By Aaron Allen
Social isolation has been thrust into the limelight as the world struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, social isolation comes with a price as it is estimated that it costs roughly $6.7 billion in annual health care expenses among Medicare beneficiaries and contributes to poor health and mental health outcomes, including an increased risk of early mortality.
But there is a demographic group that experiences social isolation days on end and even for life. The incarcerated.
After being released from an 8-year stint in a Washington state prison, Fred Harris, a certified religious coordinator for the Washington State Department of Corrections, discovered and understood his purpose. Just as Daniel, Joseph, Jesus, Moses, Malcolm, Martin and countless others, isolation can start out as a curse and turn into a blessing or purpose.
“My background or experience with the criminal justice system began in 1994,” recalls Harris. “Because of my belief in my innocence, I refused the prosecution’s deal and subsequently was found guilty and sentenced to 94 months in the department of correction.”
“Since my release I have counseled hundreds of men and discovered without any support systems while incarcerated the effects of social isolation in imprisonment can turn a young or even an old mind towards the negative influences prison can impose on a human being,” Harris adds.
According to Ashley McGirt-Adair, a trauma therapist who works with those who are currently incarcerated or never to be released as well as those re-entering society, “there is data that correlates with isolation trauma in higher suicide rates, homicides, drug use, all of these are direct consequences or ways to cope especially those that have been in isolation for long periods of time and they are coming out into the real world, out of the confinement of prison that has done a lot of harm to who they are.”
Black men constitute about 13 percent of the male population, but about 35 percent of those incarcerated. One in five Black people born in 2001 is likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to one in 10 Latinx people and one in 29 white people.
“When I got into prison there was a lot of trouble because I was in an environment where there were a lot of individuals that had behavioral issues,” says Harris. “Pretty much everybody that comes in there may have some sort of behavioral issue or something that has happened to them that traumatized them. But to make a long story short I served my time and battled the isolation by staying in the law library and utilizing my faith, the Muslim religion. I used my time productively, studying, praying and avoiding trouble.”
“After my release I was hired by the Department of Correction as a religious coordinator for individuals that were still incarcerated and felt that I had something to give back as I was taught,” added Harris. “So, I am responsible for Clallum Bay, Stafford Creek and other facilities talking with young men, sharing my story and providing solutions to the emotional and mental strain and stress incarceration and isolation can impose on an individual.”
When it comes to trauma associated with social isolation in prison, McGirt-Adair describes a scenario where a man had not even been sentenced and as he waits for court dates, the system places him in solitary confinement that lasted for months. During that experience the man, traumatized by the experience, was found and pronounced dead while in confinement. It is this type of treatment and its affects that McGirt-Adair and Harris believe advocacy and support is necessary for the safety of all inmates.
According to McGirt-Adair, this “level of isolation causes a lot of psychological harm. There have been numerous studies that have shown what isolating a human does. It is antithetical to how we were created, we were put on this earth to be in connection with other individuals.”
McGirt-Adair says that there are a number of therapies and solutions available to help the incarcerated or formally incarcerated deal with the effects of isolation, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is very problem-focused and goal-directed therapy where distorted thinking and maladaptive behaviors are identified and worked on.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a therapy that openly welcomes the dialectics of change and acceptance and works towards helping individuals integrate the two. It is based on mindfulness skills training increasing self-awareness, tolerate distress, regulate emotions and improve interpersonal skills.
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) has been recognized as one of the most effective trauma treatments. It works to access and process traumatic memories to an adaptive resolution.
EMDR works on 3 levels. It often starts with targeting dysfunctional groundwork with the aim of reaching adaptive information. Then the person is desensitized to current triggers, and future templates are included to help the adaptive process.
“These [therapies] help individuals recover from trauma and be able to deal with maladaptive behavior in ways that they weren’t necessarily able to process through what it was like being in an incarcerated environment and now you’re not,” says McGirt-Adair. “I always tell people you shouldn’t just use one thing; people are eclectic you have to try multiple things based on the individual but those are some of the things that I found for me personally and the people that I work with that have had the most profound impact.”
Isolation can be harmful to our psychological and physical well-being. Some can argue that incarceration can be self-induced by the decisions we make that can land a person in prison, but there is hope and there is help.
“I think it is important that we advocate against having people in solitary confinement,” says McGirt-Adair. “The way that they treat people who are incarcerated it’s important that we have more resources to support them when they get out.”
“They have done their time and when they come out into society, we want them to be good citizens and not have to return,” McGirt-Adair continued. “We have to ensure that the environment in which they are returning to is conducive to their mental health.”
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