By Morghan Vélez Young and Andrew Winn
Isolation from incarceration—whether in the general prison population or in a secure housing unit (SHU)—is punishment; the very act of sentencing persons to isolation outside of the communities in which they resided is the formal punishment. However, few consider the ways that isolation is an insidious means for the continuation of punishing persons.
Employment, education and intimate relationships do not escape the reach of isolation punishment, during or after incarceration. Employment barriers and rates of unemployment, the requirement of masterful code-switching, and refashioning family bonds show the ways that isolation punishment is an ongoing mechanism for persons who have already repaid their debts.
When youth are adjudicated and adults are sentenced to time behind cement walls, they are cut off from networks, resources and relationships. They are also cut off from practicing the navigation of mainstream, White supremacist, middle-class cultural knowledge that we are all held to in this country.
In many situations, the younger versions of these persons were cut off from this knowledge long before incarceration via structures that ensure poverty and trauma including poor educational and health resources.
Here, we focus on the impact of isolation punishment that occurs from five or more years in prison because workforce and educational relationships and intimate and familial connections are negatively affected by isolation punishment with damage to communities long term.
Voting rights, restitution costs, ankle monitors, parole officers doing house searches with or without cause, and more illustrate the government’s surveillance priorities toward persons returning to communities. The ways that parole, “the Machine,” hurts everyone was more fully discussed in a previous article in this column.
In employment contexts, for example, there are many formal rules for communicating in workplaces (e.g., dress code policies, company vernacular, customer service guidelines, time logs) and there are even more numerous informal rules in the same space that are not directly trained (e.g., standing a certain distance from others, eye contact nuances, the volume of one’s voice, navigating macro- and microaggressions).
Should one be able to access a job with a criminal record, possible tattoos, minimal employment history and gatekeeping issues surrounding race and class biases, maintaining jobs in the common “at-will” employment context is a great unknown for persons returning to communities. This is reflected in employment data where we can see the delaying of economic, educational and social stability.
The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) provides a helpful analysis of unemployment rates in the United States published in 2018. For 2008, persons with criminal records experienced a 27.3% unemployment rate, whereas the public experienced a 5.8% rate. Importantly, the PPI pointed out that the unemployment rate for persons with criminal records exceeded the unemployment rate during the Great Depression (24.9%).
This representation of ongoing punishment post isolation includes persons who cannot access jobs, who are screened out through direct and implicit bias, and who struggle to navigate the formal and informal rules of the mainstream “at-will” workplace settings.
One of the more identifiable reverberations of isolation punishment for Andrew Winn, one of the authors of this article, was his experience attending college. The crowded campus provided contrasting personal space standards compared to his time behind cement walls, and even acknowledging people in close proximity wasn’t valued in the campus context as is the case in many California prisons.
When people walk on college campuses and constantly look down at their cell phones, they aren’t able to see where they are going or are they considering the people around them. As Winn walked the UCLA campus, he began encountering the widely occurring head-down while reading the cell phone feature of the free society; it distracted his vigilance and assessment of the people and activities in his space, something he became trained for from prison life.
Introspection and reexamining the cell phone free world was required so that Winn could understand it as benign. This is common for many people who return to the community; it is difficult to understand certain social situations because of the deprivation of prison punishment.
California once gave people indeterminate SHU sentences. The SHU adds another layer to this conversation on isolation punishment, that of sensory deprivation. This stripping away of one’s environment is considered inhumane by many advocates and medical professionals around the world; its long-term impact compounds and exacerbates people’s ability to live a life according to the conditions of parole and expands into successes beyond parole.
Jamala Taylor, reentry program coordinator for the Insight Garden Program (IGP), a gardening program operated by a community-based organization inside some California prisons, served 15 years in the SHU. He explained to us that the adjustment from the SHU back to a mainline prison was difficult.
Taylor shared that prison looked different when he came back to the mainline: the people were younger, they listened to different music and the institutional rules were more draconian. The changes expected across generations and shifts in popular culture were evident.
The isolation of SHU did not prepare him for success in the general population or post-release. Doing well after the SHU required a tremendous amount of grit and determination to counter the impacts of deprivation and torture that comprise the SHU experience. Luckily for Taylor, his determination to experience life, learn and grow incubated and remained through all of those years.
Those returning to the community often become master “code switchers.” Code-switching is the art of selecting words and behaviors to fit a context and altering those selections as one moves through various settings. Many of us have practice with code-switching; this is even more so for those of us who are from historically oppressed heritages, forced to code-switch in and out of oppressive and safe spaces hour-by-hour.
For persons returning to the community, code-switching is highly sophisticated, though not easy. Examples shared by Richard Burrell, executive director of Live Again Fresno, a community-based organization in Fresno that amplifies the possibilities and promise of children and families in chronic homelessness, also spoke to challenges with navigating networks, resources and relationships.
When one does access a job post-prison, starting the day with a raid of one’s residence is foreign to those living in privilege. Once their family recovers from the trauma of an early morning raid by parole, they go off to their workplace.
The person in this example is required to code-switch between three contexts: 1) sitting quietly, half-dressed and handcuffed while oscillating among watching his/her scared children and police search each room for an unidentified reason; 2) comforting and decompressing with the children once the officers leave the residence and 3) dressing quickly and drinking a cup of coffee en route to clock in.
Code-switching continues in the workplace. Another example Burrell offers includes the seemingly ordinary interactions in a workplace setting. Even among persons who both experience long-term incarceration, their isolation punishment doesn’t actually equate to sharing similarities.
Once clocked in, it is not uncommon for persons who’ve returned to the community to be working side-by-side with those who they harmed or were harmed by behind cement walls. Any beef in the workplace or community setting with such persons can quickly transform into a parole violation and possibly a new charge.
Hence, code-switching in the workplace to demonstrate mainstream etiquettes, as well as code-switching one-on-one with previous prison enemies, are layers of physical and mental stress unknown to mainstream coworkers in the same shared space.
Even with the passing of California’s “Ban the Box” legislation, the ongoing features of isolation punishment are not resolved. This speaks to the insidiousness of isolation punishment; banning inquiry about criminal records doesn’t resolve the detriments.
For example, during a typical interview, employers are looking for several qualities even if they are unaware of a criminal record, including such things as the demonstration of required knowledge through mainstream communication and nonverbal cues as well as more bias-laden factors such as perceptions about how well an applicant “fits” with the team.
It is common practice to include employment as a condition of parole, but the isolation punishment rarely makes it manageable to successfully navigate the workforce post-release.
Separating people from their families has many repercussions, not just for the person in prison but also for the loved ones remaining in the community. In California, many people sentenced to prison are incarcerated in geographically isolated locations, increasing the distance families travel and systematically severing bonds by severing physical proximity.
The removal of family connections interferes with people’s opportunities to develop and maintain communication skills relevant to the social and emotional needs of family bonds. Often like a time capsule, parenting, intimate relationships and caring for elders must be renegotiated with a knowledge gap about who the person is who is returning to the community.
After serving 30 years in prison, and half of that time in the SHU, Taylor shared that he sought to reconnect with his twin sister. He reflects on the separation from his twin, how she learned to be an adult in college, and the ways that he learned how to be an adult in prison. Although today they are working on reformulating their relationship, many people aren’t always fortunate enough to have family members willing to work hard to rebuild broken bonds.
Even more so, many people leave prisons and experience difficulty after difficulty reunifying with children, reflecting the widespread stunting of generational bonds that reverberate throughout communities in the United States. The stunted generational bonds impact the collective in terms of community and societal stability.
Although family visits are sometimes available to some people in prison, not everyone is able to cultivate and foster close personal relationships from the isolation punishment context.
Isolation impacts people, families, generations, communities and the societal whole. The examples so far speak to this fact, across employment, education and family bonds.
Taylor wrapped up the discussion of this topic, isolation punishment, with three challenges upon leaving isolation.
First, “patience.” He said, “Prison moves at a certain tempo; everything moves fast in there.” The pace of life on the outside can be noticeably slow such as securing employment, residences and reestablishing relationships, and healing them.
Second, “communication skills.” The bumpy transition into communication styles on the outside is noticeable. Echoed earlier by Winn and Burrell, Taylor shared that, “It’s hard to communicate in a language that has gaps…what is queer, land acknowledgments and other contemporary social norms?”
Finally, solitary confinement for 15 years is the starkest of punishments. He shared, “The world has absolutely changed.”
There are many common-sense responses to borrow from innovative cities across the United States and globally to diminish the use of isolation as a supposed solution. For example, prison abolition is a real option. Also, the inclusion of career field experiences inside prisons, with the people having autonomy over the choice of profession can be accomplished.
Furthermore, we must acknowledge and take concrete actions to resolve the U.S. cultural fixation with punishing the people returning to the community. Isolation is not a remedy to injury, and not all those who injure are assigned isolation as punishment.
Ultimately, navigating middle-class, White supremacist culture will primarily be a fixed game for those returning to the community until the cultural desire to punish is altered and edited out of this culture.
Morghan Vélez Young, Ph.D., is an educator and researcher focused on transformative opportunities for those involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. She consults and trains through BrownGirlHealing.org and lectures in the Anthropology Department at Fresno State. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Winn is the husband to Kimberlee, a son to Linda and Darold, a dog-dad to Chiko and Pepper, and is from Sacramento. He is executive director of the Insight Garden Program, a nonprofit that offers in-prison programming in 10 California prisons and reentry services for previous program participants.