Social Distancing is a Prison Norm

March 23, 2020, 11:51 am

Medical personnel and political leaders are calling for social distancing as a response to the Covid-19 virus outbreak. Some local, state, and national leaders have even mandated certain restrictions to incorporate social distancing as a response to this pandemic. It makes sense. The fewer people who are exposed to the virus, the less likely it is to spread. Slow the spread, and the virus may just release its stranglehold on the world. 

So, what does social distancing look like? Well, for this pandemic, it looks like staying away from other people, at least six feet away. But more preferably, it means staying away from others entirely. It means greeting people with a wave rather than a handshake, and using Skype to visit rather than visiting in person. Social distancing means using physical distance, even barriers at times to keep others who may be carrying the virus away from you. 

For many people, social distancing is completely new. It’s a total disruption to everyday living. For prisoners, however, this is the norm. It’s true that we don’t normally have to avoid groups larger than 10 people, or refuse to shake each other’s hands. But prisoners are relegated to isolated places, away from society, and forced to be distant. Social distancing is nothing new for us. 

Something like only 14% of prisoners receive in-person visits while they are incarcerated. That means more than 80% experience the painful isolation of no physical presence of family or friends during their incarceration. Others experience that presence only very occasionally. Phone calls, too, are too expensive for many prisoners, and family members and friends may either refuse to receive phone calls or be unable to afford the high cost of calls as well. Prison, by its very nature, creates distance and other barriers to relationships. Social distancing is nothing new to prisoners.

Even after release, many former prisoners continue to experience social distancing. Housing policies often mean people with felonies have applications denied. Job applications often stall when a past felony is mentioned. And those who are required to register on sex offender registries are socially isolated even more so. Residency restrictions, stigmatization, and societal fear push many ex-offenders to the fringes. Yes, social distancing is nothing new to prisoners. 

A lethal virus, like the Coronavirus, may require us to isolate and maintain distance from each other to ensure it causes us no harm. The same is initially true for many prisoners. Socially isolating them serves a beneficial purpose–it protects society. But social distancing prisoners–who are people too–for too long eventually does more damage than good. In a day when mass incarceration is the norm, huge segments of society end up permanently isolated–socially distanced. 

If you find the effects of social distancing, for even a few weeks, difficult to manage, imagine facing a lifetime of societal isolation and rejection. At what point do we, as a society, decide that prisoners are people too? When will we decide that people who made bad choices in the past must no longer stay on the fringes, must no longer keep their distance as a social virus? Social distancing might protect in the short term, but in the long term it harms people.

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The opinions expressed within posts and comments are solely those of each author, and are not necessarily those of Women Against Registry. Women Against Registry reserves the right to edit or delete any content submitted.