Around 1,350 people were held in the District of Columbia Jail in isolation for 22 hours each day when the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spiked in late 2021. “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.”
Similar conditions are common in U.S. prisons and jails. The federal prison system has seen a dramatic change in the past two months. went on lockdownFacilities in California also had this effect. Illinois, Rhode Island, Arkansas, Connecticut, Tennessee, New York City, and other areas of the country. These COVID-related lockdowns can lead to oppressive conditions that are often identical to traditional forms solitary confinement such as administrative segregation (used to segregate people the prison considers a security risk) or disciplinary segregation, which is used to punish rule infractions.
These widespread lockdowns have made it impossible for hundreds and thousands of people in the country to access programming, visitation and mental health care. They also make it difficult for them to get adequate food and a commissary (infacility stores that sell food, hygiene supplies, and other necessities). It has turned the already horrible experience of being incarcerated into torture. Officials have stated that the lockdowns are necessary in some cases. response to COVID-19 outbreaksOthers lockdowns are an ad hoc reaction to the above. fights and violence behind bars — although these incidents often stem from tense, life-threatening conditions in overcrowded, COVID-ridden facilities.
Solitary Watch was the first to report on the pandemic in spring 2020. 500 percent increase in the use of solitary confinementAs the virus spread, facilities across the country scrambled for ways to slow it down. 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. They have not succeeded.
Today, jails and prisons in the country are largely unchanged. nearly as crowdedThey were the same before the pandemic. Governors are almost a rule. lawmakersAnd parole boardsThey have not used their significant power to release more people. While many cities saw an immediate drop in the number of jails at the outbreak of the pandemics; this trend was quickly reversed in many places. A large national sample of prisons showed that the overall population had reached a staggering 2.1 million by December 2021. decrease of just 10 percentSince March 2020. 28 percent actually escaped from the sampled jails They held more people than before the pandemic. The District of Columbia Jail (D.C. This trend continues at Jail, where Rowe was held. The population of the notorious main complex, known as Central Detention Facility (CDF), fell from 1,278 people to 847 between February 2020 and July 2020. However, it was still a very large prison. back up to 1,118By September 2021. (In March 2022, the CDF held 1,039.)
Many carceral facilities are failing to follow medically-recommended COVID-19 precautions such as increasing testing. cohorting people into mini-communities, enforcement staff vaccine mandatesMaking healthier spaces medical isolationThese do not resemble isolation. Despite many lockdowns COVID has been rampant behind bars. This has led to at least 2,861 deathsThe COVID Prison Project has tracked the movements of incarcerated persons. Recently, the highly contagious Omicron variant showed what happens when prisons or jails are overcrowded. COVID-19 is a deadly disease that spreads like wildfire. Prisoners pay the price through high rates and illnesses, but also by extreme, seemingly never-ending lockdowns.
The U.S. The U.S. Marshals Service Confirms Some Allegations Of Abuse
D.C. was struck by the pandemic in its first year. 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. He was once kept in his cell for two consecutive nights. 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. Rowe claimed that his unit was supposed twice a week to enjoy outdoor recreation, but he was only allowed outside three times during six months in jail. “It makes each day feel like a month,” he said. “It’s suffocating.”
Rowe said that lockdowns have restricted people’s access to educational course resources, group therapy sessions, and even legal case managers. The lack of legal access is especially worrying in jails where the majority of prisoners are legally innocent and need to access legal support to prepare for their upcoming court dates. “People are just sitting there, at the risk of catching COVID,” Rowe said. “Their cases are getting pushed out, they can’t really get in contact with lawyers. It’s an additional stress on the [prisoner] population.”
Intense restrictions on resources can make medical care more difficult than usual. “Because there wasn’t a lot of transport of [prisoners] — 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.”
Rowe stated that people are forced to go to great lengths to get staff attention because of the harsh conditions. “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.”
A new group of people were booked into the D.C. in 2021. Jail — those accused of storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The jail was brought under control after their defense lawyers and supporters raised alarm about the conditions of confinement. new levels of public scrutinyoutrage. Family members, advocates, and prisoners had been calling for change in jail for years. 87 percentBlack people make up the majority of those in prison.
As the U.S. became more aware, they conducted an unannounced inspection of the jail in October 2021. The jail was inspected by the Marshals Service unannounced. (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 is the subject of this investigation revealed horrific conditions at the CDF: Staff members were withholding food and water as punishment, shutting off water supply to cells for days, ignoring COVID-19 protocols, and even told a detainee interviewed by the inspectors to “stop snitching.”
The Marshals took 200 detainees from the CDF, including Rowe, after an inspection. Instead of allowing them all to await trial at home the Marshals transferred them to USP Lewisburg. This notorious federal prison in Pennsylvania has been the subject of many human rights abuse lawsuits. Rowe stated that he was sent back to Washington D.C. After officials discovered that Rowe was enrolled in a specialized substance misuse treatment program, he was transferred to Jail 11 days later. However, he was not allowed to reenroll in the program after his return.
Some of the smaller privileges and programs that were available in D.C. were extended in December. 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 when asked about conditions in the jail.
U.S. Prisons in the USA are filled with inhumane conditions amid Omicron
The lockdowns in D.C. While lockdowns in the D.C. were particularly severe and prolonged, facilities all over the country have been locked down for the past two year.
“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 [prisoners] 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?”
Christopher Blackwell, an incarcerated journalist, described the scene in Washington State. experience of entering yet another prison lockdownIn 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. This is what you need to know. If you’re feeling sick, stay in your fucking cell.’”
Leonard Peltier, a 77 year-old Native American rights activist, was interviewed. 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 refuse to receive the vaccine. Even in liberal California Gov. Gavin Newsom is fighting in courtThe California Correctional Peace Officers Association is pressuring correctional staff to oppose a mandate for vaccines. 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.
At least 11 states had even delayed or cancelled their elections by last July. stopped updating their COVID tracking dashboards — phasing out this crucial tracking while the pandemic remains in full swing. In fact, majority of statesThey do not publish information about vaccination rates in prison.
Patrice Sulton is the executive director of DC Justice Lab, a law- and policy organization that works for criminal justice reform. Jail is caused by a lack in 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 roundtableTo discuss the prison’s dangerous conditions. “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 a full ban on solitary confinement in the jail. Quincy Booth, then-D.C. Department of Corrections Direct, chose not to attend. The meeting 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.
Sulton indicated that, even if policies change, follow-up will be 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.”
In January, the Omicron wave was at its peak. There were over 900 people quarantined in D.C. Jail and 70 people in isolation were the results. This prompted Nassim Mshiree, policy director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia to voice similar concerns in a letter. 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 noncriminal parole violations, nearing the end of their sentence, or who can otherwise be brought home under some form of community supervision.”
Large-scale releases are consistently identified by medical professionals to be the most effective way of slowing the spread. However, this may seem impossible in the current punishment system. They are not. New Jersey passed legislation in Oct 2020, which allowed for the exception of the rare exception. early release of around 5,300 peopleNearing the end of their sentences, the state’s prison population was reduced by 40% in just 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. (Most of those who were returned to custody were not facing new charges but parole violations.
This kind of release is a rare exception.
In the D.C. Jail, Rowe said, “Morale is low. [The incarcerated]They truly miss their families. They really just want some understanding of what’s going on with their case. They want to get out of jail. Even if that’s being sent to prison — they just don’t want to be in the jail anymore.”