Before the pandemic, the estimated number of people held in solitary confinement in the U.S. ranged from 50,000 to 80,000 on any given day, though many advocacy organizations believe counts are underestimated.
Now, new data shows that at the height of the pandemic last year, up to 300,000 individuals were in solitary, according to analysis from Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project, non-profits focused on criminal justice reform advocacy, reports NPR.
Put another way, solitary confinement was used at an increase of close to 500 percent over previous levels, the official report details.
Like every sector of the justice system during the pandemic, the limits of the current system were tested. Early reports during the pandemic illuminated problems with mask access, sanitation tools, COVID-19 testing, and stories of how social distancing was nearly impossible with the number of individuals behind bars.
The impossibility of social distancing created issues with the ability to quarantine, as well as the ability to mitigate the spread of the virus. So, as NPR details, prisons resorted to solitary confinement.
“Jails and prisons, like many organizations, acted in fear,” said Tammie Gregg, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
“They thought the way to keep people from infecting each other was to simply put them in solitary.”
While solitary confinement serves many goals — “from punishment to protection” — one thing is clear: institutions using six-by-nine-feet cells where someone will spend 22 to 24 hours a day confined will do more harm than good, according to the report.
Moreover, while more individuals are being placed in solitary confinement conditions as a way of stopping the spread — experts say confinement exacerbated unsafe conditions, and led to an even bigger outbreak of the virus.
Studies show that extended time in solitary confinement can weaken the immune system and cause “underlying physical conditions like hypertension that increase the risk of contracting and suffering serious health effects from COVID-19.”
What’s worse, the researchers found that irreparable damage was done to juveniles placed in solitary confinement.
“My days are an endless loop,” said one 22-year-old being held in a juvenile facility in Washington state for an offense he committed as a teen.
When he spoke with a reporter in August, he had just recovered from COVID-19, according to USA Today.
The young man said he has struggled with the “overpowering boredom and isolation” that have become the hallmark of the pandemic behind bars. After a while, he said, he began experiencing such intense déjà vu that he confided to a friend that everything he felt was uncannily familiar.
The friend offered an explanation: Each day was in fact an exact replica of the last, writes USA Today reporters.
Advocates argue that no youth should have to experience isolation.
Experts have long documented the detrimental effects that spending time in solitary confinement can have on an individual.
By being deprived of “meaningful human contact” — typically without phone privileges to talk to loved ones, an overwhelming body of evidence shows that solitary confinement creates permanent psychological, neurological, and physical damage.
The Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project report details how suicide rates are at least five times higher in solitary than in the general prison population, and rates of self-harm tend to be seven times higher.
Unfortunately, these detrimental effects don’t disappear once someone is released back to the general population. Even after being released back into the community, the risk of suicide, drug overdoses, heart attacks, and stokes are all elevated beyond the average, according to research cited by The Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project.
The United Nations revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment Incarcerated People, known as the “Mandela Rules,” which detailed that solitary confinement beyond 15 days is a form of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment that often rises to the level of torture.
Regardless of the reason for isolation — whether for punishment or to “protect” someone from the coronavirus, advocates say the practice must end.
The full Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project report can be accessed here.
Additional Reading: Typical Long-Term Solitary Prisoner: Young, Black and Male
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer