As covid-19 cases increase in this state, it strikes me that perhaps people are having a difficult time staying home. I get it. We aren't used to staying put and staying distanced. Humans are social creatures and crave the comforts of interaction, touch, and dynamic spaces to inspire creativity and joy in our daily lives.
I understand this, not as a result of these months spent safely in my home, but because I've been forced to live in isolation before. Having spent 30 years in prison, 15 months or so in solitary confinement off and on, I can say without a doubt that isolation feels hopeless.
I'm not talking about being confined to your house or apartment. I'm talking about a small, concrete, windowless cell, often without a mattress during the day, without reading materials or TV, and without anyone to hold a conversation. Prison isolation is a lockdown taken to the inhumane and intolerable extreme.
To survive isolation in a prison, you have to turn off normal behaviors. You can't speak to anyone. You can't hide from yourself. You can't distract yourself with a phone, TV, or a good book. Instead, you sit on a concrete or steel bed for 12 hours, keeping time by your food trays and talking to yourself.
I've witnessed people lose their minds, temporarily or permanently lose their ability to socialize with others and lose any sense of hope or purpose after spending anywhere from 15 days upward in isolation. It's no wonder some never fully return to normal prison life or re-entry after being caged like an animal for days, weeks, months, or years.
The Arkansas Department of Correction currently holds up to 16 percent of its residents in extreme isolation. There are different kinds of prison isolation and different reasons for being sent there.
There are always those who think solitary confinement is a necessary tool for prisons to control bad behavior. If that is true, show me the evidence that this tool works. Where are the positive outcomes that show extreme isolation teaches pro-social behavior? For years the ADC has confronted investigations and external reports highlighting this reality; isolation is overused and terribly ineffective at improving behavior.
What can be done to rehabilitate and regulate behavior in prisons? The answer isn't simple, but having lived during the covid-19 pandemic (in the free world, thank you), I can say that what we all need is increased opportunities for education, enrichment, and especially outdoor activities to improve health and wellness. When people are taken care of and have control over some aspect of their environment (even if they can't end the pandemic or their incarceration), they feel better about the wait and they act better.
Surely this global health crisis has opened our eyes to just how challenging it is to sit still day in and day out. My hope is we start to open our hearts to the ways the ADC has tortured thousands of people over the years in the name of punishment or rehabilitation. Can we use this new wisdom and empathy to demand more humane treatment for people behind prison walls?
David Morgan spent 30 years as a juvenile-lifer in the Arkansas Department of Correction. He now lives in Dallas-Fort Worth as a free man.