When Bryan Glant tested positive for COVID-19 in late December 2020, a guard at Monroe Correctional Complex, a prison in Washington, told him he had 10 minutes to pack up his essential items — “just what you need to get through a couple days.” During the walk to the COVID-19 isolation unit, prison staffers told Glant how nice the units were. There would be TVs, video games, daily phone access and outlets to charge tablets equipped with an email-like messaging service, they said.
Maybe waiting out COVID-19 in prison wouldn’t be as bad as he feared, Glant thought to himself.
But when he stepped into his isolation cell — a dirty, dimly lit cement box with only a deflated mattress and a nonworking TV welded to the ceiling behind a plastic box — he realized he had been misled. “I was in the hole,” Glant wrote in an account of his experience that he shared with HuffPost.
In some ways, the COVID-19 unit was worse than the hole, a term used to describe solitary confinement in prisons and jails and which is used as a form of punishment. In the hole, Glant wrote, individuals at Monroe typically get one hour a day outside of their cell to go out in the yard, use the phone or take a shower. In the isolation unit, Glant was locked in his cell for several days straight, shaking with pain from his COVID-19 symptoms.
“The air vent blew so loudly that it seemed to pressurize my cell like an airplane cabin, drowning out all sound, creating a claustrophobic sense of solitude,” he wrote.
When Glant’s parents didn’t hear from him on New Year’s Day, they started to worry. They eventually learned that he had COVID-19 and was locked in solitary. “We were beside ourselves,” Bruce Glant, Bryan Glant’s dad, said. “We started calling the prison and no one would give us any answers,” he said. “So as parents, our hearts were sinking, wondering what the heck was going on.”
Glant was finally allowed out of his cell on his fifth day in isolation, after another person incarcerated in the unit filed a grievance over the lack of showers. He got 10 minutes out of his cell and his first pair of clean underwear since going into isolation.
The next day, Glant finally got to use the phone, also the result of others filing complaints. He had to kneel on the floor with his head pressed against the cold metal door to reach the landline that was pushed through a slot in the door. It was uncomfortable, but it was the best 20 minutes of his week. After not hearing from him for so long, his family and girlfriend had started to fear the worst.
Glant, who is 25, is among the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people who have been subjected to solitary confinement during the pandemic under the guise of medical isolation. There is no question that some people need to be isolated from others amid an infectious disease outbreak. But in many prisons and jails, the conditions of medical isolation are nearly identical to punitive isolation.
It is impossible to know the exact scope of the use of solitary confinement because most detention facilities are not required to report publicly how many people they place in solitary and for how long. The public reporting that does exist is not particularly useful, as it does not account for the euphemistic terms often used to describe various forms of solitary confinement. But it is clear from HuffPost’s reporting — which involved extensive interviews with people who are incarcerated, defense lawyers and activists — that the use of solitary confinement exploded during the pandemic as the coronavirus tore through facilities that were ill-prepared to protect the people who live inside.
The United Nations’ “Mandela Rules” define solitary confinement as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.” The use of solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days is a form of torture, according to the U.N. Even shorter periods of solitary confinement should only be used “in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible,” the U.N. says.
By April 2020, at least 300,000 prisoners were living under full or partial lockdown, confined to their cells for nearly the entire day. That number alone represented an approximately 500% increase in the number of people placed under solitary compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to an analysis by watchdog group Solitary Watch. And that estimate did not include individuals who were sent into separate solitary units but whose prisons were not on lockdown. The duration of time spent in solitary confinement varies, but some incarcerated individuals have spent more than a year mostly in isolation.
Even under regular conditions, solitary confinement is a dehumanizing, tortuous form of punishment that often leads to depression, anxiety, paranoia, self-harm and even suicide. But its use as a supposedly nonpunitive form of medical intervention is particularly cruel. HuffPost collected firsthand accounts from more than 20 people in five detention facilities around the country who were placed in solitary as a response to COVID-19. (One author of this piece, Christopher Blackwell, is currently incarcerated in Washington state and did reporting from inside prison.)
They describe experiencing painful COVID-19 symptoms while their requests for medical care — or even an extra blanket — went unanswered. Denied access to phones, their loved ones wondered if they were still alive. With nothing to distract them from the overwhelming loneliness of solitary confinement, some worried they would die in their cells without getting the chance to say their goodbyes. Many report lingering mental health struggles.
When getting sick means going to solitary, people are more likely to avoid reporting their symptoms, which increases the risk of an outbreak. This isn’t a problem unique to the COVID-19 pandemic: People imprisoned at California’s San Quentin State Prison brace for a stint in solitary every flu season, Juan Haines, a journalist incarcerated in the prison wrote in February 2020.
Public health experts have cautioned against medical isolation conditions that resemble solitary confinement. “The only commonality that solitary confinement should share with quarantine and medical isolation is a physical separation from other people,” a team of experts from the University of California, San Francisco wrote in the Journal of General Internal Medicine last year.
“This means that people in quarantine or medical isolation should have enhanced access to resources that can make their separation psychologically bearable,” the experts continued, “since they are enduring isolation for the greater good, not for punishment.” To differentiate medical isolation from punitive isolation, the experts said, individuals should be treated with compassion and have easy access to medical and mental health professionals who can provide frequent updates about why they are in isolation and how long they will be there.
In reality, medical isolation is often indistinguishable from solitary confinement, both in practice and sometimes, even in stated policy. HuffPost obtained a copy of the handbook given to incarcerated individuals who were sent into solitary for punishment and a copy of the handbook given to those who were placed in medical isolation. The conditions are nearly identical. In both scenarios, the handbook calls for individuals to be strip-searched and given 10 sheets of paper, one flex pen, two slips for mail requiring more than a stamp, two paper cups, and a roll of toilet paper upon arrival.
In some ways, conditions are worse in medical isolation than in the hole. The handbook for medical isolation calls for access to the phones for 30 minutes three times a week and makes no mention of going outside to the yard. The handbook for individuals in regular solitary confinement calls for one hour of exercise in the yard five days a week, during which time individuals may also use the phone.
Washington Department of Corrections spokesperson Jacque Coe said in an email that the “handbooks are developed to provide very basic guidelines to individuals and should not be confused with prison operations processes and procedures for medical isolation in a pandemic.”
Gary Davis, who is 54 years old and incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex, was sent into isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 in January. “I was supposed to be treated like someone that was sick with COVID-19, but I was treated like I was sent there to be punished in cruel and unusual ways,” he said. Davis was in constant pain while sick but he could barely sleep because the lights in his cell were on 24 hours a day and staffers would bang on his door at bizarre hours for temperature checks. He was allowed one shower in eight days and wore the same clothes for 15 days. When the sink in his cell flooded, he had only toilet paper to clean it with.
Coe, the corrections department spokesperson, said that the “count light” that stays on overnight “for safety and security” is “very dim.” She added that the department allows showers three times a week after seven days of medical isolation and clothing exchanges every two days. Multiple people incarcerated at Monroe say the department does not reliably follow its stated policies.
“The cell was filthy,” said Jojo Ejonga, 30, who was also placed in medical isolation at Monroe Correctional Complex. Like Glant, Ejonga felt misled by staffers’ promises that medical isolation would be different from the solitary confinement experiences he had endured in the past. “There was no pillow, cleaning supplies, TV, (all the things DOC had promised us was in medical isolation cells and reported to the public was a boldface lie) and had throw up all over the floor by the toilet,” Ejonga wrote in an account of his experience that he shared with HuffPost.
When Ejonga raised concerns about the conditions, he was told, “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 told guards that he wouldn’t eat until they treated him like a patient rather than a prisoner. His hunger strike lasted 13 days, he said.
“If an individual refuses food for multiple meals, staff will contact their supervisor to initiate monitoring and observation,” Coe wrote. “This is a behavior that corrections persons observe routinely when incarcerated individuals are not please[d] with their circumstances.”
Compounding the miserable conditions was the anxiety of not knowing when it would end. On Glant’s 21st day in isolation, he “nearly broke,” he said. He knew others who arrived around the same time as him had been released and he didn’t know why he was still there. “I was ready to smash my face into the window just to be seen by somebody,” he said. When he finally got access to the acting medical supervisor, the supervisor told him he could leave 20 days after his last positive COVID-19 test. Glant responded that his last positive test was 21 days ago.
Glant was released back to the main unit soon after, where he and the other guys on the unit exchanged accounts of what they had endured in isolation. “It’s still a source of anxiety for me whenever I think about the helplessness I felt,” Glant said. The prison’s leadership “commends themselves for the ‘outstanding’ job they did to handle the outbreak, but for me and the others who know the truth, our scars remain to tell the truth they don’t want you to hear.”
When Quarantine Is A Health Hazard
The most glaring contradiction in using solitary confinement as a medically necessary precaution is that the inhumane conditions of isolation are themselves a health hazard. It’s common for prisoners in solitary to go days, or even weeks, without access to showers, clean clothes or basic medical care.
Jonathan, who is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, went more than a week without his CPAP machine when his unit was put in solitary after a COVID-19 outbreak. Because of his sleep apnea, Jonathan — who requested to be identified by his first name only out of fear of retaliation — is unable to sleep without a CPAP machine to help him breathe. In the spring of 2020, prison staffers started talking about taking away his CPAP machine, citing concerns that the machine could push potentially infectious air around. Jonathan managed to convince staff to let him keep the device until late June, when the coronavirus swept through the prison. He tested positive and was moved into solitary confinement in a cell in the Badger Unit, which had no outlet to plug in his CPAP machine.
First, he lost his sense of taste and smell. Then came the body aches, the nausea, the vomiting and diarrhea. And without the CPAP machine, he couldn’t get any sleep. After eight days, Jonathan caught the attention of a doctor walking by his cell and told him he hadn’t slept since arriving at Badger. The doctor responded that the only way Jonathan would be allowed to use a CPAP machine was if he went to the Adjustment Center (AC), which has been used as the hole for San Quentin’s death row population. Desperate, he agreed to go.
A stint in the AC for COVID-19 isolation was supposed to be short-term: After a 14-day quarantine and negative tests, individuals were supposed to be let out. But every time Jonathan asked when he could go back to his regular living arrangement, he was told he had to stay because of his medical device.
“I was getting punished for having the CPAP machine,” he said. “I understand if I did something wrong, I understand my punishment. But I didn’t do anything.”
He ended up staying in the AC for about two months.
Some who tried to refuse going to the AC were punished for doing so. After Alex Ross, 55, was potentially exposed to COVID-19 from a nurse during a routine blood pressure check, he told staff he would quarantine in his cell but he didn’t want to be moved to the AC. “I’ve been in the hole before. I know if I go over there, there’s not gonna be any disinfectant,” he said in an interview. “I said, ‘Don’t take me to the hole, I don’t want to go to the hole, it’s nasty over there.’”
The prison’s staff relented but Ross got a disciplinary write-up for refusing to go. He appealed the write-up and it got dismissed, he said, but he felt the staff retaliated against him for raising the issue.
Those who were sent to the AC for nondisciplinary reasons were still subject to the same conditions as those who were there as a form of punishment. David Jarrell, a 27-year-old who was sent to the AC before and after traveling out of state for court proceedings, told HuffPost it was like being “stuck in a box all day.”
The only time he was allowed to leave his cell was for a seven-minute shower once every three days and 45 minutes of yard time approximately every other day — and he had to be handcuffed to walk to and from both activities. To go to the yard, Jarrell also had to strip down, bend over, and cough to prove he wasn’t hiding anything. Anal cavity searches are a common form of abuse used against individuals held in solitary. Once outside, he was confined to a metal cage that he compared to a dog kennel. On the way back in, he had to repeat the invasive search procedure.
When he went to the AC in October 2020, Jarrell was moved between various cells that lacked power or hot water. On his way back from court in March of this year, he braced himself for a 14-day quarantine in the AC. But after 14 days, he was still there and no one would tell him why he was still there after multiple negative COVID-19 tests — or when he could leave. There was no opportunity to get a clean change of clothes so he washed his clothes in the sink as best he could. The food he was given was moldy and when he’d ask for a replacement, he’d get another equally moldy meal. By the time he finally got out of the AC unit, on the 17th day, he had lost 11 pounds.
Jarrell had spent time in isolation and he knew what it could do to him. After he was first arrested several years ago, he spent about 14 months in solitary confinement in a county jail, an experience that drove him to think about suicide. “It was really bad,” he said in an interview. This time, “I just said, screw it, there’s no point in trying to cry about it, argue about it. Just sit there and they’ll let you out when they let you out.”
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Dana Simas issued a joint statement with California Correctional Health Care Services claiming that their isolation practices are “medically supported” and “categorically not punitive.”
In some detention centers, the incarcerated have spent most of the pandemic effectively in solitary confinement. For more than a year, the roughly 1,500 people imprisoned in Washington, D.C.’s jail were confined to their cells for nearly 24 hours a day. Unlike prisons and jails that turned to solitary confinement as a temporary response to COVID-19 outbreaks, the D.C. jail made its so-called “medical stay-in-place” policy the default.
At the outset of the pandemic, the D.C. Department of Corrections imposed a 23-and-a-half hour-a-day lockdown — meaning individuals had 30 minutes to choose between showering, calling their loved ones, getting forms for medical requests or legal work, or using the microwave. The Department eventually extended the daily 30 minutes out of cells to one hour — a policy that remained in place until May 2021.
Multiple people who were imprisoned in the D.C. jail during the early days of the pandemic wrote in court declarations that they saw guards use or threaten to use mace against incarcerated individuals for minor incidents like not getting off the phone quickly enough or briefly pulling down their mask.
“Because we only get one hour of recreation for showering, calling family, and making sick call requests, it is very stressful to get everything done within that hour, especially when I am worried about getting maced by guards for not moving fast enough or for making mistakes like pulling down my mask so my mother can hear me,” one person incarcerated in the D.C. jail wrote in a May 2020 court declaration. Sometimes, the person wrote, their one hour out of their cell would come at 3 or 4 a.m., making it difficult to get in contact with loved ones or lawyers — who are essential contacts during pretrial incarceration.
In court records, D.C. jail residents described filthy conditions, challenging the notion that the lockdown was a medically sound exercise. “I have not gotten any new or freshly laundered clothing since February,” another person incarcerated in the jail wrote last May. “The water fountain on my unit does not work. The sink in my cell works but the water is disgusting and has a bad smell and flavor. It is often brown or has black spots in it. The guards are only bringing water in the morning or at lunchtime. That water runs out quickly and then they do not bring more. I am thirsty all day long.”
A third person incarcerated in the D.C. jail wrote in their declaration that he went weeks without medical attention after reporting symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and cold sweats. When he asked for medical help, he was told his temperature of 99.6 degrees was just shy of the 100-degree threshold he was told was necessary to get a coronavirus test. He went back to his cell and his symptoms continued. He was not tested until almost three weeks after first experiencing symptoms. When the test came back positive, he was moved to a different part of the jail for isolation, with the same sheets and clothing he had been using while sick. He didn’t get a shower for six days. Just one week after testing positive, he was taken back to his regular cell, he wrote.
As the lockdown wore on, residents sometimes asked guards for more time out of their cell to squeeze in a shower or a phone call. “Two different correctional officers on two different days replied that we are lock in because we, the inmates, had filed a lawsuit whining and crying about the fact that they do not give us cleaning supplies,” the third individual wrote.
In response to a list of questions, D.C. Department of Corrections spokesperson Keena Blackmon described a dramatically different environment inside the jail than those who lived inside. She acknowledged that pepper spray is authorized for use in the jail, but claimed that staffers who use it in violation of department policies are disciplined. She did not dispute that some individuals were only allowed out of their cells briefly in the middle of the night but said that there are now more tablets available for in-cell phone calls. She claimed that laundry service was provided multiple times a week. In response to the sink with dirty water, Blackmon said the individual could have notified staff and been moved to a different cell while it was fixed. She claimed that anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms receives medical attention within 24 hours.
The lockdown “was not designed to be punitive in nature,” Blackmon claimed, adding that the department “has continued to provide and EXPAND opportunities for individuals to initiate and sustain their journeys of personal growth and pro-social transformation.”
Slow Reform, If Any At All
The physical and psychological toll of solitary confinement has been understood for centuries. In the late 1700s, William Bradford, who would become the second U.S. attorney general, cautioned against stretches of solitary confinement for more than 20 or 30 days at a time, noting that long-term isolation is more than most humans can bear. President Joe Biden campaigned on ending solitary confinement — a top priority of criminal justice reform advocates. Yet, most jurisdictions still allow some form of solitary confinement.
In Washington state, lawmakers declined earlier this year to advance a bill out of committee that would have restricted the use of solitary confinement. After listening to testimony from people currently and formerly incarcerated in the state describe solitary confinement as “modern-day torture,” then-Senate Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committee Chair Jeannie Darneille (D-Tacoma) said that the bill was not ready to move forward. In September, Darneille announced her retirement from the legislature to take a job at the Department of Corrections.
Despite slow progress, there are signs of a growing consensus around restricting solitary confinement, particularly for youth and people who are pregnant, said Jessica Sandoval, the national director for the Unlock the Box campaign, which aims to end solitary confinement in prisons and jails. Just this year, Sandoval noted, New York enacted “the most progressive anti-solitary legislation passed to date,” which bans solitary beyond 15 consecutive days — and bans it entirely for certain groups; voters in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, passed a referendum aiming to ban solitary; Kentucky and Arkansas restricted solitary for pregnant people; and Tennessee limited the duration of solitary for youth. In Connecticut, both chambers of the state legislature passed a bill to prohibit solitary beyond 72 hours, but Gov. Ned Lamont (D) ultimately vetoed it.
Seemingly progressive legislation and policy does not always guarantee better conditions for people in prisons and jails. Legislation can contain enough exceptions and carveouts that prison staffers can continue throwing people in solitary confinement as long as they call it something else. In August, months after New York state passed its anti-solitary bill, a group of state lawmakers accused New York City of trying “to implement a new system which would essentially constitute solitary confinement by another name” in violation of the new legislation.
In late September, two days after HuffPost contacted Washington’s corrections department with questions for this story, the department announced it had ended the practice of “disciplinary segregation.” The seemingly positive news distorted the relatively small impact of the policy change. The vast majority of people in solitary in Washington are in “administrative segregation,” which differs little from disciplinary segregation in practice — making the change essentially meaningless.
“I strongly suspect that as public sentiment is moving towards being against solitary confinement in recognition of the science that is against solitary confinement, I believe that the departments of correction generally are responding by introducing new euphemistic terms, such as administrative segregation, restrictive housing, punitive isolation,” Forrest Behne, a policy analyst with the COVID Prison Project, said. “So it goes by a number of different names, but if it is, over 23 hours a day and locked in a cell by yourself without any privileges, it’s solitary confinement.”
“It is such an inhumane thing to do to anybody. If you can imagine being locked in an enclosed 8-by-10-foot room with a solid door for 23 hours a day,” Bruce Glant, Bryan Glant’s dad, said.
“I’d like every politician in the country to spend a week like that to know what they allow to go on in our prisons.”