Kelly works closely with New Jersey criminal lawyers, Aiello Harris, to shine a spotlight on all matters criminal law across the US. When not exploring legal matters, you can find her hunched over her computer looking for the best baking recipes, or hiking her local trails, to burn off all those baked goodies.
Prison lockdowns in the US have become a common occurrence.
Unfortunately, since March 2020, US prisons in all states have continued to declare, tighten, and ease lockdowns due to the Coronavirus. Many have stopped visitation altogether, while others prohibit prisoners from leaving their cells for more than an hour a day. Hawaii, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming suspended all personal visits in March 2020. Although Wyoming and Vermont reopened personal visits in the Summer of 2021, they suspended them again after a surge in COVID cases.
If you are thinking of prisons on lockdown, and wondering how the inmates are coping; they are not.
While most prison lockdowns are mainly because of the COVID virus, violence cases are increasingly triggering this type of confinement as well.
Of interest is the recent lockdown at a facility in Texas after a gang brawl where two prisoners died. This incident led to the US Bureau of Prisons ordering a lockdown in all Federal prisons in the US.
What does a lockdown in a prison look like?
We have all experienced what lockdowns look and feel in the general population. They triggered isolation, loneliness, mental breakdowns, increased rate of domestic violence and suicides.
A lockdown in prison takes the experience to the next level. Prisoners are confined in their small cells for upto 20hrs or more everyday. Lockdowns also require prison authorities to cancel all personal visits.
Once inmates leave their cells, they only have time to do the basics.
Many prisoners in lockdown rush to make phone calls whenever they are allowed out of their cells to catch up with their loved ones. Others choose to shower (which is essential after successive periods of prolonged confinement.)
That leaves very little time to socialize or enjoy the outdoors. And it doesn’t help matters that inmates no longer get to work in their regular prison jobs, such as at the library or in food service.
These prolonged confinements trigger stress in prisoners, who are already vulnerable due to the incarceration.
How are the inmates coping?
Rising cases of mental health issues
Where prisons are in lockdown due to Covid restrictions, inmates are afraid of getting infected. They have to watch some of their fellow inmates get sick, and others die due to the virus. According to the latest data from the COVID Prison Project, there have been 557,732 COVID cases with 2807 deaths. There have also been 186,976 cases among prison staff with 266 reported deaths. These are big numbers.
Most of the fear for prisoners experiencing Covid restrictions is due to continuous confinement. Staying all day indoors makes COVID prevention measures such as social distancing, impractical.
As a result of the prison lockdowns, many are developing mental health issues and an exacerbation of the already fragile mental health of many inmates. Cases of anxiety, depression, and violence are on the rise.
Prison measures to make lockdowns easier
While some prisons tried to reinstate visits after the nationwide shutdown, very few allow them now. According to a recent report by Aljazeera, only six states currently allow visitations in jail as of February 2021, and many of these visits are heavily restricted.
Where prisons allow visitation, it is only for at most 45 minutes a month. Inmates are not allowed to see their children during this time, and physical contact is prohibited, with visits being restricted to video calls.
While organizations like the prison policy initiative continue to fight these restrictions and other unfair treatment concerning visitation, the problem continues.
Therefore, mental health in prison is worsening. Part of the reason inmates are suffering is they cannot maintain consistent contact with their loved ones and when they do, there is no physical contact.
Therefore, while the need for mental health care increases in prison, access to therapeutic services is decreasing.
No or few visits from lawyers
Legal visits and calls to attorneys have also been affected. According to this report from The Marshall Project, prisons all over the US continue to limit legal visits due to lockdown restrictions.
Many jurisdictions like Kansas, Idaho, and Wyoming only allow lawyers to communicate with inmates by phone, video call, or in writing. While others, like Washington DC, are only approving in-person legal visits on a case by case basis. Unfortunately, some prisons in states like Arizona, have completely stopped legal visits.
This means that many prisoners all over the US are not getting enough access to their lawyers. Coupled with the countrywide altered court schedules, many are denied their right to a due process.
Lockdowns getting out of hand
It’s no surprise that prisoners are getting violent due to lockdowns getting out of hand. The recent brawl in a Texas prison is an example of how lockdowns can trigger violence in jails due to stress.
Additionally, the increasing cases of suicide and attempted suicide is another indication of how much prisoners are suffering due to continuous confinement during lockdowns.
This information from the Southern Center for Human Rights highlights 38 cases of suicides in Georgia prisons between January 2020 and August 19, 2021. Thirty percent of these documented suicides occurred in facilities that incarcerate prisoners with mental illnesses.
Solutions to lockdowns
So what can prisons do to reduce the suffering of prisoners during lockdowns? Reducing the excessive use of solitary confinement in prisons seems like a great first start. There are other ways to engage inmates during a lockdown including the methods deployed by the California Institute for Women, where they offered coloring books and puzzles.
Human rights organizations such as the Southern Center of Human Rights are fighting for prisoners concerning lockdowns. Lawyers are also increasingly insisting on more access to represent inmates better.
Whatever the state-federal prisons decide to do, what we can’t ignore is the negative effect of prison lockdowns on inmates. We must come up with creative ways to engage and support our prison population as we continue to battle Covid.