This is the third in a new series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch.
COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise and fall. Death rates for vaccinated people, however, remain relatively low, so many, if not most, Americans are unmasking and reclaiming the freedom of their pre-pandemic lives. Still, a virus that persists for this long can affect the vaccine’s efficacy, and impending variants are unknown. “It’s a crapshoot,” an epidemiologist from the University of Texas told PBS NewsHour listeners earlier this year as to the deadliness of future variants.
I’m living that crapshoot in San Quentin State Prison in California, and for me, there will be no return to “freedom,” or even to the relative unconstraint of pre-pandemic prison life. I live in a place where at least 35 incarcerated residents have been killed by COVID-19 or illnesses compounded by the virus. And since March 2020, COVID-19 has shut San Quentin down three times—first for about eighteen months, and then twice more when the prison went under quarantine for at least six weeks each time.
These interruptions have stripped essential services for the incarcerated population, such as drug treatment programs and life skill classes, as well as educational and vocational trade opportunities. Visits from loved ones stopped. Access to telephones decreased. Social interaction eroded. Collectively, cutting off these important community-based interactions imposes an ongoing duress on the mental health of incarcerated folks.
Moreover, if a San Quentin resident tests positive for COVID-19, they are sent to solitary confinement. Thus the incarcerated population is extremely reluctant to ask for medical assistance, saying that what happens feels more like punishment than treatment. These punishment-like responses to infection and illness run contrary to pandemic guidelines for the nation’s prisons and jails, issued by the Center for Disease and Prevention Control.
These so-called medical decisions also fly in the face of 180-year old knowledge. When Charles Dickens visited the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (pictured above) in 1842, here’s what he had to say about solitary confinement: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body… Because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. Those who have undergone this punishment must pass into society again, morally unhealthy and diseased.”
A wide variety of research shows that even short periods in solitary confinement can cause lasting damage to psychological stability. Yet solitary was the primary response of this prison—and many others—to a global pandemic. In August 2020, a California state appeals court called San Quentin Prison officials’ treatment of its incarcerated population, “morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable.”
A little more than a year later, a California Superior Court judge agreed, and said that prison officials’ dismal treatment in response to the virus was violating the constitutional rights of San Quentiners. But the judge would not order any relief, calling vaccines a game changer. This despite the fact that in April 2021, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that vaccines alone are not enough to stop coronavirus outbreaks in prison. San Quentin remains additionally vulnerable to outbreaks, since 23 percent of administrators and correctional officers have chosen to remain unvaccinated.
For many San Quentiners, the judge’s refusal to force a change in their conditions—in effect, to honor their humanity—creates additional mental anguish.
When prison abolitionist Angela Y. Davis wrote Are Prisons Obsolete? in 2003, she recognized that the challenge to the abolitionist movement is to do the work that will create more humane, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system. Right now, I instead see an avoidable chain reaction that creates less humane and habitable environments in prison, as bus after bus brings more people to San Quentin, where two people are assigned to a cell that measures four by ten feet—smaller than your average parking space.
The obvious consequence of packing people into these tiny spaces will be to drive COVID infections up, forcing lockdowns that will produce a predictable mental health decline in the incarcerated population. Meanwhile, no person or entity is being held accountable for these morally indefensible, unconstitutional, untenable acts against fellow American citizens.
—Juan Moreno Haines, Contributing Writer