or who are innocent or suffer from substance abuse disorder and would be better served in treatment centers? Isn’t that what we want and expect from the Department of Corrections?

If anyone can relate to the concept of situational lockdowns, it is the American prisoner. When it comes to debilitating depression, anxiety and loneliness, the prisoner’s collective expertise goes far beyond any textbook or misdirected media account.

Prisoners can empathize, more than anyone could ever imagine, and we wholeheartedly empathize.

(Additional reporting by Molly Wright)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Dortell Williams

Dortell Williams is a writer incarcerated at California State Prison - Los Angeles County. He recently completed his B.A. in communication studies through California State University - Los Angeles.