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Interview: Jessica Sandoval of Unlock the Box on Solitary Confinement

by Ken Silverstein

Unlock the Box supports education and advocacy efforts on the national, state, and local levels to advance the goal of ending solitary confinement in the United States. The coalition defines solitary confinement for adults as “confinement for more than 20 hours per day, alone or with a cellmate, without meaningful human contact.” Jessica Sandoval, the group’s national campaign strategist, has 25 years of experience reforming the youth and adult justice systems. She develops and administers strategies and tools to support state campaigns aligned with the mission of the “stop solitary” movement. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How widespread is the use of solitary in U.S. prisons? Is it used strictly to punish violent offenders or more casually? If the latter, what other reasons are prisoners put in solitary? 

From self-reported Department of Corrections data compiled by Yale’s Arthur Lima Center for Public Interest Law we know that solitary is widespread and the estimates are conservative: 60,000-80,000 prisoners are held. This number only includes the 43 states that reported. Florida and a dozen other states didn’t participate, and this number doesn’t include youth facilities, or jails. So, we believe the number to be much closer to 80,000-100,000-plus. Solitary isn’t exclusively reserved for punishing violence in prisons, it’s used as a safety and management tool. People are routinely sent to solitary for disobeying an order. A 2018 report by the Vera Institute of Justice said most individuals in solitary confinement are there for low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as disobeying a correction officer or rule violations, like having too many stamps or envelopes in their cell.

Does solitary constitute torture? How long can prisoners be put in for? Are there limits?

The UN’s Nelson Mandela Rules states that anything over 15 days in isolation is torture. This practice allows for long stays, because there aren’t usually clear review processes for being able to return to the general population. Long stays in isolation can have devastating effects on incarcerated individuals’ mental and physical health. In Oregon, people who were incarcerated typically spent between 60 and 150 days (approximately two to five months) in the Intensive Management Unit—a form of administrative segregation—before their first review, according to the Vera Institute report.

Is there much oversight of the use of solitary or ability for the public and advocates to obtain information about its use?

Unfortunately, because of the opaque nature of corrections, it has been difficult to collect data from these systems that aren’t self-reported. Corrections uses very technocratic language that is used to obscure the number of people in solitary and length of stay. Terms like key-lock, special management units, room confinement, administrative and disciplinary segregation are just some of the euphemisms used to describe conditions that amount to solitary confinement. We are troubled by the lack of data coming from corrections. Right now, nobody is getting information.

Your new report says COVID-19 has led to “an explosion in the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers.” Why? And how big of an increase? 

We have seen a 500% increase in the use of solitary since the arrival of COVID-19. BOP has had two lock-downs in just a couple of months after not having one for 25 years prior. Corrections has been using solitary as a response to the pandemic. It is counter to what the medical experts and public health community have cited as best practices. In fact, using solitary as the primary means to containing the virus puts these populations and the staff that interact with them at greater risk of contracting it. Medical experts have advocated for the decarceration of people and medical isolation as some of the best ways to manage the virus. Medical isolation provides medical care to those who are infected, in isolation, but with all of their personal items, tablets, books, access to outdoors, commissary, phone calls, mail; it looks like general population, not solitary confinement. We are concerned these lines are blurred between what is a punitive practice like solitary confinement and what is medical isolation. It’s imperative that corrections staff get this right. This isn’t a public health strategy, it’s torture.

Is there any evidence that the use of solitary is preventing the spread of COVID-19? 

According to the medical community, the answer is no. In fact, it’s likely exacerbating it. People who do become infected are likely to not inform health care staff they’re feeling sick out of fear that the punishment of solitary will be worse than the illness itself. The reluctance to report symptoms provides time for the virus to spread before it’s identified by medical staff.

How are prisoners responding to the increased use of solitary? 

I have received emails recently from family members reporting how terrible things are right now for people. The lockdowns are brutal and for many are 24/7. People are scared and asking for help. Contraband phones are being used to communicate to anyone on the outside that will listen, even though they know that they will be sent to solitary if caught.