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COVID-19 and Mass Incarceration: How a Pandemic Normalized Solitary Confinement in the U.S. – Raise the Voices

THE BIG PICTURE: As COVID-19 escalates, prisons across the United States are resorting to solitary confinement as a means of containing the virus. Within weeks, the number of isolated inmates surged from 60,000 inmates to a staggering 300,000, suggesting that solitary confinement is headed toward a path of normalization — especially for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). 

As a country with both the highest incarceration and COVID-19 rates in the world, it is inevitable that these arenas intersect and wreak havoc on Americans. However, the implications of this intersection prove disproportionately detrimental to BIPOC.

The criminal justice system has worked to oppress Black people since it was first established. This notion is best demonstrated through the racial composition of inmates. President Nixon’s launch of the War on Drugs in the 1970s functioned to incarcerate Black people and the antiwar left. This surge in incarceration rates has maintained its momentum into present-day America, disproportionately targeting BIPOC communities with inflated sentences for minimal to no offenses. It is what we now know as mass incarceration. 

From the 1970s until today, the imprisoned population has “increased by 700%.” Currently, over 3 million people in the U.S. are held within prisons or jails. In examining these statistics, it is important to highlight the racial disparities among incarcerated groups.

Despite being 13% of the U.S. population, Black people are incarcerated at a rate “5 times higher than white people.” For Latinx communities, accounting for 18% of the U.S. population, this rate is twice as high as white people. Indigenous peoples, accounting for 2% of the U.S. population, are imprisoned at a staggering rate that is “38% higher” than the U.S. standard. 

Given the unsanitary nature of prisons, the overrepresentation of BIPOC in the prison system inherently places these inmates at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. However, these are not the only risk factors making BIPOC more prone to contracting the virus. 

COVID-19 is also targeting BIPOC communities outside of the prison system, suggesting an existence of other variables that make communities of color more vulnerable to infection. Studies reveal that the virus is impacting these communities at a rate disproportionate to their white counterparts, with Black, Indigenous, and Latinx groups experiencing higher rates of COVID deaths. According to the CDC, this disparity is a direct product of systemic inequities that have made BIPOC more susceptible to illness.

The CDC reports that factors such as discrimination, access to healthcare, housing, and socioeconomic status make BIPOC more vulnerable to COVID-19. Systemic oppression, the CDC details, often leads to “chronic and toxic stress.” This means that in addition to confronting the already-high stress of a global pandemic, BIPOC have to simultaneously confront racialized stressors. Stress, especially chronic, immovable stress, depletes the immune system, thus placing communities of color at a higher risk of illness.

COVID-19 operates as a double-edged sword in that it has managed to underscore both the repressive conditions of the U.S. carceral system and the systemic racism that predisposes communities of color to higher mortality rates. As the virus rummages through jail cells, prisoners, namely BIPOC inmates, are becoming immersed in the perils of both systems. 

With prisons existing as a breeding ground for COVID-19, this begs the question — how do punitive institutions administer medical attention during a pandemic, when they routinely deny prisoners’ human rights?

According to Walter Pavlo, the answer lies in solitary confinement. You don’t receive proper care if you contract COVID-19 — you’re punished for it. As jails and prisons nationwide are implementing lockdowns amid the pandemic, their approach to quarantining infected inmates is nothing short of lethal.

Despite the United Nations prohibiting solitary confinement for longer than 15 days, and forbidding its use on children, the U.S. upholds these harmful practices without remorse. Under the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, solitary confinement is only intended for “exceptional cases.” A barbaric system to begin with, solitary confinement has since evolved from a “last resort” to a standard practice — it has become normalized.

The use of solitary confinement is a testament to the prison system’s medical negligence. Unfortunately, the pandemic has only exacerbated this reality. Despite accounting for 25% of the U.S. prison population, incarcerated populations in Texas, California, and Florida have only “tested less than 1%” of inmates. 

Even amid a pandemic, prisons continue to practice an avoidance approach when addressing inmates’ health and wellness. Rather than administering proper care, including widespread testing, staff are instead placing hundreds of thousands of exposed inmates in confinement cells for weeks on end. This effectively allows the virus to spread uncontrollably while wreaking havoc on both the minds and bodies of prisoners.

Youth correctional facilities have also adopted this avoidance approach, leaving children in solitary confinement cells with little to no human contact. Not only is this method grossly dehumanizing and unconstitutional, but it also imposes significant physical, psychological, and developmental damage on to children. Many inmates, adults included, even abstain from reporting coronavirus symptoms as they fear placement in solitary confinement.

Isolated children also experience extreme sensory deprivation at integral stages of their development. Confinement forces inmates to remain isolated for a minimum of 23 hours a day before they are allotted time to leave their cells. This ultimately prevents inmates — especially children — from receiving emotional and mental support, physical healthcare, familial contact, and education. Incarcerated youth are stripped of their childhood and subjected to a lifetime of indelible trauma.

Considering the racial disparities in mass incarceration, one can predict that Black and Hispanic communities are disproportionately subjected to solitary confinement. In addition to the aforementioned stress sourced from COVID-19 and other racialized stressors, BIPOC are also forced to endure the perils of isolation. This compounded stress exclusive to BIPOC ravages their immune system and ultimately increases their risk of illness and mortality.

An overhaul of the prison system is long overdue. We must acknowledge that a punitive system does not remedy crime that is most often sourced from an absence of resources. Rather, such an institution is symptomatic of an inability to address basic necessities for underprivileged communities. It is an illustration of America’s habitual avoidance approach to systemic issues impairing our most vulnerable populations.

The only sensible, humane approach to confronting the outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons is to release inmates from custody. The funding that is typically allocated to prisons can be reallocated to a transition plan upon prisoners’ release. It is necessary that we advocate for incarcerated populations with urgency.

Dismantling the prison-industrial complex is a fundamental goal in the larger framework of liberation. In combating COVID-19, we must simultaneously break the social contract that binds inmates to second-class citizenship and secure the rights and freedoms of former inmates. Now more than ever, it is necessary that we reimagine a state without a punitive system that forces individuals to jeopardize their lives and permanently relinquish their rights.

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