This is a lightly edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Jewish Currents newsletter
The outbreak we learned about on Christmas Day happened so fast. One minute, we were eating our Christmas meal in the chow hall, and the next minute we were on full lockdown. Prisoners were being hauled off by the dozens, and we didn’t know where they were being taken. All we could do was wait to see if we would hear our numbers called and be told we had a positive COVID-19 test result to see if we would be extracted from our tiny concrete boxes and relocated… somewhere, but where?
It was nerve-wracking and exhausting, not knowing when and if our numbers would come up, or what would happen to us if they did. Each guard had a different answer when we asked where we would be taken. Most of them knew little more than we did. They had a list of people to round up, and that’s what they were doing.
It didn’t take long before rumors that sick prisoners were being housed in solitary confinement were confirmed. It was “for their own protection.” Guards repeated this over and over. They said, “We understand what you’re feeling and dealing with. Just know we’re not trying to punish you. We only want everyone to be safe and healthy.” I couldn’t help but think, “When is the last time you spent two weeks in solitary confinement? How do you know what it’s like?” Just because someone works in solitary, doesn’t mean they know what it’s like to live on the other side of that door.
“It’s for your own good.” Anyone who’s lived through an abusive relationship will recognize this sentiment. When I was young and my dad beat me for simple things, like not getting ready to leave the house as quickly as he wanted me to, he would say, “Son, this is for your own good. You need to learn a lesson so you know how to behave.”
When it was my turn to be relocated to solitary for 15 days, it felt like that childhood abuse all over again. They put me there not because I tested positive but because I was one of 13 people left on my unit of 170 who had remained free of the virus, and they had run out of room to quarantine sick people elsewhere.
Over and over, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) had refused to follow the simple protocols that would have prevented this outbreak: providing alcohol-based hand sanitizer and adequate masks; ceasing the transfer of prisoners from prison to prison; holding guards accountable for refusing to follow mask mandates and social distancing rules; waiting for sick prisoners to receive test results before returning them to the unit.
Now, all of a sudden, I was meant to believe they had my best interest at heart when they threw me in solitary?
The guards knew we weren’t in solitary because we had broken rules, and they promised that we would have more privileges than those in solitary are normally granted: It would be like life in our regular unit, just in a different area of the prison.
But once we were locked behind that thick steel door, we were in solitary, and we were treated as such.
In solitary, there is a light that remains on 24/7; showers are restricted; communication with loved ones is extremely limited, as is any human contact; and the only bed is a thin gray pad on a cold concrete block. The slamming of steel doors all day and all night makes getting a full night of sleep impossible. There is no time in the open air with the sky above you.
When solitary became quarantine quarters, many prisoners were forced to live two to a cell, forcing one of them to sleep on the floor next to the toilet — meaning that neither had privacy to use the restroom. On my second morning in solitary, one guard told us, “Stop crying about what you are and are not getting. You guys are only here for 14 days. Just suck it up.”
Anyone trying to convince us that this wasn’t punishment must be confused about what punishment is. Or maybe they’d like to sit on the phone with my wife while she cries because there is nothing she can do to help me. They could talk to her about how she felt about having our last forms of connection — emails, phone calls and video visits — stripped away so that I could sit in solitary confinement for my own “safety.”
I don’t think DOC can even distinguish what punishment is anymore; they have abused the use of it for so long that many of the staff simply act as if what’s going on is normal.
The DOC, like an abusive parent using corporal punishment to “teach” a child respect, has used solitary confinement to solve far too many of their problems. And just like that parent’s abuse, solitary confinement, as a method of discipline or protection, serves no good purpose. It only damages everyone forced to spend time there.
Solitary isn’t the answer for behavioral issues, nor is it the answer for protecting prisoners from COVID-19. It’s time our country puts an end to the use of solitary confinement, and strips DOC of this archaic practice of abuse.
(This is a lightly edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Jewish Currents newsletter)
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.