People have begun to describe their quarantine experiences as like being in prison. Having spent the last 17 1/2 years of my life in Virginia’s Department of Corrections I thought it would be interesting to examine the parallels and divergences. There are a lot of jokes and popular lore about prisons but most people don’t know what it’s really like.
Let me first say that we put ourselves here. I do believe things should be different but I am by no means a victim. Had I made different choices I wouldn’t be in this situation. All I ask is that we be considered as human beings.
Prisons are about public safety. Offenders are segregated from society in an effort to protect people and their property. This is similar to the goal quarantine which keeps people home to avoid the spread of a virus that poses a threat.
The difference is that the need for quarantine and its duration are based on emerging data. Initial calculations may have called for six months of social distancing but it may only take two, or vice versa. In Virginia there is no parole for anyone sentenced after 1995 so prisoners do the time handed down by a judge, regardless of whether they pose a threat to public safety. Some guys with short sentences run wild, fight and join gangs but still get out while many prisoners with long sentences turn their lives around, become teachers and mentors but will remain in prison for years, decades or the rest of their lives. Imagine the quarantine still being enforced a decade after the threat has passed.
The other question is what poses a danger. Nonviolent criminals have much higher recidivism rates than violent criminals. So, while they receive shorter sentences they are more likely to get out and reoffend. Should the man who made a single terrible mistake spend fifty years in prison while the nonviolent offender on his sixth trip will get yet another chance after a few years?
In prison there is no real control over space and possessions. My father died just before I transferred to this institution. When I arrived most of my recent photos of him were confiscated as contraband because he was not “properly attired.” People locked in their homes don’t have to worry about things like that.
On the flip side, prisoners are guaranteed a place to stay and three meals per day. Many people and families affected by the economic consequences of Covid-19 are in greater peril of where they will sleep and where their next meal will come from.
I can’t imagine being one of the parents unsure of how to provide for his child. Not having children though I’d rather be homeless and broke out there than warm and fed in here. I never want to lose the ability to make it without the system. Some of the saddest stories are the institutionalized guys, in prison so long they have no where to go and couldn’t function outside even if they did. Some even try not to get released, not wanting end up like the old man in Shawshank Redemption who chooses to end his life rather than struggle in the free world.
Prison is all about taking what comes as far as food and fresh air. We don’t choose the chow hall menu. Meat rock, a processed meat biproduct largely believed to cause cancer, is the common ingredient in most meals. We’re allowed out of our cells only during certain hours and not at all during lockdowns. We’re able to get outside a few times per day on normal operation but that is subject to change at any time.
Most people out there are still choosing what they eat and when they step outside. Those who are out of work, unable to get out shopping or limited by scarcity at the store get a taste of taking what food comes. Those quarantined in nursing homes are really feeling the lack of fresh air.
Those nursing home residents also feel the same social strains as we prisoners do. We are disconnected from family and friends. Visits are cancelled indefinitely here but even before that we could only hope to see a visitor once or twice per month for a few hours. Visits are also cancelled at nursing homes and the biggest complaint from residents is that no one comes to visit. So, we are more alike than different and used to the isolation but that doesn’t make it any easier.
The biggest juxtaposition between quarantine and prison is the issue of safety from Covid-19. Those at home are at home to be safe from the virus. In prison we represent one of the most vulnerable populations in the country. I live in this prison’s honor pod, composed mostly of men over sixty who have served at least 15 years, usually many more. Several of these men have respiratory issues and one is going through chemotherapy for colon cancer, making him especially susceptible to the virus.
Being at home means respecting social distancing. Being in prison means having no choice but to interact with scores of staff and other prisoners each day.
Our biggest commonality is that we’re all scared in one way or another. We’re worried about family and friends or worried about ourselves. We’re worried about where the next paycheck will come from or what will happen next with our living situation.
People keep saying we’re in this together. The point isn’t that our situations are similar but that as human beings we are all interconnected and interdependent. It’s an easy fact to forget in the age of hyper-individualism and apparent self-sufficiency. We thrive together or we fail apart. I hope that having a common threat allows people to see that we all need each other and that being there for our neighbor is as important as being there for ourselves.
Whether prison or quarantine, it’s what we make of it. We can learn to juggle, write a novel, home school the kids and get in fantastic shape or we can sit around and watch TV. There’s a necessary adjustment period but I hope we come out of this stronger and more together than we went in.