March 4, 2021

A year of agonizing isolation in prisons
It’s been one year since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Pennsylvania. For much of the time, we’ve been focused on how to protect people in custody from deadly outbreaks of the virus—and for good reason.

It’s been one year since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Pennsylvania. For much of the time, we’ve been focused on how to protect people in custody from deadly outbreaks of the virus—and for good reason. In Pennsylvania, the virus has infected tens of thousands of people confined to and working in jails and prisons, and claimed the lives of 116 people in custody and 10 corrections workers.

But for many incarcerated people, the extreme isolation and claustrophobia of near-constant prison lockdowns has defined life over the past year just as much as the fear of becoming infected. Its toll is harder to measure, but first-hand reports from people in custody point to a pervasive sense of isolation and despair.

Surveys speak to feeling “hopeless” while confined largely to cells

Prisons have imposed these lockdowns in an attempt to control the virus in congregate settings where social distancing isn’t possible. Less than a month into the pandemic, the Department of Corrections implemented a statewide quarantine that kept incarcerated people confined to their cells for all but 45 minutes a day. The policy was lifted in May, but the prisons continued to impose similarly restrictive “enhanced quarantines” when outbreaks occur. So when COVID-19 infections exploded in prisons during the fall, many people in custody were confined to their cells nearly the entire day for weeks or months at a time.

“Locked in a cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” a person incarcerated at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill wrote in a survey we distributed in state prisons. “Maybe every other day a shower or phone call for five minutes. And it's not easy to digest being in a small cell day in and day out...Everyone is not strong enough mentally to cope or deal daily in these circumstances.”

In our most recent survey of 300 people in DOC custody during the fall and winter, 37% percent said they were allowed less than 30 minutes outside of their cell per day, and 62% were allowed less than an hour a day. Some incarcerated people said they often go an entire day without getting any time out of their cells at all.

“I not only feel trapped in my cell but also in my mind,” another person wrote from SCI Albion. “To capture our feelings the best in one word [:] ‘Hopeless.’”

Our survey also asked if the respondent had access to time in the prison yard, television, puzzles, religious services, library books or other activities that can help relieve isolation and grinding boredom.  

While the majority of respondents had access to a television, we found that:

  • 41% had not been allowed into the yard in the last week,
  • 65% were not able to access library books at their facility,
  • 77% stated that their facility was not offering any type of religious services, and
  • 66% answered that puzzles, bingo, or board games were not available at their facility.

The makings of a parallel crisis

In our surveys, people in custody wrote dozens of comments describing the psychological strain of living under constant lockdowns. Twelve percent of respondents mentioned mental health concerns without being prompted to do so. Yet their statements also suggest that it’s been even harder to obtain mental health services during the pandemic. One person incarcerated at SCI Mahanoy reported not receiving any kind of psychological help a month after requesting it: “No answers[,] no support besides my original request stamped as received.”

“Mental health is a big issue,” another person in custody at SCI Phoenix wrote. “Many are suffering getting no help to improve [their] condition.”

The intense isolation incarcerated people have endured over the past year is no doubt taking a toll on their mental health. There are some troubling signs that it could lead to a parallel public health crisis in prisons. In the Philadelphia jail system, there were more than twice as many suicide attempts between March and August of last year as usually seen during that period of time. The city has imposed especially restrictive lockdowns in its jails. Until a federal judge ordered city jails to relax restrictions, incarcerated people were only allowed 15 minutes a day outside of their cells for parts of December and January.

Eradicating the spread of COVID-19 in prisons offers the best hope to ease the desperation so many incarcerated people are feeling as the pandemic drags into another year. We once again call on all state and county officials to:

  • Administer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff as soon as they become available;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;    
  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody.
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

Sky Blue Heart
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