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Use of Solitary Confinement During Pandemic Detrimental To Prisoners and Not Slowing Spread of COVID-19

How is that if they are separated from other prisoners?

It is well known that no one likes to be confined in one space for too long. Even more so in prison. Many prisoners who have COVID-19 symptoms have not reported their issues or sought medical help as they know doing so would result in being locked into a solitary confinement cell. Rather than telling prison staff of their conditions, they brave the storm—but at the same time infect other prisoners.

David Maglio, the first prisoner to test positive for COVID-19 at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Rhode Island, was isolated after testing positive. He said, “I felt like I was locked in a closet and I had to bang on the door to get any attention. People looked at me like I was a zombie.”

David Maglio is one of many prisoners who were left banging on doors in prisons all over the country.

More than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement is defined under international law as torture under the United Nation’s Nelson Mandela Rules. This is because the cells used for solitary are intentionally designed to cause sensory and social deprivation. Although they may be the only space available in many prisons to medically isolate infected people, solitary confinement units also are used as an extreme method of punishment.

Brie Williams, a founder and director of Amend, a prison reform group at University of California, San Francisco, weighed in on the solitary confinement/COVID-19 epidemic as well. She commented that separating prisoners is a public health measure to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons and jails but that using solitary confinement to do it will only make things worse.

Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted in her research on the subject that prisoners who had spent time in solitary were more likely to die in the year after release, and from suicide in particular.

Placing jails and prisons on lockdown status does not seem to have helped stop the spread of the virus. Most of the old prisons have minimal ventilation and limited access to protective equipment. Prisons were never built to allow social distancing. Common sense says air flow through connected cells and dormitories also enhances the risk of infection. So what is isolating prisoners in cells really helping?

The winter seemed to made things even worse, as COVID-19 is believed to spread faster under cold and dry conditions. Many prisons keep windows closed to prevent cold, which reduces ventilation and increases transmission.

We are the leader in the free world in incarcerating our citizens, with 2.3 million people sitting in the gallows. Many prisons are far overcapacity. This makes our prison population more susceptible to death from COVID-19 as prisoners are packed into small spaces with no way to social distance.

“As Covid continues to spread like wildfire across the country, we’ll see that amplified in prisons and jails,” said Brinkley-Rubenstein.

In a paper published in January 2021, Stanford engineers and Yale researchers modeled rates of COVID-19 transmission in a large urban jail. They found that COVID-19 spreads faster in U.S. jails and prisons than it did in super-spreader cases like the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which infected around 700 people early in the pandemic.

All of this tells us that solitary confinement is doing little to help with the spread of the virus, and is destroying the mental health of those that are locked in cells for far too long. Advocates and scholars think there is a solution to solitary confinement use. Brinkley-Rubinstein for example suggests, “We ought to transform those spaces into medical spaces rather than spaces of punishment.”

Another option is to release the prisoners who are in high-risk categories—and that should not be used arbitrarily. This would help decrease the spread of the virus, create more space for social distancing and cut down on the prisoner death rates.

Robin Blades, a freelance journalist and clinical researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees with many others in concluding that solitary confinement only makes things worse. 



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