Solitary confinement cells used to quarantine prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic did not prevent spreading the virus or prevent prisoners from getting physically sick or psychologically harmed, according to Solitary Watch and Crime Report.
“Despite spotty reporting and underestimates, more than 397,000 COVID cases have been reported in prisons nationwide, and more than 2,600 people have died as of May,” wrote Annalena Wolcke. “An additional 113,000 cases and 200 deaths were reported among prison staff.”
The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that mass incarceration was linked to more than 560,000 additional COVID cases between May and August of 2020.
Today the number of prisoner deaths stands at 2,700 and staff deaths have reached 241.
“Prisons are designed as these gigantic sealed cages … and a pit of hell from which no escape is possible from a virus,” prisoner John Hovey wrote in an email to Solitary Watch from the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State.
Researchers at Stanford and Yale University found that the virus spreads faster in U.S. jails and prisons than it did on the infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship, where more than 700 people became infected within a month.
While the CDC recommends frequently opening windows and doors for better circulation indoors, Solitary Watch points out many prisons don’t have windows.
In 2020 over 2,500 incarcerated people became infected with COVID-19 at San Quentin and 28 died, plus a correctional officer. The prison has five-tiered housing units with open cell bars, windows welded shut, closed doors and poor ventilation. In addition, it was overcrowded. Imposing a lockdown made the situation worse, according to experts.
Solitary confinement “is completely ineffective in stopping the spread of the virus and worse, it discourages people from self-reporting that they’re having symptoms,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “And so it’s not only not helpful, it’s affirmatively harmful.”
A new report done by CalPROTECT ( California Prison Roadmap for Targeting Efforts to Address the Ecosystem of COVID Transmission) shows why prison lockdowns failed so drastically at protecting incarcerated people from COVID-19.
Dr. Rachel Sklar of the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley is one of the researchers who put together the report. “We’re pouring millions, billions of dollars into ensuring proper ventilation for schools to ensure that children are safe … and [prisons are] the exact same thing,” she said in an interview with Solitary Watch.
According to CalPROTECT’s report, the most effective measure to slow the spread of the virus inside prisons is clear: Immediate decarceration.
“Even when people are physically separated from one another in solitary confinement conditions, prison ventilation and air filtration systems are simply not built for stopping a deadly virus,” the report finds.
“Occupancy reduction is the single most effective method to prevent and reduce COVID-19 transmission,” according to the CalPROTECT report. “In other words, prisons need to let people go in order to save lives,” Wolcke said.
In 2020 researchers visited the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) in Corcoran, which was experiencing a large outbreak of COVID. The virus was increasingly coming from single occupancy cells, instead of open dorms, researchers noticed.
Some of the cases were traced back to prison staff moving throughout the prison facility and other cases were due to poor ventilation.
In prisons, overcrowding and poor ventilation lead to large clusters of outbreaks, reported CalPROTECT.
“Windowless cells. Ventilation filters below efficiency ratings. Pressure imbalances. Low air exchange rates. Lack of routine maintenance. Missing toilet lids. All contributed to infected aerosols spreading, from cells to a common area, from the common area to another tier, and from one prison building to another.
“The more time you spend indoors, the higher the risk of transmission, period,” said Dr. Sklar, “And in prison, you’re spending 24 hours a day indoors. So you do the math,” she told Solitary Watch.
Other solutions to slowing the spread of disease include: rebalancing the ventilation system, introducing better filters, and installing lids on toilets to reduce the transmission of infected fecal aerosols.
“I think the most important thing to realize is that the COVID-19 virus doesn’t recognize prison walls,” said Fathi. “If the prisoners have it today, the staff will have it tomorrow and the staff’s family members and other people in the community will have it the day after that,” David Fathi told Solitary Watch.
Another problem with using solitary confinement to stop the spread of infectious diseases is the psychological harm it imposes.
“Solitary confinement is pretty fundamentally averse to public health,” Keramet Reiter, a criminologist at the School of Law at the University of California, told Solitary Watch.
“When we have this growing body of evidence of the psychological and the physical harm associated with solitary confinement and how long-term they are, it’s really ironic about it being a so-called public health intervention.”
Experts warn that people subjected to solitary confinement show symptoms usually seen in torture victims. Symptoms can include anxiety, paranoia, personality changes, and substance abuse, and can last long after a person has been released from solitary.
The United Nations stipulates that any use of solitary confinement for longer than 15 days at a time is considered torture and cruel and degrading punishment. The U.S. Department of Justice recommended restricting its use in 2016.
“The evidence is now overwhelming that [solitary confinement] is harmful, it is counterproductive, it breaks people, it makes them incapable of leading a productive and positive life after release,” said Fathi of the ACLU. “And so we need to turn away from solitary confinement.”