What does the loneliness crisis mean for Black women? It is time to tackle incarceration’s isolating effects.

OPINION: Mass incarceration is family separation “on repeat,” creating mass isolation and loneliness. And Black women, who often have incarcerated family members, are an unrecognized casualty of those isolating effects.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I first met Tyshion when she came to Essie Justice Group in 2019, right before the pandemic. Like many of us, Tyshion had loved ones who were incarcerated. Through our Healing to Advocacy program, she was beginning to understand just how deeply isolated she felt and what true community felt like. And then the pandemic hit.

Despite moving our programming to Zoom, the compounding impact of social distancing as a medically vulnerable person, economic strain and loss of connection to her incarcerated loved ones sent Tyshion spiraling back into loneliness. In one of her last communications with us, Tyshion wrote “I’ve gone back into isolation. My depression and anxiety has worsened.” Weeks later, we received the news of her death. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Tyshion. We had failed to keep her out of isolation. The system was set up to keep her in isolation. And now she had died by suicide.

Early last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory calling attention to the epidemic of loneliness and isolation, saying “millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows.” He offered that “our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.”

We were supposed to be that source of healing for Tyshion. Of course, mental health and suicidality are never as simple as that. Yet it felt hard to ignore what we knew. We had recently reached out to our members in hopes of better understanding the impact the pandemic was having on the communities we serve. For Tyshion, I guess it all was just too much. This was the conclusion the members of our team came to while wearing pained expressions on our Zoom call.

I founded Essie Justice Group nine years ago to address one of the primary epidemics facing Black women — the epidemic of isolation. For nearly a decade, I have been examining the crisis of isolation, especially in the lives of Black women like Tyshion. It’s a crisis so many women bear quietly, their desperation going unaddressed. And, its harms can be traced directly back to America’s carceral system.

We think of incarceration as punishment for the person convicted of a crime. But the harms of incarceration expand far beyond one individual. Mass incarceration is family separation “on repeat,” creating mass isolation. Incarcerated people have families, loved ones and a community. When removed, those left behind, largely women, become isolated. Black women are an unrecognized casualty of a vicious criminal justice strategy. According to a study published in the DuBois Review at Harvard, 1 in 2 Black women has a family member in prison.

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The United States spends billions of dollars on a “law and order” agenda — ramping up sentences, building new prisons and expanding police forces. Today, almost 2 million people are locked up in our country, a 500% increase in the last 40 years. Seventy million people have criminal records and seven million children have an incarcerated parent. The $80.7 billion the United States has spent on public prisons and jails is an investment in isolation.

Incarceration of a loved one negatively impacts women’s emotional well-being, physical health and financial stability. Essie Justice Group released a study of nearly 3000 women with incarcerated loved ones in 2018 where 86% of women report experiencing significant mental health effects. A majority (63%) reported that their physical health has been significantly or extremely affected. A third of women (32%) lost their household’s primary source of income and nearly 70% shared that they are their family’s only wage earner. The result is a health crisis and equity gap facing millions of women and is especially harmful for Black women.

The level of isolation experienced by women with incarcerated loved ones has social and political implications. Women with incarcerated loved ones are politically isolated, implicating the health of our social movements and the well-being of society at large. Community organizing makes it possible to tend to the systemic causes of isolation while putting people in connection with one another, which turns out to be a critical, life-saving practice.

Since Tyshion’s passing, women with incarcerated loved ones at our organization have returned to convening our programs in person, and we’ve slowly seen increases in the health of women and the multitude of family relationships they carry. A program graduate shared last year, “To me Sisterhood is support. Unconditional love. Sisters who have my back. You keep the line at all times. If I’m feeling down or lonely or depressed, I know that I’m not alone. I have people that have my back, that aren’t gonna step to the side and watch things happen — they’re gonna step in. Sisterhood is exactly what I needed. It didn’t happen by chance.”

Surgeon General Murthy lists strengthening our social infrastructure and enacting pro-connection public policies, as part of a framework to advance social connection. In order to effectively address the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in this country, especially as it is experienced by Black women, we need to end our country’s $80 billion investment in isolation by ending mass incarceration. Loneliness and isolation is a real epidemic, but not an inevitable one. If we break isolation by addressing the policies and systems that can support and enable more connection with communities and families, then there is a better future for women like Tyshion.

Gina Clayton Johnson is the executive director of Essie Justice Group, which she founded (named after her great-grandmother Essie Bailey) in 2014 to harness the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities.

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