The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to people on the autistic spectrum; they may have difficulties interpreting verbal and non-verbal language, struggle to express their own emotions, and may not be comfortable with the idea of change. A harsh prison environment can make this even more challenging. SH shared their experience whilst imprisoned in the US for our Winter 2021 newsletter

Currently I am a person with Asperger’s syndrome who resides in a detention centre located near the West coast in the USA and I am keen to share my experiences. I have been diagnosed twice in my life with high-functioning autism as early as six years old; whereby the effects of being incarcerated are extremely devastating and depressing.

I am currently on remand awaiting sentencing. I have been in the facility close to 16 months now, and the stress and burdens are beginning to really take their toll. While I first arrived in the facility I came across Prisoners Abroad by talking to an inmate originally from California, who gave me their address. Additionally my close auntie got in touch with the British Consulate based nearby.

I was brought into prison whilst COVID-19 was looming, amongst the strict protocols of social distancing and mask-wearing which were already being in place within the facility. Prison authorities enforced these rules so that people stood 6ft apart and we were watched by 24/7 surveillance. The Captain would do regular sweeps to ensure this protocol was met in the unit I was in, along with high ranking officers called lieutenants. The Captain would threaten to lock all the people in the unit down if one person didn’t comply. This would be an issue as you become a centrepoint of blame, something which is even more detrimental to prisoners with mental health conditions. Such enforcement however, began to slacken later into 2021.

Upon entry into the facility there was a mandatory 14-day quarantine, where regular swabs were needed from start to finish. When admitted I was assessed by a doctor for my needs and she noticed (and I had told her) in the past I had attempted suicide. With this information I got moved into an observation cell which had a bit of a privacy as a compromise as I was being observed all moments of the day, even doing every private business. When I got off quarantine I was allowed out of that cell. Soon after in November one person was diagnosed with Covid-19 and the entire prison was locked down for four weeks.

I had about six different cellmates up to this time and there was much bitter tension amongst half of these. Asperger's made it very difficult to be able to be around people, normally if situated with the right person I can get along.

During this time, the detention centre gave us free 10-minute phone calls between the hour ranges of 6am to 10.30am, 11.30am to 3.30pm and 5pm to 8.30pm (at 8.30pm we went into lock down). I was therefore able to have the chance to call up friends, family and the British Consulate.

Healthcare was also free for some prisoners without health insurance or the ability to pay. Sometimes one-to-one doctor appointments are charged at $3 at the facility. Dental care was also free - I had a tooth extraction of a tooth with a cavity when I was at the facility. I do currently take medication for depression and anxiety which is provided free by the facility. The medication has some side effects which have their ups and downs. Overall coping is still a struggle undoubtedly.

Coping with my condition and keeping hold of relationships have both been very difficult, especially with a lack of necessary support.

I was subjected to a lot of adolescent-type of bullying by inmates in their 20's and 30's behaving like they were in school, teasing and doing unnecessary pranks to create an intense and hostile emotion in me. Guards can be very unhelpful at understanding and addressing the problem and one guard actually accused me of something I didn't do which built even more conflict there. I was an easy target of violence and repeated abuse.

The visits were very restrictive also. I have no immediate family in the USA so I could only talk to them via phone and email. Besides social visits, only legal representatives and the British Consulate could come and visit. At first though the visiting was suspended due to the COVID-19, so phone calls were the only option along with Video Telephone Calls (VTC) down in the social visits area.

The unit where I was housed in the detention centre was overcrowded for its size, and it grew in late 2021 from 70 people to 120 people in a fairly small tight place. It became very hard to get a chance to use a phone, a computer for email, or even just to walk around freely without intimidation.

In May 2021 I was amongst the 90% of inmates that opted into the vaccination offered by the nurse. I took the Johnson and Johnson shot that was just one jab. I felt the side effects within the first 12 hours, with dizziness and headaches. Eventually it subsided. I did however decline the booster shot. If vaccination targets were met in August 2021, we were told that we would be entitled to benefits such as movie night and social visits of a friend. Nevertheless we reached our target of 60%.

I wanted to say thank you as you always look out for all my family and friends back in the UK and I have been writing and communicating with you ever since the first time you got in touch.

The support network is extremely valuable to me, and it’s so useful to hear of the disposition of the pandemic, while its restrictions fluctuate from slack to tightened. All the time I kept up with the news as I watched CNN a lot showing all the statistical information of pandemic deaths and case across the globe. Additionally newspapers such as New York Times and USA Today allowed me to keep up with the news and sport, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Presidential Election, Biden taking the office. He managed to sign the Bill of Congress to remove mandatory minimums for people with minimums high that stoked many inmates.

Thank you for all your help.

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

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