More than 100 medical experts, human rights groups, and faith organizations join Unlock the Box in calling on the CDC to issue clear and consistent guidelines eliminating the use of prolonged solitary confinement as a form of pandemic response
Washington, D.C. — Today, a coalition of more than 100 medical experts, human rights organizations, and faith-based organizations joined the Unlock the Box campaign in issuing a letter calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to revise its current guidance for adult and juvenile correctional facilities to both slow the high rate of COVID-19 transmission, and ensure effective compliance with existing guidelines. Specifically, the letter calls on the CDC to issue guidelines restricting the use of punitive and prolonged solitary confinement as a form of pandemic response at the federal, state and local levels.
“There is an ongoing and accelerating humanitarian crisis occurring in jails and prisons across the nation, and public officials have a legal, ethical and moral obligation to adopt and implement safe and effective strategies in response to COVID-19,” said Jessica Sandoval, Campaign Strategist for the Unlock the Box Campaign. “It is well past time for the CDC to listen to the warnings of medical experts, human rights watchdogs and public health professionals by issuing clear and consistent guidelines restricting the use of solitary confinement and system-wide lockdowns in response to this pandemic. These tactics are proven to be dangerous and ineffective, and with the number of cases quickly rising, we are on the verge of a deeper crisis of unprecedented size and scale.”
Unlock the Box, a national campaign to end the use of solitary confinement, is leading this effort in response to the 500 percent growth in the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 1,000 incarcerated individuals have already died of COVID-19, and jails and prisons make up more than 90 percent of the nation’s top pandemic hotspots.
According to the United Nations, the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days can amount to torture, and the practice should be severely restricted, especially for pregnant women, children and people suffering from serious mental illness.
Many prominent national organizations signed the coalition letter, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and the NAACP. A number of faith-based organizations also signed the letter, including the First Unitarian Church, Catholic Migration Services, and the Church of Scientology, as well as medical and public health professionals.
The coalition’s letter calls for the CDC’s swift implementation of the following five measures:
- Issue clear guidance to local, state and federal corrections officials, judges, and law enforcement agencies on reducing adult and juvenile jail and prison intakes and population size to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- Issue public health guidelines distinguishing “solitary confinement” from “quarantine” and “medical isolation” to prevent punitive conditions for those who contract COVID-19.
- Assemble a formal CDC working group on COVID-19 and prisons.
- Segregate suspected and documented COVID-19 patients from the general correctional population.
- Make soap and hand sanitizer freely accessible to all people incarcerated and working in correctional facilities, and make gloves mandatory for all staff.
The coalition’s letter highlights a June 2020 report by Unlock the Box that details the myriad ways in which under-prepared state and federal corrections officials have failed to develop comprehensive plans for containing the spread of COVID-19 inside their facilities. The report found that prolonged solitary confinement has become the default pandemic response in prison systems across the United States to COVID-19, even while the practice has been shown to increase the spread of the disease. Instead of being tested and provided with adequate medical attention, many incarcerated people demonstrating symptoms are swiftly transferred to solitary confinement where they are deprived of all social contact, receive no information or attention from medical staff, and are subject to unsanitary conditions.
The public health impacts of elevated solitary confinement during the COVID-19 crisis cannot be overstated. As the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, the CDC’s failure to take bold action to stem the spread of the virus in correctional institutions could result in thousands of preventable deaths. The CDC must act now to ensure that incarcerated communities receive proper COVID-19 testing and medical attention.
David Fathi, Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said, “COVID-19 has unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe in our prisons and jails, with more than a thousand people dead and tens of thousands sickened. Unfortunately many correctional facilities have responded by ramping up their use of solitary confinement – a punitive and counterproductive strategy that inflicts real harm. The CDC must act immediately to restrict the use of solitary confinement as a response to COVID-19.”
Martin Horn, former NYC Correction Commissioner and Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections, said, “Prisons and jails rely on legitimacy. In order to operate efficiently they require the trust of the people under their supervision. The use of solitary confinement as a form of pandemic response is an unacceptable response to this crisis, compromising the legitimacy of many corrections systems around the United States. Corrections officials are not public health experts, and they require guidance to ensure a safe and effective response to COVID-19. The CDC must act with great urgency to help corrections officials respond to this growing humanitarian crisis, which is leading to incarcerated people dying at three-times the rate of the general population, and contracting the virus at five-times the rate of the general population.”
Dr. Jeffery Stovall, Asylum Program Expert at Physicians for Human Rights, said, “When a detainee develops COVID-19, placement in solitary confinement will have clearly understood negative effects upon their health and well-being. Let us not confuse, and let us not be misled: solitary confinement is a form of punishment imposed by correctional systems; quarantine is a form of medical isolation imposed by health care systems. Solitary confinement is not the same as a medical quarantine for a person with COVID-19. It is crucial and imperative that the CDC issue clear guidelines that distinguish between solitary confinement and quarantine.”
David Cloud, Research Director at AMEND at the University of California San Francisco, said, “Solitary confinement is a form of state-sanctioned violence that leads to immense despair, disease, and death. Turning to this dehumanizing practice will only fan the flames of the COVID-19 pandemic and exacerbate a humanitarian crisis. We need our public health leaders to take bold and urgent actions focused on depopulating crowded institutions, deploying testing and other vital resources to ill-equipped correctional facilities, and issuing guidance to ensure that quarantine and medical isolation protocols are implemented ethically and not tantamount to solitary by another name. The health and humanity of everyone is at stake.”