As published in the Roanoke Times – June 4th, 2020
People have been describing their quarantine experiences as “like being in prison.” Having spent the last 18 years of my life in Virginia’s Department of Corrections, I thought it would be interesting to examine the similarities and differences. There’s a lot of popular lore about prison, but most people don’t know what it’s really like.
Let me first say that the vast majority of us put ourselves here. I believe our system should operate differently, but I am by no means a victim. Had I made different choices, I wouldn’t be here. All I ask is that our humanity be recognized.
Prisons, ostensibly, are about public safety. Offenders are segregated from society in an effort to protect people and their property. This is similar to the goal of 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, no one sentenced since 1995 has been eligible for parole, so prisoners do their time regardless of whether they pose a continued threat to society. Some guys with short sentences run wild, fight, and join gangs but regain their freedom after a short stint, whereas many prisoners with long sentences change by making amends, becoming formally educated, receiving job training, becoming mentors, and so forth, but will remain in prison for decades or the rest of their lives.
Imagine the quarantine still being enforced a decade after the threat has passed.
Another question: What poses a danger? Nonviolent criminals have much higher recidivism rates than violent criminals. So, while they receive shorter sentences, they’re 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 get yet another chance after just a few years?
That said, prisoners are guaranteed a place to stay and three meals a day. Many people affected by the economic consequences of Covid-19 are uncertain where they will sleep and where their next meal will come from.
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 haven’t been outside at all since the first confirmed case.
Most people out there are still choosing what they eat and when they step outside. Those who are out of work, unable to go shopping, or limited by scarcity at the store get a taste of “taking what comes.”
Perhaps 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. Inmates represent one of the most vulnerable populations in the country when it comes to infectious disease. I live in this prison’s honor pod, composed mostly of men over 60 who have served at least 15 years, usually many more. Several of my neighbors 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 staff that have already, unwittingly, brought Covid-19 into the institution.
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 an age of hyper-individualism and apparent self-sufficiency. The truth is, we thrive together or we fail apart.
I hope that having a common threat allows people to see that we need one another, and that being there for our neighbor is as important as being there for ourselves.