By Andrew J. R. Harris, ATSA Member
“Physician, heal thyself” (King James Version, Luke, 4:23)
Newly incarcerated people are occasionally referred to the psychologist for depression and despair after being locked away in a very small cell for what must seem like forever. And now, thanks to COVID-19, my wife Tracey and I are on day 7 of a 14-day quarantine after international air travel. Our home is nothing like a jail cell, but it may be time to take a bit of my own medicine.
When working with a person new to jail, I ask them what is truly important to them, deep down, to the person they are. This discussion almost invariably reveals four concepts integral to who we are: social connection, physical health, mental stimulation, and spiritual connection. Psychologists and other care providers tell the incarcerated that being in jail does not mean the end of their relationship with family, friends, or indeed the world, but that it will take extra effort to maintain these connections. In jail, this usually means writing snail-mail letters and scheduling scarce, critical phone calls. Here in the new COVID-19 universe Tracey and I have been calling friends and family more often just for a chat and to check-in. Also, we have been taking advantage of social-media platforms and some amazing new free programs and apps that allow video conferencing. When working in jail, we encourage the person to take advantage of exercise time in the yard and not to lie on their bunks through their exercise time. Fresh air is restorative. Tracey and I have upped our outdoor walks and are making use of some in-home exercise equipment. While options are admittedly limited during the initial days of incarceration, mental activity and growth can be maintained most easily by reading. For us, it is tempting to spend the evening Netflixing. Tracey is painting and we are both trying to get more practice on our musical instruments. We have the most difficulty interpreting the fourth concept, the spiritual. Despite starting this note with a biblical quotation, traditional spiritual connection is not top of mind for us, realizing that spiritual connection and religious observance form a major life support for many people. In jail, religious texts are available, and I frequently recommend a visit from a spiritual leader or tribal elder. Under the present circumstances, an online church service or a pastoral phone conversation may provide comfort. For the two of us, this need is filled by maintaining close connections with family and friends of long standing who truly form our sustaining community. At home we godless heathens survive on stand-up comedy specials (Billy Connelly videos lighten the load) but, admit this may reflect the vacuous nature of our all-too mortal souls. Very recently a close friend reminded me that much like the new inmate sitting alone in his cell, those of us in home isolation cannot control the impact of COVID-19 – but we can control our response to it.