By Val Kiebala
The coronavirus sparked an unprecedented public health crisis in the U.S., hitting prisons and jails especially hard. In the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections alone, 112 incarcerated people have reportedly died from the virus, though advocates believe the number may be even higher. But the response of the PADOC and prison administrators across the country to lock down the incarcerated population in solitary confinement created another national pandemic: a mental health crisis.
In 2011, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture at the time, declared, “Any imposition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Yet, during the past year, departments of corrections across the country inflicted this torturous practice on upwards of 300,000 people often for months at a time, in the name of curbing the pandemic.
Public health experts condemned the use of solitary not only because of its harrowing psychological effects but also because the threat of isolation has proven to deter people from reporting symptoms, ultimately exacerbating the spread of sickness.
Tyree Little, who spent eight or nine years in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons, said, “Being in solitary can be even more depressing because of what’s going on. You really don’t get access to news media and all that or the TV to watch the news or contact your family, so you’re going to be even more depressed not knowing if your loved ones are catching COVID.”
One of the most harmful aspects of the department’s mismanagement of the pandemic, according to Little, is the lack of access to visitation and phone calls. The last in-person visit was on March 11. And while of course, physical contact must be limited with the outside world to contain the virus, Little says that pervasive technical difficulties prevent incarcerated people from communicating with their loved ones.
While the PADOC originally used the Zoom application for video visitation, they switched to a telecommunications company called Polycom a few months ago. “It’s bad,” Little said. “Sometimes you can’t even hear them. You can see your folks but you can’t hear them. So y’all trying to do sign language or write on a piece of paper. The quality is bad on this new system they’re using.”
JT, who spent a total of 14 years in solitary during his time in prison, said, “I know quite a few people who have been on [video visits through Polycom] and most people say the same thing: that they sit there and waited and waited and waited and nothing happened. They called the prison to try to find out what happened and couldn’t get no answers, so they never got their visit…I don’t know why they would switch it from Zoom to [Polycom].”
Contact with family and loved ones on the outside has been proven to significantly reduce the likelihood of someone returning to prison. And depriving someone of the right to communicate with loved ones has deeply damaging effects. A study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that even just one visit reduced the likelihood of recidivism by 13 percent for new crimes and 25 percent for technical violations.
“All in all,” JT said, “I think that the lockdown that the DOC is under means the whole state prison system is in solitary for real because they’re not getting out of their cells. They say sometimes they don’t even get out for their phone calls and stuff…If they say they don’t have enough guards, then you’re not coming out. It’s a really bad situation.”
Even long before the pandemic, solitary confinement has been at the crux of mass incarceration, warehousing several tens of thousands of people in squalid conditions. Depriving people of human contact and sensory stimulation has been destroying the minds and bodies of incarcerated people ever since the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia first used the practice in 1790. Since then, the practice has inflicted violence on Black, Brown, indigenous, and poor communities across the country.
Tyree Little and JT are both lead organizers of the Solidarity Not Solitary (SNS) campaign, which aims to eliminate the use of solitary for longer than fifteen consecutive days across the state of Pennsylvania. The SNS campaign has developed legislation that would implement this ban on solitary in alignment with international human rights standards.
Abundant amounts of research has proven solitary confinement to be an ineffective penological tool that causes lasting psychological damage to anyone subjected to it.
People held in solitary confinement are already more likely to harm themselves or even kill themselves. In January 2020, the PADOC reported holding 2,500 people in solitary confinement in state prisons. And people in solitary are nearly seven times more likely to self-harm than people held in general population. Half of youth suicides in custody occurred in solitary confinement.
Additionally, 95 percent of people in prison are eventually released back to society. And between 2008 and 2014, the PADOC released over 400 people directly from solitary back into the community.
“Even with myself, being in solitary so long,” Little said, “when they released me back to population, I couldn’t walk too close to people. I didn’t want people walking too close to me. I ain’t used to no human contact…So imagine, I seen people in the RHU released straight home after 20 years of being in solitary confinement. How can you release some-one like that straight back to society? It’s like they’re doomed to fail. No counseling. No nothing. It’s like taking a wild lion out the zoo and just releasing him into the woods.”
In addition to making communities more dangerous, holding someone in solitary confinement for a year costs significantly more than holding someone in general population. Eliminating the use of solitary confinement would save the state $75 million a year. JT says that money should be used for “programs that are open to everybody. Programs that actually get you ready for society, as opposed to some of those BS programs they run now. Programs that would actually help people’s skills. Giving people training for differ-ent occupations. Preparing people for when they’re re-leased.”
Ultimately, the goal of the SNS campaign is to eliminate solitary confinement across the state of Pennsylvania and replace it with humane, effective practices that keep incarcerated people, correctional officers, and our communities safe and healthy. Anyone interested in becoming involved with the Solidarity Not Solitary campaign through the Inside Advocacy Project, please write to the Human Rights Coalition, attn.: Solitary; PO Box 34580, Philadelphia, PA 19101.