Unfortunately, at the same time of this national awakening to the importance of mental health, we continue to have a criminal punishment system that is designed to destroy mental health. Millions of people are warehoused in institutions that actively discourage the development of healthy boundaries, communication skills, and coping mechanisms.
Over the summer of 2020, the wellness industry engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement in light of protests against police brutality. Its leaders offered tips on grief, resiliency, and allyship in response to the very public display of Black America’s collective trauma. As an avid consumer of wellness industry content as well as a civil rights and criminal defense attorney who has been inside jails and prisons on numerous occasions, I ask that the wellness industry continue its foray into social justice issues and be willing to engage with prison abolition, too, because everything that incarceration stands for is antithetical to what the wellness industry pledges to be about. Because racism is foundational to our carceral system, support for abolition would also demonstrate whether the predominantly white wellness industry’s commitment to racial justice is sincere.
Let’s start with the fact that incarceration cuts people off from their support networks—and that isolation has only increased during the pandemic. People are often shipped to prisons hundreds or thousands of miles away from home to serve out their sentences, making visiting difficult, if not impossible. With coronavirus, in-person visitation with loved ones has stopped, forcing folks in prisons, jails, and halfway houses to rely on expensive phone calls, video calls, and text messaging services all run by for-profit, private companies (but without any privacy for inmates) just to stay in touch with loved ones. What little programming exists (such as GED classes and addiction support) has largely stopped because of the pandemic. The proliferation of inmate TikTok accounts may stem from the very basic human need for connection and community, to know that we exist and we matter to others. As a result of COVID-19, many people are experiencing the damaging effects of social isolation; for the incarcerated, it is a daily reality.
The isolation is exacerbated by one of the other unnatural rules of incarceration: no touch. We need touch as humans; touch is vital to connection and well-being. Yet touching is largely banned and can lead to discipline, particularly now in pandemic times. The concept of “touch starvation” is entering the mainstream because so many of us are suffering from it as a result of coronavirus social distancing measures. Those who are incarcerated or in halfway homes experience this on an amplified scale, often for years on end. And the type of touch the incarcerated do often experience at the hands of guards and other inmates is often violent and violating—including sterilizations, rape, strip searches, killings, and assaults. Incarcerated women, for example, are 30 times more likely to be raped than free women.
The basic human needs for proper nutrition, fresh air, and exercise—all touted as key ways to stay sane during the pandemic—are also largely ignored for the incarcerated. Prison food is notoriously inedible. The incarcerated live in unsanitary conditions with little sunlight. Exercise outdoors is a luxury afforded maybe a few hours a week, sometimes in metal cages. The incarcerated also stand little chance against coronavirus, which is spreading like wildfire because of inadequate sanitation and safety measures and an inability to social distance. The pandemic is even being used as an excuse to deny inmates access to exercise and fresh air.
In addition to deprivation and isolation, incarceration is also built on a foundation of control and submission. Every aspect of an inmate’s life is heavily controlled. There is no privacy. There are very few opportunities to make your own choices. Inmates are expected to do exactly what guards say, when they say it. Articulating one’s needs or attempting to set a boundary is interpreted as defiance or disobedience and swiftly punished. The smallest move—staying on the phone one minute past the time a guard says you’re allowed to or simply “looking” at a guard the “wrong way”—can result in “privileges” such as phone calls, exercise, visitation, commissary, and more being taken away.
The destabilizing uncertainty that we all feel as we navigate this pandemic, When will this be over? Can I see my friends? Where can I get a test? What about the vaccine?, is a constant reality for the incarcerated. Guards have, in large measure, carte blanche to disregard social distancing guidelines, so inmates have to be on constant alert. They must perpetually deal with the uncertainty of when they’ll next get to talk to family, when they might next get assaulted, when there might be a development in their case, when they’ll get a face mask, how long they’ll be in solitary confinement, etc. How can we expect people to be healthy, functioning adults in the real world who respect the boundaries of others (as well as the property of others) when we place them in an unstable environment where their own boundaries are constantly violated?
It’s not surprising, then, that the incarcerated rank therapy as one of the key tools that would have kept them out of prison, along with affordable housing and a living wage. And yet quality therapy, affordable housing, and a living wage are what are most kept out of the hands of people leaving incarceration, making it very likely that they’ll end up right behind bars again. Our systems deprive people of what they need to be whole and then we punish them for their maladaptive survival strategies, whether stealing to feed an addiction or driving to a job on a suspended license to afford to live or carrying a gun because their neighborhood is dangerous or passing a bad check to pay rent or selling drugs to pay off court debt.
Those who create the conditions of deprivation—those who zone their way out of paying taxes, corporations that lobby against any kind of regulation to limit their greed, police who brutalize people with impunity, prosecutors who hold enormous unchecked power over whether and what to charge people, politicians who take campaign donations from the very businesses they’re supposed to be regulating, landlords who are evicting people despite eviction moratoriums, pharmaceutical companies that knowingly addict people for profit, fossil fuel companies that fund anti-climate change research, employers that steal wages from their workers—are rarely held accountable.
How different would it be if we had a “justice” system focused on healing all forms of harm? That taught people non-violent communication, boundary setting, mindfulness, and self-soothing techniques?
How different would it be if we had a “justice” system focused on healing all forms of harm? That taught people non-violent communication, boundary setting, mindfulness, and self-soothing techniques? That practiced accountability through restorative justice and mediation? That incentivized community ties and provided education, job training/placement, and housing? That recognized the resiliency of those who have survived this trauma as a strength, rather than a scarlet letter? How many deaths of despair could be prevented if we gave folks the tools to succeed, rather than poverty wages and cages?
Our peer nations provide examples of how this can be done. Human isolation and torture are replaced with programming, nature, care, and community. While not perfect and still incarceration, other countries have managed to create more humane systems that result in better outcomes and a few American prisons are trying to apply those systems here. Rather than foster environments based on survival that do not translate well in “regular” society, they have chosen to foster environments based on creating healthy people who will be able to integrate back into society upon release. Funding and changing the mindsets of correctional and political figures from punitive to rehabilitative are perennial challenges, but it can be done.
It can be done with the help of the wellness industry, which has so much to offer. It is time to extend those offerings to the millions behind bars and their loved ones on the outside who are suffering so deeply. Whether you are a part of the wellness industry or a consumer of it, you can help. Join a pen pal or jail support program; donate to bail funds to help free people; expand who you follow on social media to include folks in the abolition space such as Dean Spade, Derecka Purnell, and Scott Hechinger; donate to and volunteer with programs that bring yoga and other wellness practices to the incarcerated; support organizations that help incarcerated folks stay in touch with their families and reintegrate upon release; and encourage the wellness folks who have helped you to expand their offerings to the incarcerated and their loved ones on the outside.
As things stand, mental health is a privilege of the few. If we believe that everyone deserves access to well-being, then abolition of this cruelty-and-punishment-first system is a must, and the resources of the wellness industry can be mobilized to achieve that healthier world.
For additional resources and reading, please check out:
- We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, a book by Mariame Kaba (this book comes with a reading guide perfect for book clubs and even a playlist)
- Pen Pals: How to Write to Incarcerated People, a guide by Heather Mytelka
- The Prisoners Literature Project, a volunteer group donating books to the incarcerated
Natasha Távora Baker (she/her) is a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, writer, prison abolitionist, and capoeirista. She is the Legal Working Group coordinator for Abolition Apostles. Raised in California, Natasha is also a dual American and Brazilian citizen. She can be found on Twitter @natashatbaker or on Instagram at @natasha.t.baker.
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