The Painfulness of Isolation

Beyond social distancing. 

Young person sitting in dark room looking out of a window.

By Aliya Brown

Isolation, as many of us are all too familiar, can be deeply triggering. In fact in some cases it is weaponized as a form of punishment. This state of being evokes the same emotion as similar experiences like separation, segregation, quarantine, loneliness, or hiding one's true self. During this time of enforced social distancing and isolation in response to COVID-19, many of us are deeply reminded of the pain of isolation in our own lives. Yet we often forget those who are incarcerated, including in solitary confinement, and their loved ones who are experiencing incarceration alongside them.

As bars, restaurants, night clubs and offices close down in New York and across the country, it has pushed many of us indoors, often with roommates or loved ones, and forced us into isolation. COVID-19 has grossly exposed society's exploitation of a labor force predominantly made up of lower-income people of color, our ill-equipped healthcare system, and undoubtedly, the ways in which consumerism drives our economy. Social distancing in response to COVID-19 has halted our world and revealed some of the wreckage capitalism causes to people and societies. And yet, we too easily forget those living under the conditions of enforced isolation due to incarceration. Examples of incarceration in its most extreme form can look like a 23-hour lockdowns in prisons and jails across the country, including here in New York on Rikers Island, and of course, those who have for so long been experiencing the most extreme degree of isolation: solitary confinement in state prisons and municipal jails.

Although isolated from much and from many of those we love, some of us have the luxuries of our devices, internet, fridges fully-stocked and pantries overflowing with food and snacks, remote access to our salaried or hourly jobs, easy access to our friends and family virtually, and access to some level of medical care if needed. Others who are not in the same position are wondering how they might afford to pay their rent, next bill, or find resources for groceries. And still, others confined in isolation in small cells for 23 hours of each day understand the pain of "social distancing" and isolation more intimately, often succumbing to the echo of their own thoughts for hours on end, or clinging to the memory of a time when the ability to reach out and be comforted by a loved one was not impossible. They know all too well the damage that social isolation causes indefinitely, with no release or freedom insight for their foreseeable futures, and how devastating this pandemic will be to those who are incarcerated in New York and beyond.

Equally important is that isolation is one of the key drivers of violence. It intersects dangerously with other core drivers such as poverty, inequity, stigma, and shame. Isolation exacerbates trauma and the violent ways in which trauma sometimes manifests. We do not become safer or more equitable when we isolate, quarantine or detain the members of our society whom we deem less worthy. Instead, we must always remind ourselves that it is our relationships with each other that produce safety and that our communities have always been capable of defining and generating safety on our own terms.

In fact, social distancing and isolation by force have more in common than they do apart. They remind us that human interaction and connection are essential to our very existence. They remind us that in times of pain and suffering, leaning on our connections in some capacity is often crucial to our very survival. They remind us that much like the dark parts of our past – separation, segregation, quarantine, loneliness, or hiding one's true self – these are often the worst responses for those who are most vulnerable. And they remind us, above all else, that we need one another, more than we know.

Aliya Brown is the communications project manager at Common Justice. @Common_Justice