This article was published in partnership with Truthout.
When the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spiked across the nation in late 2021, approximately 1,350 people incarcerated in the District of Columbia Jail were sequestered in solitary confinement conditions in their cells for 22 hours a day. “It was dehumanizing,” said Russell Rowe, of the repeated COVID lockdowns he endured over two stints in the jail in the spring of 2020 and the latter half of 2021. “You felt like you were forgotten about.”
During these lockdowns, “They are serving cold food to you in a cold cell that may be flooding,” said Rowe, who was released in December. “It smells like urine and feces, and you’re trapped in there. And COs [correctional officers] don’t do their rounds. So you’re yelling for toilet tissue if you run out, because they only give you one roll a week. I mean, you’re yelling and screaming. Everybody’s yelling and screaming.”
People in prisons and jails across the U.S. are experiencing similar conditions. In just the first two months of 2022, the entire federal prison system went on lockdown, as did facilities in California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Arkansas, Connecticut, Tennessee, New York City, and other parts of the country. These COVID-related lockdowns lead to oppressive conditions often identical to traditional forms of solitary confinement, such as administrative segregation (used for people whom the prison labels a security risk) and disciplinary segregation (used as punishment for rule infractions).
These widespread lockdowns force hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country to survive with limited access to programming, visitation, medical and mental health care, recreation, showers, law libraries, adequate food, and commissary (in-facility stores selling food, hygiene supplies and other necessities), turning the already miserable experience of incarceration into torture. In some cases, officials have said the lockdowns are a response to COVID-19 outbreaks; in others, the lockdowns are a reaction to fights and violence behind bars — although these incidents often stem from tense, life-threatening conditions in overcrowded, COVID-ridden facilities.
In the early days of the pandemic in spring 2020, Solitary Watch was the first to report that mass lockdowns had caused a 500 percent increase in the use of solitary confinement across the country, as facilities scrambled to slow the spread of the virus. By now, prison officials and politicians have had almost two years to adapt and learn from mistakes — and to heed medical advice to significantly depopulate prisons and jails. But they have failed to do so.
Today, prisons and jails across the country remain nearly as crowded as they were before the pandemic. Almost as a rule, governors, lawmakers and parole boards have not used their significant powers to release more people. And while many cities rapidly decreased jail populations at the beginning of the pandemic, this trend then reversed in many of those places. By December 2021, a large national sample of jails showed an overall population decrease of just 10 percent since March 2020. In fact, 28 percent of the sampled jails held more people than they did prior to the pandemic. The D.C. Jail, where Rowe was held, is no exception to this trend. The population of its infamous main complex, known as the Central Detention Facility (CDF), dropped from 1,278 to 847 between February and July 2020, but was back up to 1,118 by September 2021. (In early March 2022, the CDF held 1,039.)
Meanwhile, many carceral facilities have failed to implement other medically recommended COVID-19 precautions, such as increasing testing, cohorting people into mini-communities, enforcing staff vaccine mandates and creating healthier spaces for medical isolation that do not resemble solitary confinement. Despite countless lockdowns, COVID has been rampant behind bars, leading to at least 2,861 deaths of incarcerated people tracked by the COVID Prison Project. Most recently, the highly contagious Omicron variant has shown what happens when prisons and jails remain crowded. Diseases like COVID-19 spread like wildfire, and incarcerated people pay the price not only through high rates of infection and illness, but also through extreme, seemingly never-ending lockdowns.
The U.S. Marshals Service Confirms Some Allegations of Abuse
When the pandemic first hit the D.C. Jail in March 2020, officials instituted a facility-wide “Medical Stay-In-Place” — a 23-hour-a-day lockdown. It wasn’t until April 2021 — over a year later — that a class-action lawsuit forced the jail to increase out-of-cell time to two hours a day. Although this led to slightly more freedoms on paper, Rowe said the extra hour out of cell was chaotic and didn’t always happen. Once he was left in his cell for two consecutive days. And, he said, low ratios of staff to incarcerated people meant only a few people were allowed out of their cells at a time — so staff often ended a shift before everyone on a tier received their mandated opportunity to shower every 72 hours. Although his unit was supposed to get outdoor recreation twice a week, he said he was allowed outside just three times over six months in the jail. “It makes each day feel like a month,” he said. “It’s suffocating.”
During lockdowns, Rowe said, people have restricted access to group therapy sessions, educational course resources, and even legal case managers. Lack of legal access is particularly concerning in jails, where the majority of people are legally innocent and rely on fair access to legal support to prepare for their upcoming court dates and trials. “People are just sitting there, at the risk of catching COVID,” he said. “Their cases are getting pushed out, they can’t really get in contact with lawyers. It’s an additional stress on the inmate population.”
Intense restriction of resources also makes medical care even worse than usual. “Because there wasn’t a lot of transport of inmates — even to another part of the jail — a lot of people weren’t being seen medically,” Rowe said. “If a person had gout in their foot and their foot looks like 100 pounds the next day, they won’t do anything because they’re like, ‘Oh no, you’re still in quarantine. You got to wait.’ And they kept extending the quarantine. It was frustrating.”
Ultimately, said Rowe, the conditions leave people with no choice but to go to extremes to get staff attention. “The only time it seems like we get a response in the jail is if we act out,” he said. “Or if we riot, or if we bang on the door, or go to these extreme measures that are looked at as behavioral things.”
In 2021, a new group of people was booked into the D.C. Jail — those accused of storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021. When their defense attorneys and supporters raised the alarm about conditions of confinement, the jail came under new levels of public scrutiny and outrage. Of course, incarcerated people, families and advocates had already spent years desperately calling for changes in the jail, where 87 percent of incarcerated people are Black.
As attention grew, in October 2021, the U.S. Marshals Service conducted an unannounced inspection of the jail. (The Marshals detain people awaiting federal trial, and contract with city and county jails around the country — including the D.C. Jail — to house their detainees.) That investigation revealed horrific conditions in the CDF: Staff members were withholding food and water as punishment, leaving water shut off in cells for days, ignoring COVID-19 protocols, and told a detainee interviewed by the inspectors to “stop snitching.”
Following the inspection, the Marshals pulled 200 detainees out of the CDF, including Rowe. But instead of allowing them to await trial at home, the feds transferred them to USP Lewisburg, a notorious federal prison in Pennsylvania that has been the target of many human rights abuse lawsuits. Rowe said he was transferred back to the D.C. Jail 11 days later, after officials realized he was a registered in a specialized substance abuse treatment program and was not supposed to be transferred. However, upon his return, he was never re-enrolled in the program.
Then, starting in December, even some of the small expansions of privileges and access to programming and resources in the D.C. Jail were rolled back, as the facility went under a “Modified Medical Stay-in-Place” protocol in response to Omicron. (The D.C. Jail did not respond to a request for comment on conditions in the jail.)
U.S. Prisons Rife With Inhumane Conditions Amid Omicron
While lockdowns in the D.C. Jail have been particularly severe and lengthy, facilities around the country have been in and out of lockdown mode for the past two years.
“They moved us out of our single cells and made us move to a building that has been unoccupied for almost a year,” one man wrote in a January 2022 message that was shared with Solitary Watch and Truthout, describing his Virginia prison’s response to Omicron. “No drinkable water, the toilets are leaking water when you flush them and the windows in these cells won’t stay shut, so extremely cold in here. They say they are short staffed, so officers have not made the proper rounds or sent medical staff to check on us.”
“I don’t think anyone has had a medical appointment in weeks,” wrote a woman incarcerated elsewhere in Virginia, who was waiting for her canceled medical appointment to be rescheduled. “We haven’t got commissary for almost three weeks now and are told it will be another week,” she wrote in a letter shared with Solitary Watch and Truthout. “Been told it’s a staff issue, or because no inmates are working they can’t get us anything. We need hygiene. Not just food … I need stamps. How can we get these things if we can’t get commissary? Why can’t they take care of us?”
Across the country in Washington State, incarcerated journalist Christopher Blackwell described the experience of entering yet another prison lockdown in Jewish Currents. Lockdowns have become a regular occurrence, he wrote, but “just because you’re expecting an unpleasant experience doesn’t mean its effects are any less traumatic. Instead, it means we’re left constantly on edge … We are turning against each other: I recently saw a prisoner pacing up and down the hall screaming, ‘If anyone on this unit self-reports and our quarantine gets extended we’re gonna fight. So just know that. If you’re feeling sick, stay in your fucking cell.’”
Leonard Peltier, a 77-year-old Native American rights activist, wrote to HuffPost about how Omicron conditions were even worse than last year’s lockdowns in USP Coleman I, a federal prison in Florida. “In and out of lockdown last year at least meant a shower every third day, a meal beyond a sandwich wet with a little peanut butter,” he wrote. “But now with COVID for an excuse, nothing. No phone, no window, no fresh air — no humans to gather — no loved one’s voice. No relief. Left alone and without attention is like a torture chamber for the sick and old.”
A Lack of Accountability and Independent Oversight
While containing COVID-19 — both inside and outside of prisons — has proven to be a challenge in the United States, carceral staff, officials and politicians continue to mishandle the pandemic, fanning the flames of outbreaks behind bars.
Many correctional officers are refusing the vaccine; even in liberal California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is fighting in court against a vaccine mandate for correctional staff under union pressure from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. And the California Office of the Inspector General released a report outlining how the state’s department of corrections “caused a public health disaster” that led to 29 deaths in San Quentin Prison alone, after it transferred people from facility to facility early in the pandemic — a mistake made by the federal government and other departments throughout the country.
By last July, at least 11 states had delayed or even stopped updating their COVID tracking dashboards — phasing out this crucial tracking while the pandemic remains in full swing. In fact, the majority of states are not publishing information on vaccination rates in prison.
Patrice Sulton, director of the DC Justice Lab, a law and policy organization working for criminal justice reform, identifies the root of the problems at the D.C. Jail as a lack of accountability among jail leadership. “In most places, the warden is the person in charge of the jail, but nobody knows the name of the warden in D.C.,” said Sulton. “The DOC [Department of Corrections] decides everything that’s happening, the policy at the jail, and they are not there.” (The DOC headquarters is 4.5 miles away from the jail.) “And they’re just so dishonest about what they’re doing inside the jail.”
Last November, the D.C. Council’s Judiciary & Public Safety committee called an emergency oversight roundtable to discuss the dangerous conditions at the jail. “I rounded up folks that have lived in a jail … to talk about what was going on in there,” said Sulton. At the meeting, her organization called for an end to pandemic lockdowns, as well as a full ban on solitary confinement in the jail. Then-D.C. Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth opted not to attend the meeting, which was held over Zoom.
In January, following increasing scrutiny of the problems in the jail and Booth’s no-show at the oversight roundtable, Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed a new acting director of the jail. But the new appointee, Tom Faust, was director of the jail from 2001 to 2016, prior to Booth’s appointment, and Booth still holds an advisory role within the DOC. “They’ve worked together before, so it’s not a huge shift in leadership,” said Sulton.
Meanwhile, Sulton said, even if policies are changed, follow-through will remain an open question.
“Even if we get a ban [on solitary confinement], the rules that they are supposed to be following are not being followed,” she said. “Trying to figure out a way to get independent oversight of the jail is a big push.”
As the Omicron wave peaked in January, there were more than 900 people in quarantine in the D.C. Jail and 70 in isolation, prompting Nassim Moshiree, policy director at the ACLU of the District of Columbia, to express similar concerns in a statement: “This crisis was entirely preventable, and negligence by the Department of Corrections has jeopardized the health of hundreds of D.C. Jail residents.”
Moshiree continued: “First, DOC needs to limit the number of people in the facility, starting with releasing all people who are serving time for only misdemeanor sentences, awaiting trial on misdemeanors, confined for non-criminal parole violations, nearing the end of their sentence, or who can otherwise be brought home under some form of community supervision.”
Large-scale releases, which are consistently identified by medical professionals as the most effective way to slow the spread, may seem impossible in our current punishment system. But they are not. In a rare exception, New Jersey passed legislation in October 2020 that allowed for the early release of around 5,300 people nearing the end of their sentences, cutting the state prison population by 40 percent over 11 months. One year after the first batch of releases, just 9 percent of these individuals were back in custody — lower than the state’s pre-pandemic, one-year recidivism rate of 16 percent. (And most of those in custody were arrested for parole violations, not new charges.)
But this sort of release has proved the rare exception. In the D.C. Jail, Rowe said, “Morale is low. [The incarcerated] really just miss their family. They really just want some understanding of what’s going on with their case. They want to be out of to jail, you know? Even if that’s being sent to prison — they just don’t want to be in the jail anymore.”