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This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and attribution and conform with PJP style rules.

The number of incarcerated people placed in solitary confinement saw a nearly 500% increase during the peak of the pandemic, according to Solitary Watch and the Marshall Project.

This increase raises concerns among prisoners and prisoner rights advocates of a new mental health crisis. 

Long-term health risks of solitary confinement are well known, especially in individuals who spend more than 15 days in isolation. These risks include heart problems, depression and hypersensitivity to light, sound, smell and touch. 

“People become a source of anxiety rather than support,” said Craig Haney, professor of social psychology at University of California, Santa Cruz. “Solitary forces prisoners to live in a world without people, and they adapt to it.” 

The United Nations developed the Mandela Rules in support of reducing the use of solitary confinement. They were named after Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa. 

The UN defines solitary confinement as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.” After 15 days, they say that solitary confinement amounts to torture. 

Bryan Glant, an incarcerated individual at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state, was placed in an isolation cell upon testing positive for COVID-19 in December 2020, according to reporting by HuffPost. Glant was unable to leave his cell until his fifth day, when he received 10 minutes outside. 

Other prisoners in similar situations described going through recovery from COVID-19 without medical treatment, access to phones or distractions from the stressors that come from living in solitude. 

Although he was released back into the general population, Glant said that the memory is “still a source of anxiety” for him. 

A fellow prisoner at Monroe, Jojo Ejonga, said that he was placed in a dirty cell. He wrote, in an account shared with HuffPost last year, that “there was no pillow, cleaning supplies, TV — all the things [the Department of Corrections] had promised us was in medical isolation cells and reported to the public was a bold-faced lie — and [there was] throw up all over the floor by the toilet.” 

When Ejonga complained about the conditions of his isolation, he said an officer told him, “You’re in prison, you have COVID-19 and this is the only place you can be, so don’t come to prison next time.” 

He started a hunger strike, which he said lasted 13 days. 

Conditions at San Quentin State Prison, the site of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks during the summer of 2020, were similar. There, more than 70% of its residents were infected, and 28 residents died. 

Alex Ross, a 55-year-old incarcerated resident at San Quentin, was potentially exposed to COVID-19 when he received a routine blood pressure check. When told by staff that he would have to quarantine at the prison’s adjustment center (AC), he refused. 

After his refusal, he received a disciplinary write-up, which was later appealed and dismissed. 

Fellow San Quentin resident David Jarrell described his time at the AC as being “stuck in a box all day.” 

Residents sent to the AC for non-disciplinary reasons received the same treatment as those who were sent there for disciplinary reasons — mostly death row prisoners. 

Jarrell said that he was allowed to leave his cell to take a seven-minute shower once every three days and to spend 45 minutes outside in a small cage every two days. 

Every time he left the cell, he had to strip down, bend over and cough and submit to being handcuffed.

In April, New York became the first state to ban solitary confinement when the Halt Solitary Confinement Act was passed into law. 

Prisoner rights advocates hope this is the first step toward universal recognition of the UN’s Mandela Rules in the United States.

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.

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Brandon T. Genest

Brandon T. Genest is a staff writer with San Quentin News, a publication at San Quentin State Prison.