The Feds’ answer to everything: Lockdown

Isolation is becoming standard operating procedure in federal prisons

I paced the floor this morning, thinking. (I’m alone in my cell 24 hours a day, so have only my thoughts to occupy me — so much so that I’ve grown tired of thinking.) Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed rays of sun beaming through my window. Instinctively, I rushed over and jammed my face into the small sliver of space between the metal bars that divide my window. I haven’t been outside since March, besides getting on and off a bus in transit here. It felt so good! It was like I intuitively understood that I had better get me some sun NOW, because it would be a while before I am able to go outside and soak in the sun’s rays.

Sadly, this is the state of the feds (Bureau of Prisons) during COVID-19. We are now almost a year into this pandemic and its only way of dealing with it seems to be “lockdown.” There’s no outside rec. No work (besides “essential” jobs like food servers and shower cleaners). No programming. No school. No religious services. No mental health services, even for inmates who are supposed to see a psychiatric specialist weekly. No visits, including lawyers. No nothing. We are fed in our cells. We work out in our cells. For the most part, we bathe in our cells. We watch TV from our cells. Twenty-four hours a day, we’re left in our cells to stew, suffer, wither away! Our world is our cells.

If we complain too loudly, they put us in the hole: even tinier spaces with even more restricted privileges. The only reprieve we get from the mundane torture of our cells is a one-hour slot we get Monday, Wednesday and Friday, when we all have to take showers, charge our MP3 players and (when there is time or we get to the front of the line) use the prison email system or phone. That means choosing who will get that one, 15-minute call. It’s difficult to maintain connections with anything close to a network of family and friends.

We’re even limited in how much paper, envelopes and stamps we can get (five envelopes, five sheets of paper and 10 stamps per week), what we can write with (pencil) and when mail goes out. We can’t receive cards or color photos. (All mail is copied, and we receive the copies.) My friend Ronald is serving a life sentence and just became a grandfather. But he will never be able to see his grandbaby in color as an infant. How sad. But this is the feds.

A fight breaks out between two groups…lockdown. Salmonella outbreak? A lockdown will contain it. Stabbing? A lockdown will stop others from retaliating. The hole is full? Lockdown, because there’s nowhere to put the inmates if/when something happens. Lockdowns haven’t solved one of these problems, but it’s always the answer.

Lockdown as the norm

Several years ago, I told my cellie that the federal system was heading toward total lockdown. In a few years, I told him, we’d be in the blocks all day, that the only time we’d be allowed to move around is when we went to classes, work, religious service or our one-hour of rec. He thought I was crazy. But now, it’s happening. Before COVID-19, all of the penitentiary yards were already split in two (meaning we only went to outside yard with people in our unit, and to school, chow and religious services with people on our side of the prison). You’d never see people who didn’t live on your side. For the most part, the institutions already were locked down for over half the year for one excuse or another. For instance, if the SHU (special housing unit, or hole) was full, they’d keep us in our block until a bus of inmates left. Now, COVID-19 has shown the administration that it’s possible to this 24/7. Test run complete.

The new report from Unlock the Box, “Solitary Confinement is Never the Answer,” documents this trend: Before the coronavirus hit, according to the report, there were 60,000 people in solitary confinement across America. Now, in response to the pandemic, 300,000 state and federal prisoners have been confined to their cells. They’ve been placed in solitary confinement or in lockdown.

Jessica Sandoval of Unlock the Box, said in June that she was worried that because it’s hard to know what goes on inside prisons, some of these restrictions will stick. “We believe that this is the start of a trend to continue to institutionalize the practice of solitary confinement,” she said.

Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, a nonprofit that helps incarcerated people and their families, agrees: “[Prisons systems] are primarily using the COVID pandemic to be punitive in any way possible.”

Is it really the pandemic that has necessitated the relentless lockdown, or is COVID-19 just cover for the feds to double down on practices that disrupt family ties and break spirits in the name of “order and staff security”? I say the latter. Why haven’t the feds figured out how to keep the lines of communication open between incarcerated men and women and their loved ones? Why haven’t they figured out a way to give us a little time outside and continue the programming that feeds our minds and souls? They don’t want to and they don’t care. To them, security rules the day. To them, lockdown is the answer for all problems, both real and anticipated.

Brie Williams is a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, who runs a program called AMEND, which works with prisons on solutions to public health problems. She points to a history of prisons using solitary confinement to deal with other health issues such as mental illness: “There is a long legacy of many prisons — not all — but many prisons turning to solitary confinement, turning to lockdown to manage what are really public health problems.”

We need standards and oversight

How do you rehabilitate a person under these conditions? How do you foster/facilitate positive family ties that are essential to successful re-entry for returning citizens? You can’t. Let’s start a campaign to open the feds back up. Because the BOP operates with impunity, this goes on unseen, unheard and unchallenged.

The Brennan Center for Justice is calling on President-elect Biden to back improved oversight of Bureau of Prisons facilities. It says, “Congress should create an independent oversight body with the broad capacity to monitor and inspect Board of Prisons facilities. This oversight body should have unfettered and confidential access to incarcerated people, staff, and documents and should not be required to give notice before inspection. Findings should be publicly reported.”

In his own “vision statement” for America’s justice system, Biden says he’ll call for “an overhaul of inhumane prison practices. I’ll start by ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions such as protecting the life of an imprisoned person. And I’ll require states to fix environmental health problems in prisons, such as a lack of clean water and clean air.” Biden also supports the passage of legislation “cracking down on the practice of private companies charging incarcerated individuals and their families outrageously high fees to make calls.” Great! But he needs to go further than that, putting in place an empowered oversight mechanism so the feds know that eyes are upon them.

You are our hope

Write to your representative and senator to ask them to make this a priority. In D.C., you can also contact the Corrections Information Council, charged with inspecting, monitoring and reporting on the conditions of confinement at facilities where District residents are incarcerated.

You are the hope for the nearly 5,000 District residents like me who live for decades on end in the bowels of the BOP, seemingly without accountability — out of sight, out of mind. At times, I have felt like this fight, my fight, was rudderless. But now it feels rooted. feel the stirrings of optimism that change can come. Why? It’s your support — the notes I’ve gotten in prison, the comments on this blog — that compels me forward. I know our fight is righteous and it makes it easier to face my hardships. Thank you.

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

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