The Privileges of Quarantine: Disparities of Lockdown for Young Adults in Prison

Eleni Retta

In the early part of 2020, the United States began preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic. However, most Americans were unaware of the forthcoming societal impact. After a few weeks of uncontrolled spread, the Federal Government declared a state of emergency.

People were advised to lock down at home and track any symptoms. Businesses closed without any time frame or re-opening strategy. Americans at home began to feel the financial strain of affording basic needs, as millions filed for unemployment.

In the initial chaos, younger Americans left their university housing and returned home for the remainder of the semester. While these emerging adults sought out a more stable environment for quarantine, America seemed to forget about a similar demographic in a completely different world; incarcerated emerging adults.

These two sets of emerging adults have similar needs for personal growth and development, but were faced with a very different set of lock-down restrictions. Oftentimes, incarcerated emerging adults were subject to 23.5-hour lockdown. As we approach yet, potential future waves of COVID-19, we cannot forget these vulnerable communities. Especially as incarcerated emerging adults are completely unable to socially distance, and often have little access to masks or other PPE.

The emerging adult years (18–25), are formative and help lay a long-term foundation for a stable and healthy life. During these years, many people will begin to live on their own, learn what interests them, and many other experiences that help development. An interruption of these experiences can have long-term effects. In this blog, we highlight the experiences of four emerging adults — the experience of COVID-19 and personal growth — during a time of significant change and uncertainty.

University Students:

Person 1:

“I went home very abruptly. My family lives in New Jersey and therefore was able to just hop on a bus. However, I can’t even imagine what it would’ve been like if I didn’t live so close. I remember it being extra abrupt however because I was a student worker at one of NYU’s gyms and they didn’t close them down until after they said classes were becoming remote. I was planning on staying to work but then all of a sudden they emailed us, indicating gyms were closed effective immediately. So that first week when everything went down was weird and hectic because I was confused on what was happening.”

Person 2:

“During the quarantine, I was living in a four bedroom NYC apartment with 9 people. The city was a ghost town and everyone in my house lost their jobs. Getting things as simple as groceries were a hard task. I definitely did utilize every financial grant NYU offered to help my family. But the financial impact was only part of the growing stress. It didn’t help that I was extremely stressed in my classes, compared to the students who could focus at their homes in their own rooms with funds to properly navigate Zoom at home. So it was tough, I would hate to go through it again. But I know that it could have been worse for my family so I’m very grateful that there was aid from NYU.”

Education Impact:

Person 1:

“Luckily I was a part-time student, so I was only taking 3 classes. My classes were not super impacted because several were discussion based and were easier to transition online. My professors did a decent job of transferring everything online and keeping us updated despite the short notice. Generally speaking, they did a good job at sending us things via email and mail to help us make the best of what was happening compared to my friends at other schools who get way less.”

Person 2:

“We all got sent home thinking we’d be back in about 3 weeks and I was okay with that except for the fact that I was concerned about not doing as well in my online class for the few weeks. I had to adapt overtime, but my professors did not know how to navigate the system. In the end, I felt an impact on my education.”

Despite New York City being uniquely hit from the pandemic with astronomical numbers of cases starting at the end of March and the beginning of April, these experiences do represent many other college students around the country who had family members that lost their jobs, or had to take on jobs that increased their risk from the virus. Continuing their education with great financial strains and instability for the future is a reality that many young adults in college were, and are, facing.

But emerging adults in higher education are not the only part of that population with great instability; emerging adults who are incarcerated are facing similar instabilities with the added obstacle of living in correctional facilities. The experiences of emerging adults who are incarcerated during this pandemic cannot be so easily articulated through the accounts of two people. But to give insights into the day-to-day impact of the pandemic on individuals living in correctional facilities, we spoke with two members of the Young Men Emerging Unit at the D.C. Department of Corrections.

Our main topics of conversation were the level of initial COVID-19 exposure, meeting of basic needs, the transition to online learning/programs, mental health impact of the pandemic, and planning for their future. Both men gave in-depth insight of their experiences and how they believe their needs were and were not met.

YME Resident:

Many parts of the correctional facility were closed without any indication of when they would be reopened. There was an incredibly high risk of infection given the amount of exposure to other people every day, and the people/staff who work in the facility who could be asymptomatic and spreading the virus.”

Education Impact:

“We were not able to go to classes and pursue any educational programs, until eventually everything transitioned to virtual classes. The pace of classes decreased immensely, and receiving support became more difficult. With all of the difficulties, it provided an opportunity to create our own schedule and work on our own passions, on our own time.”

Future Aspirations:

“The pandemic impacted our futures. The process of attempting to apply for college has significantly slowed down. But aside from career and educational goals, many of the activities within the facilities that promote positive mental health outcomes, such as playing basketball or going to the gym, are not possible given the virus.”

Mental Health Impact

“There were many different types of added stresses during the pandemic. A major component of the stress was the lack of communication with the court and post-release situations — we are in, what seems like, endless purgatory. There was also added stress of not being able to see your family. Some residents of other units stay up to 23 hours inside and that attributes greatly to mental strain. The facilities have seen a decrease in mental health staff and resources after the start of the pandemic.

Call to Action

We left our interview with a message to everyone:

“People who know individuals who are incarcerated need to speak up and reach out. This is an incredibly tough time for everyone. Many people aren’t able to celebrate the holidays with as many family members as we would like, or have a sense of normalcy, but recognize the privileges we still have to be alive, safe, and in our own spaces during this time.”

Eleni Sefanit Retta is an independent writer with previous publications and contributions in Vice Media and InLight Magazine. Currently, she is an undergraduate student at New York University researching New York City minimum wage law as an Undergraduate Urban Humanities Research Fellow. Eleni also served as an intern at the Justice Policy Institute in the Fall of 2020.

Reducing society’s reliance on incarceration and the justice system. We inform policymakers, advocates and the media about fair and effective justice reforms.

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