Solitary confinement peaked in the pandemic, alarming prisoner advocates: Shots

Pamela Winn, a licensed nurse by training, was pregnant when she was incarcerated in 2008. After a miscarriage, she was placed in solitary confinement for what she believed was medical observation. Those eight months in solitude have scarred her for life, she says.

Katja Ridderbusch / KHN


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Katja Ridderbusch / KHN

Pamela Winn, a licensed nurse by training, was pregnant when she was incarcerated in 2008. After a miscarriage, she was placed in solitary confinement for what she believed was medical observation. Those eight months in solitude have scarred her for life, she says.

Katja Ridderbusch / KHN

Sometimes Pamela Winn doesn’t quite know how to connect with people, even those she loves, like her 9 month old granddaughter. When the baby is in her arms, “I sit there silently and I don’t know what to say. What should I do?” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “My social skills just aren’t there anymore.”

On days like these, Winn, who lives south of Atlanta, is haunted by the memory of her six-by-two-foot prison cell, where she spent eight months in solitary confinement more than 10 years ago. She said she now “feels safest when I’m alone.”

This story was produced by Georgia Health News and KHN.

It’s a common paradox of solitary confinement, said Craig Haney, a professor of social psychology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Rather than longing for the company of others after being released from social isolation, many former inmates want just the opposite.

“Lonely forces prisoners to live in a world without people,” he said. “And they adapt to it.”

Research has long shown that solitary confinement – isolating prisoners for weeks, months, years and sometimes decades – has devastating effects on their physical and mental health. Once released, either to the general prison population or to the outside world, they can face a range of problems, such as heart damage and depression. They are often hypersensitive to light, sound, smell or touch.

Like Winn, they can have trouble reading social cues. People, Haney said, “become a source of fear rather than support.”

And the coronavirus pandemic may have exacerbated the situation.

Before the pandemic, the estimated number of people in solitary confinement in the US ranged from 50,000 to 80,000 on any given day, although many advocacy groups believe the number is underestimated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention argue that medical isolation — the separation of people with an infectious disease from the rest of the population — should not depend on solitary confinement. But at the height of the pandemic last year, Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project estimates that up to 300,000 inmates were in solitary confinement, nonprofit organizations that focus on criminal justice.

“Prisons and jails, like many organizations, acted out of fear,” said Tammie Gregg, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “They thought the way to keep people from infecting each other was to just put them in an isolation cell.”

Solitary confinement can serve many purposes, from punishment to protection. And it’s called many things – protective custody, restrictive or safe housing, administrative or disciplinary segregation, or simply “the hole.”

“The circumstances are essentially the same: It’s the extreme deprivation of any meaningful social contact,” Haney said.

In the Mandela Rules, named after South African leader Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years, the United Nations associates solitary confinement for longer than 15 consecutive days with a form of torture. More than half of all US states have enacted or passed some form of legislation that restricts or regulates the use of solitary confinement, such as restricting the practice for minors. But it is still widely used in US prisons and prisons. And in most states, prisoners can still spend more than 15 days in solitary confinement.

Detainees in the solitary cell usually live in a small cell for up to 23 hours a day. They have little sensory stimulation, such as sunlight. Access to reading materials, educational programs and personal property is limited or non-existent. Inmates can get an hour in a recreational yard, an equally isolated area usually enclosed or surrounded by concrete walls, with a secured high window that opens for fresh air.

An analysis by researchers from the University of Colorado and Human Rights Watch suggests that more than half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement. A study conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that the self-injury rate among those in loneliness is ten times that of the general prison population.

The isolation can be particularly destabilizing for those with pre-existing mental illnesses, often exacerbating underlying problems that put people behind bars in the first place. “It’s a downward spiral,” Haney said.

A Florida State University study published earlier this year found that inmates with mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia, were up to 170% more likely to be placed in solitary confinement for long periods of time. In many prisons, experts are concerned that mental health services do not exist, which makes matters worse.

But even in people without a history of mental health problems, it can be impossible to predict who is susceptible to the harmful effects of solitary confinement, including suicide.

Pamela Winn, a registered nurse by training, was incarcerated in 2008 and later sentenced to 6½ years federal prison for health care fraud. As the now 53-year-old African-American woman with red-colored curls sits in her ranch house, her thoughts return to what she believes was the darkest time of her life.

When she entered a federal shelter south of Atlanta, she said she was a healthy woman. She was also six weeks pregnant. One day she fell while trying to get into a van while chained. Three months later, she miscarried and was placed in solitary confinement for medical observation.

After a few months, she was transferred to a municipal prison, where she was again placed in solitary confinement, this time for protection. For a total of eight months she lived in two institutions in small cells, with iron beds, thin foam mattresses and metal sinks with toilets attached.

‘No window. No mirror. No clock. No idea of ​​time,’ she said. She was allowed to leave her cell for an hour a day. She could shower three times a week if staff were available.

At first, she played back the traumatic memory of the night she lost her baby. She eventually joined in when other inmates screamed in their cells.

“I acted out. I threw stuff against the wall. I was angry,” she said. Before going to sleep, she prayed to God to take her. “But I kept waking up.”

In Haney’s experience, prisoners who develop a strategy to resist the excruciating loop of inaction have a higher chance of survival. Some individuals force themselves to maintain a routine, to pretend there is a consistency in their lives, “even though there isn’t one,” he said.

Winn said she had developed a strategy: she would start the day by praying. She would imagine what her two teenage sons were doing. She did sit-ups and mental exercises, such as remembering street names. After being lonely, she served most of her sentence in a federal prison in Florida and was released in 2013.

Her time in solitude has scarred her for life, she said. To this day she has high blood pressure. Paranoia is a constant companion; her house is surrounded by a solid wood fence with a security gate and she has two Rottweilers. Small spaces make her anxious and she can’t tolerate strangers getting too close, like in a coffee shop queue.

As she struggles to connect with her granddaughter, Winn keeps a journal, hoping that one day, when her granddaughter is old enough, she will understand.

“She can read it and learn everything that’s in my heart and in my mind…if I’m still here, if I’m not, wherever I am.”

Both Haney and Gregg said prisons and jails have alternatives to prolonged, extreme isolation. Mentally ill inmates who commit disciplinary violations should be placed in a treatment-oriented unit, Haney said.

For someone who acts violently, solitary confinement should only be a short-term solution to acutely de-escalate the outbreak, Gregg said. After that, those individuals should go to units that provide programming to address the root cause of their behavior. This can mean separation from the general prison population, but less time in total isolation.

A similar model could also apply to inmates who are in solitary confinement for their own safety, such as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is serving a 22½ year sentence for the murder of George Floyd. They can be placed in smaller units with individuals who have undergone a thorough risk assessment and with access to education and training, Haney said.

Prisoner advocates hope solitary confinement in the US will eventually become a thing of the past. In April, New York became the first state to codify the UN’s Mandela rules banning solitary confinement after 15 consecutive days, when the Halt Solitaire Confinement Act was signed. The legislation will come into effect in April next year.

After Winn’s release from prison, she founded RestoreHER, a non-profit organization that advocates ending the mass incarceration of women of color, especially pregnant people. She also helped enact laws in Georgia and North Carolina banning the chaining of pregnant women.

“What I’m doing now gives me some redemption,” she said.

This story was created by Health News in Georgia and KHN (Kaiser Health News). KHN is a national editorial team and an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation).

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