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How Quarantine Made Me Realize the True Impacts of Solitary Confinement in Prisons

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Human connection—a joke between friends that has them roaring with laughter, a parent kissing their child goodnight, a simple exchange of words between a shopper and cashier at QFC. To us, these moments seem mundane. We take them for granted. We think of these small pieces of joy as an intrinsic part of our lives.

Those small pieces of joy turned rare and fleeting during COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic last year, social isolation quickly became the new normal.

When my school reopened in May of 2021, I had a choice to stay online or attend school in person. I chose the second option, not thinking much of it. But on my first day back, I was confronted with an uncomfortable awkwardness. I didn't know this environment anymore. I had forgotten what school was like. I couldn't fathom being around the same people for more than an hour.

For the first week, conversations were stilted and became a source of regular anxiety instead of comfort. Eating lunch was a constant fear—would there be anyone to sit with? What would we talk about? What if everyone thought I was boring?

These doubts fostered a disconnect between me and my friends during the first few weeks back. But then, our regular routine kicked in; we navigated the new, masked form of communication together and mastered the art of repeating ourselves behind cloth masks. It became progressively less and less awkward, and by the start of the 2021-22 school year, we had gone back to our normal.

Sometime last month, I was reading up on the U.S. criminal justice system for a class project, and solitary confinement popped up. The more I read about it in-depth, the more I grew increasingly upset.

I read about how suicide rates spiked for incarcerated people in solitary. I read about how some of those people developed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a result of their time in solitary confinement. I about people who'd spent decades of their life devoid of any contact with the outside world.

Even after the project was over, I couldn't stop thinking about the punishment itself. I thought about my own experience with quarantine.

But my friends and I dealt with a much simpler and less cruel sort of confinement; we were surrounded by family members every day; we had access to technology and warm showers and our favorite food and music.

For incarcerated people in solitary confinement, their 6 by 8 feet, dehumanizing cells hold no comfort.

I still don't understand how newly freed incarcerated people are expected to reintegrate into society like it's nothing. Given the problems my friends and I encountered during our first week back at school, it is impossible to even imagine the lives of those no longer incarcerated and how readjustment is simply expected of them.

For people in solitary confinement, basic human connection is a luxury. Take Pamela Winn, a previously incarcerated nurse. Winn has had extreme difficulty reconnecting with her family after being released from prison.

When asked to hold her 9-month-old granddaughter, she tearfully said she could only “sit there quietly, and [didn’t] know what to say. What to do. [Her] socializing skills were just not there anymore.” Even though Winn’s eight-month period of confinement was over a decade ago, she admits she still feels “safest when I'm by myself.” The long-term impact of solitary confinement on prisoners is a mix of deteriorated social skills, decreased feeling of comfort, and disconnect from society.

Even given these negative impacts, in 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, over 300,000 incarcerated people were in solitary confinement. Before the pandemic, the estimated number of people in solitary confinement in the U.S. was between 50,000 to 80,000. “Jails and prisons, like many organizations, acted in 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 simply put them in solitary.” This type of mindset may have prevented the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, but it fostered another pandemic in the U.S: a lack of empathy for victims of our justice system. The CDC itself states that medical isolation— the separation of people with a contagious disease from the rest of the population—should not hinge on solitary confinement.

There is no human connection in this business. People in solitary are thought of as statistics by the outside world, not as humans. "They deserve to be there. They're criminals," does not suffice as a reasonable explanation. Rather than focusing on punishing people, we should be focusing on rehabilitation, decreasing recidivism rates, and helping people rediscover their place in their community.

Before quarantine, my stance on solitary confinement was partly based on what I'd seen from Orange is the New Black and partly based on midnight Googling. I didn't support solitary, I thought it was inhumane, and I couldn't justify it continuing to happen.

After quarantine, I couldn't come to terms with the fact that this practice was still in use. I couldn't come to terms with the fact that solitary confinement still had support from 1 in 6 U.S. citizens. I couldn't come to terms with the fact that we were sentencing people to carry the trauma of their confinement for the rest of their lives.

Written by: Neha Kedarnath Dubhashi


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