COVID-19 Restrictions May Be Easing, but in Prison We’re Still Here Alone

May 18, 2022

My name is David Sell. I'm currently housed at Wende Correctional Facility. I was sentenced to 43 and a half years to life and have served 25 years.

With more than 2 million people incarcerated in our country, we must begin to think seriously about the impact incarceration has on people and their families. Conversations around incarceration have changed dramatically as COVID-19 continues to plague the world and disrupt the lives of millions. Although incarcerated people have always felt in some ways isolated from society, the sense of security from bars, fences, and brick walls did not protect us from COVID-19. What changed the world also changed the way people serve time in a way we could never have imagined. A change so profound that it eliminates any hope of growth or self-improvement. Two years later, COVID-19 continues to leave a residual effect in most incarcerated people I see. Though we seem to be past the worries of becoming infected, what we are now presented with is the physical, spiritual, emotional, and psychological damage caused by the pandemic. It’s made any sense of normalcy impossible to envision.

Serving time comes with a host of stress factors on its own. Now, with COVID protocols and a drastic shift in facility policies, those stress factors have increased significantly. The feeling of being held hostage has taken a toll on the prison population here, and the profound psychological effect has surfaced. Pleasant personalities no longer exist; smiling faces have turned into sad expressions. Positive conversations have been replaced with legitimate complaints. Men who contracted COVID-19 still experience problems with breathing. Others complain about having "fuzzy thoughts" or being unable to remain focused. Feelings of depression have become a daily occurrence for many, as have anxiety attacks. Men speak about feeling empty or without purpose, a void that was once filled by various programs, personal development classes, and religious services. Souls were depleted when these programs were suspended, and many people are struggling to maintain positive attitudes. Family ties are weakening, and people are finding it difficult to practice their religious beliefs. I have heard men use the word "crippling" to describe how they feel, a feeling that has resulted in a lack of motivation. The pause in programs has halted people's lives, and they no longer experience a sense of accomplishment that comes from personal growth.

Another issue contributing to the negative effects of COVID-19 is the previous suspension of visits and restrictions. These restrictions prohibited any physical contact with visitors. Imagine a child wanting to be held, expecting a kiss, or asking to sit on a parent’s lap. This sudden change in how a parent interacts with a child leaves the parent feeling inadequate and the child feeling vulnerable, unloved, and confused. That needed affection towards a loved one was totally eliminated. The best news we received is that now we can briefly embrace our visitors at the beginning and conclusion of each visit. The ability to take pictures at visits has also resumed after two years.

My first hug with my wife was met with excitement and a bit of awkwardness. I approached my wife and hugged her as she remained sitting. She replied, "Let me stand up." We both smiled. Hugging my wife felt like a part of me that was lost had returned. We also took pictures together. It was an exciting moment. We couldn't stop looking at our pictures during our visit. My wife looked happy and had a genuine smile; the smile that was once lost returned. However, relationships are still weakening and families are experiencing hardships that are too much to handle.

The result? Many incarcerated people are now doing time alone. Even with mounting pressure from advocates, attempts to create meaningful changes within correctional facilities are time consuming and often met with resistance. The incarcerated people here feel totally disconnected from the outside world, and we’re keenly aware of being the last group of people to be tested and receive vaccinations. The current narrative that incarcerated people are "unworthy" must change. This label is reflected in legislators’ inability—or unwillingness—to pass any meaningful legislation in 2020 that would have placed hope within incarcerated populations. With that in mind, how do we move forward and address the long-term effects of COVID-19 within prisons?

For change to occur, policy decisions must be motivated by empathy, a genuine concern and willingness to extend humanity to incarcerated people. We must be viewed as worthy of receiving help. Restrictions that are not necessary for health and safety must be lifted. For example, restrictions on religious volunteers and volunteers for enrichment programs should be lifted. Facilities must offer an effective means of counseling, and programs should do more than look good on the face—they must also accomplish good and contribute to people’s growth. If not, we will be plagued with a mental health and substance abuse crisis within our correctional facilities. We cannot allow the system to fail by ignoring our cries for help. Some of us continue to cry out loud; some of us cry silently.

Whatever the case, these are cries for humanity to enter prisons as did COVID-19: fast and indiscriminately.

David Sell is a husband, grandfather, writer, hospice volunteer, and advocate for prison reform. In an attempt to bring about awareness and create change, he writes for the millions of families and people who have been impacted by mass incarceration. He can be reached on JPay, at David Sell, 97b2642, NYS DOCCS Inmate Services.

Vera believes in using our platforms to elevate diverse voices and opinions, including those of people currently and formerly incarcerated. Other than Vera employees, contributors speak for themselves. Vera has not independently verified the statements made in this post.