Prisons across the country have suddenly become ground zero for the coronavirus.
In California’s oldest jail, San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco, the number of cases has ballooned from less than 100 to more than 1,000 in two weeks.
Attorneys in the area say the outbreak came from a transfer of inmates from the California Institute for Men to San Quentin.
In the closed system that is a prison, it can make social distancing a challenge as there is only so much space to house inmates, particularly at a distance.
Prison reform advocates say to solve the problem correctional facilities nationwide have turned to solitary confinement.
"The reports that I’m getting back now is not ‘Hey they put me in solitary for COVID-19.’ It’s, ‘They’re keeping me in solitary because of COVID-19,’” said Johnny Perez.
Perez was formerly incarcerated at Riker’s Island in New York City for an armed robbery he committed when he was 21. He served 13 years for the crime, 3 of which were spent in solitary confinement, he says.
“[It gave me] thoughts of suicide, volatility in my emotions,” said Perez. “I still need to sleep with the door open at night.”
Perez says the experience in solitary can be similar for most people he knows, and thinks it is a dangerous way to combat COVID-19.
“[The corrections system] treating you like an animal for the rest of your life says more about our system than it does about our individuals,” he said. “It is creating and lowering this standard of what it means to be put in solitary that is so low that it reverses all the work that we’ve done so far.”
Perez is the director of the U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a group that works closely with the ACLU to form Unlock the Box, a national advocacy group fighting to end solitary confinement. Unlock the Box estimates the number of people currently in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons is 300,000; a large jump from the 60,000 it says was in solitary confinement in February.
“There is a perpetuation and it is a really terrible cycle,” said Jessica Sandoval, campaign strategist for Unlock the Box. “[Inmates] are not going to report that they feel bad if that’s what the prison is going to do anyway so it’s pretty dangerous.”
In an emailed response the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to questions about solitary confinement in response to COVID-19, but it did say other measures it was taking to reduce the spread of the virus in the prison system through universal distribution of PPE, limited visits to those incarcerated, and no inmate transfers between facilities.
Sandoval says medical isolation is a better practice, which does not strip inmates of many of their privileges. She also advocates early release for inmates nearing the end of their sentences or in the process of seeking parole.
"I think there needs to be a reckoning among corrections leaders and governors to say we’re going to do what’s right,” said Sandoval. "We’re going to save lives."
According to the National Institute of Corrections it costs $75,000 to house someone in solitary confinement for a year, as opposed to $25,000 to house someone in the general prison population for a year.