Seemingly overnight and without any warning, our world inside the Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois was turned on its head last year by a silent microscopic assassin. With vaccines just a distant hope last spring, it was up to us to do our part — washing our hands while singing “Happy Birthday,” wearing masks, staying six feet apart and isolating in place to stave off a massive outbreak.
Unfortunately, our efforts to save ourselves from the “Rona” — what we inmates took to calling COVID-19 — resulted in unintended consequences: an array of mental health problems adding to inmates’ already heavy burden of stress, anxiety and isolation.
The long term mental and physical effects of COVID-19 will be studied and analyzed for decades before we know the depth of the damage we’ve endured. But, we do know that by as early as mid-summer 2020, calls to a federal mental health crisis hotline had increased ten-fold compared to a year prior.
Extrapolate those numbers to the already suffering incarcerated community that could no longer have in-person visits or regular contact with our outside support systems, and anyone could predict how we became unmoored into a sea of depression. No one was immune, not even the guards.
Behavioral and social scientists have long studied the lasting health consequences of incarceration. But we don’t need yet another study to tell us what we see everyday: prison changes you. The only question is how much you will be changed. As social creatures isolated in tiny cells for hours on end, we become more self-reliant for our own safety and survival. As we become less social, we essentially begin to lose our humanity and can become unrecognizable, even to ourselves.
This prolonged state of heightened stress, triggered by our fight-or-flight response wreaks havoc on our bodies as well. It can cause an increase in our blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones and inflammation — all of which are factors in our life expectancy. For example, in a 2017 interview Brigham Young University Professor of Psychology Julianne Holt-Lunstad noted that loneliness is “comparable to the risk of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day” and riskier for one’s health than both obesity and physical inactivity. People on the outside assume that the worst thing about prison is the violence we endure, but they’re wrong. The worst part is the separation and the often permanent severing of our relationships. In the times of Rona, that is amplified further by the loss of solidarity and social connectedness with our fellow inmates.
Our need for connection conflicted directly with the Illinois Department of Corrections’ mandate to keep prisons under extensive and strict lockdown protocols, presumably for our safety and protection. The lockdown was especially difficult for older inmates, who were more susceptible to both the effects of extreme isolation and COVID-19. After prison reform activists and our friends and family complained, the Department recently eased restrictions.
We were allowed to come out of our cells — masked and in groups of 10 or less — to use the phones to call our families. We were granted two 50-minute yard recreations a week, weather permitting. We walked, masked as always, to the chow hall for meals three times a day, six feet apart, with four to a an eight-person table. The prison provided and distributed free weekly masks and bars of soap. Even our communications provider, GTL, gifted every inmate two free text messages a week and one free 15-minute video visit per month to help us stay connected with our loved ones.
To this day, I commend the Department of Corrections for their efforts to offset some of our mental strain — even if those efforts may have been partially responsible for the mass infections that tore through our facility like wildfire.
The Department of Corrections was in a lose-lose situation that was in constant flux, with changes on an almost hourly basis at times. Even as I look back today, with 20/20 hindsight, I see no easy solution, no clear answers. The overcrowded, poorly ventilated, filthy prison conditions were the perfect breeding ground for a virus. We were doomed from the get-go.
As a sanitation specialist worker in the prison’s makeshift quarantine building, where inmates were housed if they tested positive for COVID-19, it is impossible for me to convey the magnitude of disorganization, ineptitude and disregard for human suffering that I have witnessed.
I suspect that every inmate may have been infected, but this is impossible to know for certain because some inmates had no symptoms and others did not admit to their symptoms. Why would they? It’s not as if any treatment was being offered — not even a cough drop for a cough or an aspirin for a headache was distributed during the height of the outbreak.
During the peak, I counted at least 12 dead inmates — two of whom were close friends of mine. I was forced to pack up the stuff from their cells. I can still remember packing the photos of their loved ones carefully into boxes, even though I knew that these photos were just going to get destroyed. Seeing those around you getting sick and dying I believe contributed to an uptick in mental health issues.
The severity and range of Rona’s effects varies dramatically from one inmate to the next. Some inmates didn’t have any symptoms and merely lost a prison job or fell into a funk, while others suffered serious illness or lost loved ones. A select few paid the ultimate price. But some recent research points to at least one peripheral benefit of overcoming this experience: building up resilience.
Since my initial incarceration, I have long witnessed the awesome power of the human psyche to adjust to and normalize even the most extreme of circumstances.
As convicts, resilience is often worn as a badge of honor. We take pride, for example, in surviving so-and-so prison or a stretch on Death Row. I don’t believe inmates are more resilient than any other population in the free world, but maybe we are better prepared to deal with adversity, having already overcome isolation, loneliness and fear at the start of our incarceration.
At the onset of statewide lockdown orders last spring, my mother wrote me: “Now I know what it feels like to be a prisoner. I see some of what you must endure. I am sorry I have not been more available and supportive.”
Although it touched me, I also scoffed at the idea that our prisons were the same.
I am dedicating this to my friends and fellow inmates, Ricky and Larry, who lost their fight with COVID-19 in the fall of 2020. Rest in peace.
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.