U.S. Prison Deaths Increased by 77% in Covid-19 Pandemic…and Other News on Solitary Confinement This Week  

Seven Days in Solitary for the Week Ending 12/6/23

by | December 7, 2023

New this week from Solitary Watch:

In a recent article published in collaboration with The Stranger in Seattle, incarcerated journalist Kevin Light-Roth examines current efforts to pass legislation limiting the use of solitary confinement in Washington state. Although advocates were hopeful that HB 1087 would be passed this year, efforts stalled following an exorbitant fiscal note from the state Department of Corrections and opposition from prison staff. Throughout the article Light-Roth describes the impact this bill would have on incarcerated people and the ongoing struggle by advocates to get it passed. Solitary Watch

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This week’s pick of news and commentary about solitary confinement:

A study of U.S. prison deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic showed that mortality increased by 77% from 2019 to 2020, an increase three times higher than in the general population of the United States. This increase in mortality was attributed to both natural causes resulting from Covid-19 infection and unnatural causes related to conditions of confinement. The study found that pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions designed to mitigate infection, including the use of “solitary confinement in place of medical isolation,” had in fact “increased stress, mental health challenges, and violence exacerbating the risk of deaths due to unnatural causes, such as drug overdoses, suicide, and violence.” The Guardian | A June 2020 report by Unlock the Box and Solitary Watch found that a 500% increase in the use of solitary confinement in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic left at least 300,000 incarcerated people—and likely many more—in solitary, with all of the associated risks. Solitary Watch

Over 2,000 incarcerated people in New York state have been unfairly punished due to a series of false-positive drug tests. An investigation by the Inspector General’s Office found that prison officials and staff failed to abide by protocols to prevent cross-contamination and confirm the results with an outside laboratory. This failure to follow state policy and manufacturer guidelines led to hundreds of incarcerated people being sent to solitary confinement, having their visitation halted, and parole hearings canceled. Since then, New York has reversed and expunged 704 disciplinary infractions and reduced another 2,068 charges resulting from the false-positive tests. Spectrum News NY1

Although the Isolated Confinement Restrictions Act prohibits the use of solitary confinement on LGBTQ+ people, transgender people in New Jersey are still kept in isolation for all but one or two hours a day. Other than the general prohibition, there are no specific restrictions on the use of isolation as protective custody. Additionally, a new policy from the New Jersey Department of Corrections allows officials to override the housing preferences of incarcerated transgender people due to “reproductive concerns.” Essentially, prison officials can bar transgender women from women’s housing unless they eliminate these concerns by receiving bottom surgery, such as orchiectomies and/or vaginoplasties. Bolts

The death of Jorge L. Zerquera earlier this month marks the third suicide at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk since 2013. At the time of his death, Zerquera was isolated in the Behavioral Assessment Unit (BAU). People placed in the BAU have been determined by the state to pose an “unacceptable risk to safety” and can be isolated for up to 21 hours a day. WGBH | It was later revealed that Zequera, who was part of an anti-violence initiative led by incarcerated people and had recently suffered a stroke, had been placed in the BAU after a verbal altercation with staff over access to his vital medication. According to a letter written to Claire Masinton of the state-funded Mental Health Legal Advisory Committee, Zerquera’s death raises concerns over officials’ adherence to unit policies requiring immediate medical evaluation and twice-hourly supervision in the unit. World Peace Foundation | Gordon Haas, longtime chairman of the Norfolk Lifer’s Group, wrote a tribute to Jorge Zerquera. Real Cost of Prisons

Michael Anderson, a former federal prison lieutenant, has been sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the death of an incarcerated person in his custody at Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution in Virginia. The incarcerated person, who officials refused to name publicly, died of blunt-force trauma to the head after suffering a 30-hour medical crisis without intervention while in solitary confinement. According to Jessica Aber, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, “his death was the completely preventable result of the deliberate choices made by [Anderson], who knew he had the constitutional duty to provide medical care.” USA Today

Three incarcerated people have died during the ongoing lockdown at Waupun Correctional Facility in Wisconsin. The family of Dean Hoffmann, one of the men who died by suicide, stated that during the lockdow their son “was calling out for help and they were not helping him.” WISN Channel 12 | At Green Bay Correctional Institution, hundreds of men are still confined to their cells as a result of the ongoing lockdown movement restrictions. The facility is filled with the smell of the men who are unable to shower and forced to use the bathroom in their open-aired cells. Government officials have failed to improve conditions at the facility or decrease the number of people confined there. The Cap Times

Five people incarcerated in pre-trial detention at the Santa Cruz County Jail are on hunger strike over conditions at the facility. In addition to demanding more oversight, lower commissary prices, and guaranteed access to their legal mail, the men say they have been placed in solitary confinement without due process. The five men are currently being held in administrative segregation, where they are confined to their cells for 135 hours a week. Lookout

On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the End Solitary Confinement Act, described in a press release as “historic legislation that would end solitary confinement in federal prisons, jails, and detention centers, with limited exceptions. The legislation would also create minimum standards for incarceration and due process protections, such as capping the time that incarcerated people are alone at four hours and requiring staff to meet them within one hour. These standards promote the de-escalation of emergencies over punishing people in detention. In addition, the legislation would incentivize states and cities to end solitary confinement in their facilities. Congresswoman Cori Bush (MO-01) introduced the End Solitary Confinement Act in the House.” Senate co-sponsors thus far include Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.). Office of Sen. Ed Markey | Text of the bill

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