By Jill McCorkel
The first phase of vaccine distribution is now under way in three Pennsylvania prisons. This is good news. The state correctional institutions at Laurel Highlands, Waymart, and Muncy are federally designated “long-term care facilities” that house large numbers of elderly and medically vulnerable men and women. Mass vaccinations of those who live and work in correctional facilities will go a long way toward beating back a virus that has rampaged prisons and jails across the Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, the vaccine is no match for the other crisis brewing in correctional facilities. This month marks the one-year anniversary of statewide lockdown policies that proved disastrous for the mental health and well-being of incarcerated people.
Euphemistically dubbed “shelter in place” by the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and “inmate quarantine” by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, lockdown policies mean that thousands of incarcerated people have been isolated and confined to their cells, often for months on end, without access to outdoor recreation, rehabilitative programing, or visitation.
Letters I received from women incarcerated at SCI Cambridge Springs report lockdown measures so stringent that prisoners were barred from cleaning and disinfecting shared restroom facilities—measures necessary to reduce the likelihood of virus transmission.
Although the severity of lockdown measures has varied over the course of the pandemic, the mental health crisis grows increasingly dire.
A recent survey by the Pennsylvania Prison Society reports that nearly two thirds of persons currently serving time in prison are getting less than an hour a day out of their cells. Many report receiving less than 30 minutes — leaving them precious few moments to take a shower, research relevant legal materials, or call home to check on children.
While there is a lively scientific debate regarding the effectiveness of lockdown policies for combatting virus transmission, there is no analogous dispute about the impact on mental health.
After four decades of research examining the relationship among isolation, harsh conditions of confinement, and mental health, the research community is in agreement. Restrictive lockdown policies not only worsen symptoms among persons already suffering from mental illness; they also trigger mental health conditions in otherwise healthy individuals.
Professor Craig Haney, a leading expert on solitary confinement, has characterized prolonged social and physical isolation as a form of psychological torture. Even short periods of isolation can trigger depression, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, disorientation, and suicide. For those suffering from mental illness, the effects also include emotional disorders, cognitive decline, hallucinations, self-harm, and psychosis.
Making matters worse, traditional stop gap measures like outdoor reaction, counselling services, and visitation—activities that can ease the psychological trauma of lockdown—have been all but non-existent in most facilities. For example, women incarcerated in Philadelphia prisons report that programming of all kinds has been halted for most of the last year.
Mental health counselors, when available, see patients in a large multipurpose room that is within earshot of housing units. Many are hesitant to seek treatment due to privacy concerns.
Efforts to provide electronic alternatives to in-person visitation have also largely fallen short. Martha Williams has not seen her son, Damir, in over 18 months. She has tried, unsuccessfully, to make use of video visitation for SCI Albion. The audio-visual cuts out or the calls end prematurely. Her experience is shared by others who report similar problems with virtual visitation at DOC facilities.
Stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons and jails and alleviating mental health crises are not mutually exclusive projects.
The most immediate and cost-effective solution to both is decarceration. We must do more to reduce the number of people going into the system and expand the number of people who are eligible to come out.
Achieving this on the front-end means ending cash bail for all but the most serious of crimes and expanding community-based alternatives to prison. On the back end, it means broadening eligibility for the elderly and the sick to qualify for compassionate release and increased use of commutation to give deserving applicants a second chance.
A strategy of decarceration, combined with mass vaccinations of staff and incarcerated people, will facilitate the safe return of therapeutic and mental health programming, outdoor recreation, and opportunities for in-person visitation.
Taken together, these solutions allow for the emergence of a “new normal” in prisons and jails—improved conditions on the inside to ensure public health and safety on the outside.
Jill McCorkel is a professor of Sociology and Criminology at Villanova University and the founding director of the Philadelphia Justice Project for Women and Girls. She has given expert testimony at hearings on COVID-19 and prisons for the National Council on Criminal Justice and before Philadelphia City Council.