Alone in a crowded room: Showing compassion to prisoners in uncertain times
by Erik Johnson
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended society. Stuck at home, with jobs and lifestyles in limbo, we Canadians turn to the comforts and distractions of family and modern conveniences. The believers among us look to God and find solace and purpose in scripture. As we do this, let’s remember those who are most vulnerable – including people in prisons and on parole – and ask God to protect them during this crisis.
Even on good days, prison is a lonely place. Many inmates struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, all of which can be intensified by feelings of isolation. Regular contact with friends, family, and volunteer mentors can help ease the mental and emotional strain of incarceration – and lower rates of recidivism, yet as our nation shuts down, people in prisons have lost access to a valuable resource: human connection.
Last week, to help limit the spread of COVID-19, Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) and BC Corrections closed all federal and provincial institutions to visitors and volunteers. Presently, the only way for people in BC prisons to contact friends and family is through phone and video. Thankfully, CSC has waived the cost of phone calls while visits are on hold.
In addition, many parole officers and chaplains are working from home.
According to Allyson Johnson, a Case Manager with M2/W2 Association’s No One Leaves Alone (NOLA) program, the closures are taking an emotional toll on the prisoners and parolees she works with. “I spoke to one client on the phone for over an hour. She’s someone who deals with anxiety at the best of times, and right now, she feels like her support is cut off. She can’t offload. She’s due for release and is worried about finding housing and a job.”
Meanwhile, recent parolees must find their way back into society and, at the same time, negotiate a wash of pandemic-related uncertainty. “The first few weeks are a crucial time for reintegration,” Johnson said. “It’s the time to look for work, find leisure activities, and connect with people in your community. You miss those opportunities when you’re stuck in your room all day.”
Long periods of isolation are particularly hard for people who struggle with addiction – Christians among them. “I spoke to one client,” Johnson said, “who is feeling strong desires to use again. He has faith, and that helps him get through, but being alone makes it difficult.”
For people in prisons, a tether to the outside world is essential, especially in a crisis. Engaging regularly with a mentor; that is, someone who’s not a guard, prison staff, or fellow inmate; can bring a prisoner closer to the community and provide the hope, purpose, and accountability that every human needs to be successful.
Looming Health Care Crisis
While #SocialDistancing and #SelfIsolation remind us to maintain physical distance from others, all the hashtags on the internet couldn’t help prisoners keep two metres apart. That kind of space simply isn’t available.
Living in close contact with limited access to health care, prisoners are especially vulnerable to the spread of contagious diseases. Adding to this, of Canada’s over 14,000 federal inmates, one in four is over 50 years old. For most healthy, active Canadians, 50 might be the new 40, but life in prison can tack on 10 to 15 years of wear and tear, so a prisoner in her 50s might struggle with health issues associated with someone much older. These factors are troubling.
Across the world, governments are taking various actions to protect prisoners from the pandemic, including releasing people who don’t pose a risk to society.
In Canada, Ontario and Nova Scotia have released some provincial inmates, but CSC hasn’t yet announced plans to ease the crowding in federal institutions. Although at the time of writing this article, CSC has said it is considering the possibility.
Erik Johnson is Communications and Marketing Lead at M2/W2 Association – Restorative Christian Ministries.