The High Human Cost of Long-Term Lockdown

Content warning: Prison torture, mention of suicidality.


In 2004, I woke up on a thin mattress on top of a concrete block in a tiny room with a steel toilet, shower drain, white walls, orange door, and gray floor on the morning of Christmas. These would be my visuals for the next 100 days. During this time, I was only allowed to leave my cell twice, which consisted of me being shackled and handcuffed for medical appointments. 

I did not see the outside. I was not able to physically touch my family or see them. The mental stimulation I received was very limited to books and reading letters I received. The food given to me was through a trap in my door. I had an insert pen and a small plastic toothbrush that fit on my pinky finger — one bar of soap, transparent toothpaste, paper, and envelopes.

For months, thousands of Wisconsinites have been enduring the widespread lockdowns and restrictions in facilities across the state. This blog aims to shed light on the significant effects of long-term lockdown on a person's psychological and physical wellbeing, as well as tangible solutions.

Prison lockdowns for any reason are examples of extreme torture in an already violent environment. Extended periods of isolation and limited social interaction can have irreversible effects on a person's mind – like one’s concept of time. It may take an impacted person a long time to process a task or to think critically.

With minimal stimulation, a person can quickly become depressed, suicidal, anxious, and lonely. A person's sleep patterns, logic, and verbal reasoning can be significantly impaired. They also have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. A person who is starved for stimulation can start hallucinating and lose the sense of reality.

Not allowing recreation time or exposure to fresh air and sunlight can greatly impact overall wellbeing. Physical exercise and natural light are essential for maintaining a person's mental health, and a lack of these can lead to a severe decline in mood and executive function.

Lockdowns also impair a person's physical health, resulting in adverse effects. Sedentary behavior increases a person's risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, inflammation, and immune system disruption. With limited access to healthcare services, a disturbance in a person's medical care can further harm a person's physical wellbeing. Additionally, being unable to physically embrace your loved ones deprives a person of a critical basic need of human touch.

One of the long-term effects I still have to push through after 17 years is physical touch. I can go without a hug or physical contact. I must remind myself daily to hug my boys and physically embrace them. I am very sensitive to smells, loud noises, and touch without awareness and clutter. I also need more time to process specific tasks and can get overstimulated when shopping.

Rather than resorting to prolonged confinement and isolation, we must immediately prioritize incarcerated people's holistic wellbeing. Focusing on restorative practices and community-based supports can offer more effective approaches to addressing crime instead of incarceration. This starts with supporting a person's basic needs in their communities.

We also need to release people who no longer need to be in prison. This includes people convicted before 2000 who are parole-eligible and served their time. We must release those in prison due to a rule violation of probation and limit long-term supervision. Our officials should work with district attorneys to focus on keeping people in the community first, with alternatives to incarceration followed by a limited time of confinement. 

Providing early discharge, refraining from incarcerating pregnant people, and making an effort to reduce the prison population are all steps to help eliminate lockdowns unless absolutely necessary and under a strictly limited time frame. The human cost of long-term lockdown is too high for Wisconsin.