COVID: the newest excuse for abuse in prison

The isolation is deadly in so many ways

“As COVID-19 continues to rip through prisons across the world, measures introduced by governments to prevent the spread of the disease have led to human rights violations, including the use of excessive solitary confinement to aid social distancing and inadequate measures to reduce the detrimental effects of isolation.” Netsanet Belay, Research and Advocacy Director, Amnesty International

These last six months in transit have been a living hell. I have been shuffled all over the country (from D.C. to Virginia to West Virginia to Oklahoma to Florida) with my wrists encased in a black box (a medieval contraption that locks your hands to your belly) and shackles. I have been forced to quarantine four times, during which I was locked in a cell for 24 hours a day, except for when I was allowed to shower, for 21 days at a time*. I had (and still have) limited communication with my loved ones, since we are not allowed to use the phone during quarantine. I have lost about 10 pounds, since they don’t feed us much and we aren’t allowed to go to the prison commissary. My skin is dry and flaky from using the generic institutional toiletries.

This severe deprivation is supposedly to “protect” us from COVID. But it’s a hoax. If the correctional staff was serious about stopping the spread of the virus, they would focus on good hygiene as much as isolation. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told to put my mask on or to push it up my nose, yet daily I see officers walking around without their masks on. Meanwhile, they go home every day; the only way we can catch the virus is when give it to us. And my cellie [cellmate] says they put over 100 people in the same enclosure when they got off the plane in Oklahoma (a main transit center for inmates when they are moved around). They were crammed together shoulder to shoulder, and it was so hot my cellie passed out due to lack of oxygen.

Fortunately, I didn’t suffer that part of the process in Oklahoma because my custody level [security] requires that they send me straight upstairs. But while I was waiting to be cleared to go up, I was placed in a 6’9” dog cage that had housed other people in transit and hadn’t been cleaned. Meanwhile, we weren’t given supplies to clean our cells and we were forced to use the showers after others in quarantine, with no sterilization in between.

Here’s a story that would be funny if it wasn’t so serious: Inspectors came in from the regional Bureau of Prisons office this week. And what a “show” they put on. All the prison staff wore their masks properly. The lieutenant made sure the officers wore their visors as well when they served the food. The food was hot (and it’s never hot these days). They painted the jail and passed out lots of disinfectant. Then, the regional people left and everything went back to usual.

The broader question I want to pose is why we all need to quarantine anyway, since we are given rapid COVID tests every step of the way. If we don’t test positive before they let us in the institution and we’re negative again when we are tested the next day, what exactly is the point? My conclusion is that lockdowns simply make managing us more “convenient” for the COs [commanding officers].

Cover illustration for the Amnesty International report: © Antonio Colafemmina

Just as the country is beginning to pay attention to the mental health cost of keeping children out of school, more attention needs to be paid to the very real psychological burden imposed on us and our family members by the perpetual lockdown. Just the other day, a guy was killed in a fight over scarce phone time. Remember, we are only allowed out of our cells for two hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to use the phone, check and send email and shower, but there are only six phones for the 32 people let out at a time. So, quite naturally, when the doors are popped, we all race to the phones. Well, two guys made it to the phone at the same time, an argument ensued and one of them died…over a phone! I know this seems stupid, and it is, but when people are desperate to talk to their loved ones, these are the types of tragedies that occur. The response by the prison is to double down on punishment instead of looking at the conditions that create this level of desperation.

“While some prison authorities have retained visits by adapting conditions, others have resorted to banning visitors, effectively depriving detainees from their lifeline to the outside world and undermining their emotional and physical wellbeing.” Netsanet Belay

There is no programming. Nobody is getting their GEDs. Nobody is learning any trades, nothing. I understand that some restrictions are necessary due to COVID. But relieving our isolation is necessary, and manageable. After all, they already do it Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two hours. Why not every day? The yard is certainly big enough to allow social distancing. And if if they can let 32 people out in the unit, then surely they can run programs with the proper precautions.

Why don’t they? I’ll say again what we all are saying inside: It’s not about COVID. It’s just another way for them to make their jobs easier. That’s how little our lives matter.

In its new report, Forgotten Behind Bars: COVID-19 and Prisons, Amnesty International “calls on states to ensure COVID-19-related isolation or quarantine measures in places of detention do not result in de facto solitary confinement and are legal, proportional, strictly necessary, time-bound and subject to review by a competent medical professional. They should only be imposed if no alternative protective measure can be taken by authorities to prevent or respond to the spread of infection in prisons. During such isolation or quarantine measures, authorities need to ensure adequate measures are in place to reduce the detrimental effects of isolation, lack of activity and human contact, including adequate daily access to fresh air, physical activity, additional phone time, video calls and other opportunities for entertainment and contact with family and friends.”

*Despite the official BOP policy that only 14 days are required for quarantine, reports have been received from numerous prisons and jails that 21 days are being required.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at