Why Are Prisoners More Sick?

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Vietnamese prisoners supporting each other.
In being asked by CFRC‘s Canadian Prison Radio to provide “home remedies” for common prison ailments like colds, chronic pain, digestive issues, and high blood pressure, I realized that missing from the list were the insipid and ubiquitous epidemics of anxiety and depression endemic among prisoners due to their environment and their pasts which lay at the root of many of these health problems. The suicide rate among federal prisoners is SEVEN TIMES HIGHER than in the overall Canadian population. So much of a prisoner’s health can be bettered by simply addressing the factors of mood, mindset, and meaningful contact with others.

I’d suggest that yoga, meditation, proper sleep, physical touch, and regular masturbation are just about the best remedies for those ailments and many others. The latter is not a joke. One of the first questions the CSC staff Psych people will ask when you talk about depression is how often you play with yourself, because unnaturally low libido is an outcome of anxiety and depression, and the self-administered dopamine and endorphin releases are beneficial.

The main problem is the lack of oxytocin one has access to in prison. Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter that gets produced when a mother breastfeeds her baby, or when you are physically affectionate with a loved one you feel safe with, or even a pet.

One of the problems is that prisoners arrive in prison already deprived of this faculty. According to a Canadian Family Physician study on the Health Status of Prisoners in Canada:

Most persons in custody have experienced substantial adverse events in childhood, such as witnessing family violence, having 1 or more parents absent, or being involved with the child welfare system.1932 At least half report a history of childhood physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.19,2123,25,2850 About 15% to 20% of aboriginal persons in federal facilities have attended residential schools

By segregating prisoners from their friends and family and any really meaningful, safe relationships, their ability for empathy, love, attachment, and nurturance both given and received are curtailed even further. The system of social segregation and punishment achieves the exact opposite effects on the things that bring people to the attention of the “justice” system that it is trying to accomplish.

Regular contact with family and friends is important, and the near total lack of physical human contact, like hugs, means that the oxytocin producing circuits tend to wither over time. Making sure that you take full advantage of touch when you have access to people you love during visits is critical.

It’s too bad that CSC doesn’t provide better, more comfortable and private places for you to go and hold your mom or dad or brother or sister or wife or husband or kids while they cry in your arms, or let you break down in theirs. Not everybody has a partner they can do trailer visits with, or get the opportunity for them even if they do.

I cut hair for guys during my 6 years of incarceration, and watching the looks on their faces as my fingers touched their heads was a telling experience. There were guys who would close their eyes and move their heads into my touch, like a cat getting scratched. There were so few opportunities for physical touch beyond the controlled violence of sports in prison and those public, surveilled, short visits, that fellow cons were desperate for any meagre hints of contact sanctioned by Corrections or inmate culture.

For straight guys like me in prison, physical touch and affection aren’t really thought much about, as we’re not used to going to other guys we’re not related to for it. These days even the queer guys have to keep their affection for each other underground, and I’ve already written elsewhere about how CSC criminalizes queer relationships and love. Those fleeting moments when it DOES happen are important, but not enough.

One of my cellies in the Don, a guy I considered to be like a younger brother, even to this day, used to come into my cell in the morning and sit on my bed. If I put my legs up he’d lean over onto them, pressing them against the wall, as he talked to me. He’d grown up in Regent Park, and had interactions with Child Protective Services and the foster care and youth group home system, as well as plenty of time in YO and county jail. His little gesture of affection, so familial and endearing, is where I began to realize how starved of it so many of the people I was encountering in jail are.

I had a podmate at Collins Bay Medium; a lifer who had been in for well over a decade and didn’t have much physical family contact. This was a guy who was hard as nails, really tough and strong. When he came to me to talk about suicidal ideation during a particularly difficult time, I asked him the last time he had been given a hug. He couldn’t remember, it had been so long. When he began to cry I embraced him, like a brother, and he fell apart. I’ve never been hugged so long or hard by anyone. I was drenched from shoulder to elbow in his tears by the time he was done.

You can’t put a value on the benefits a hug contains when given or received.

As to yoga and meditation, many chapels will arrange for these programs or download and print off resource material for you. Bo Lozoff’s Prison Ashram project is excellent for this, and offers free guides to inmates, and each library should have copies of his book We’re All Doing Time. The Prison Phoenix Project is another one with free resources. I found these great for the tension and depression, and for the stomach problems they caused, as well as for my own chronic pain condition.

I also found that going on a mostly vegetarian diet really helped with a lot of things, too, from weight control to stomach health in terms of my GERD. My digestive issues were so bad that I nearly bled out one year at Collins Bay due to esophageal ulcers. I found that the vegetarian food in jail and prison was mostly better in quality and flavour, being made in smaller batches, than the regular diet. I still ate fish to get some animal protein in me a few times a week, and still was able to work out and build muscle mass while on that diet.

It’s important to realize that the prison population has a much higher incidence of health problems, most stemming from lives of marginalization and their past and current interactions with the system. A healthy lifestyle that includes diet, exercise, sleep, and daily practices to help maintain balance of mind, body, and soul are critical to getting through the carceral experience intact.
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