ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The United States stands out for its use of extended solitary confinement in prisons. There has been some reform recently, but now prisons across the country are increasing the use of solitary and lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And prison reformers are worried. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Some states and the federal government had started making changes. In some prisons, children can no longer be held in solitary confinement or pregnant women or people with significant mental illness. Jessica Sandoval, from a coalition of groups fighting against solitary, says that progress is now in danger.
JESSICA SANDOVAL: We're starting to see an alarming trend surfacing in light of COVID-19.
J SHAPIRO: That trend is outlined in a new report by her group Unlock the Box. It says there were already 60,000 prisoners in solitary. Now in response to the pandemic, another 300,000 state and federal prisoners have been confined to their cells. in solitary confinement or in lockdown. Lockdown varies from prison to prison. Sandoval says in most cases, prisoners can't leave their cells for meals or exercise or to go to prison jobs. They can't get visits from family. There might be limits on mail and phone calls. Sandoval worries that because it's hard to know what goes on inside prisons, some of those restrictions will stick.
SANDOVAL: We believe that this is the start of a trend to continue to institutionalize the practice of solitary confinement.
J SHAPIRO: The Federal Bureau of Prisons, in April, started restricting the movement of prisoners in response to the virus. Then, in the first week of June, all prisoners were put on a rare nationwide lockdown, this time because of fears of how prisoners might respond to the national protests over police abuse and the killing of George Floyd. That lockdown has been lifted, although some restrictions are still in place for COVID-19. The Bureau of Prisons says it hopes that, quote, "inmates will be restored to limited movement in the very near future." The coronavirus can spread quickly in prisons, just like in nursing homes or other places where people live close together.
JUDITH RESNIK: How do you respond to this?
J SHAPIRO: That's Yale Law School professor Judith Resnik.
RESNIK: You try to de-densify, a word that's new to all of us.
J SHAPIRO: De-densify, it means you release as many prisoners as possible - those at the end of their sentence or who are elderly, ones who are not dangerous or can go on home detention. The fewer people in a prison, the easier it is to space out the people who remain and prevent prisoners and prison staff from getting sick. There has been consensus from advocates, from prison officials, from Attorney General Bill Barr on that as the best public health response. Still, only handfuls of federal prisoners from place to place have been released.
Dr. Brie Williams, a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, says a medical quarantine inside prison makes sense, testing and isolating prisoners temporarily. Williams runs a program called AMEND, which works with prisons on solutions to health problems.
BRIE WILLIAMS: There is really a long legacy of many prisons - not all - turning to solitary confinement, turning to lockdown in the face of other public health problems.
J SHAPIRO: To deal with suicidal prisoners or those with serious mental illness - Williams says that's a mistake.
WILLIAMS: So there's always a concern that once the system is sort of used to one mode of controlling people that that will continue.
J SHAPIRO: And, Williams says, it's wrong to keep prisoners in lockdown to stop the coronavirus.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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