COVID-19 and Solitary Confinement: A Comparison

Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith

Boredom. Limited opportunities to exercise. Scarcity at the grocery store. Restaurants are “take out” only. Libraries are closed. Travel is almost non-existent. The internet seems to creep at a snail’s pace making movie streaming and even email annoyingly slow.

The temporary state of affairs for everyone living in countries battling the COVID-19 pandemic are routine for people serving sentences in solitary confinement.

Solitary Confinement is, well, solitary. (1)

Those women and men sentenced to jail and or prison and who violate institutional rules will find themselves thrown “way down in the hole” known to us as “solitary confinement.” People incarcerated in solitary confinement have limited access to everything that we are experiencing with COVID-19 restrictions and more. Cells in the solitary confinement units where we conducted research were 10X10, outfitted with a steel bed with a thin mattress, a steel toilet/sink combination and a steel desk. Meals are served through a “wicket” or basket on the cell door that allows corrections officers and inmates to pass items back and forth without any physical contact. Books were limited to one per week. For inmates in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons, there was no access to a TV or email.

Even for inmates in protective custody and housed in solitary confinement, who did have access to email, their emails were read and written on tablets that were not connected directly to the internet. In other words, they could compose an email that was then scanned by an officer before being sent. Emails coming in were handled the same way. In most prisons, like the one where we conducted research, showers were limited to three times a week and “yard” was supposed to be offered every day but rarely was. And, even when inmates did go to “yard” they were confined in single dog kennel runs that prohibited any human contact other than shouting.

Solitary confinement is about more than physical restrictions, it is about eliminated to the highest degree possible, any human interaction. In supermax prisons like the one in Florence, Colorado where the Unibomber and the 911 attackers are housed, even meals and books are delivered by robots and remote controls. Inmates live for years with absolutely no human contact.

COVID-19 restrictions on movement are similar in many ways to being in solitary confinement. The terminology alone elicits this comparison:
Home isolation
Shelter in place
Social distancing

One key element that has surfaced in the month that the US has been actively fighting the virus is loneliness. An inmate at the SuperMax prison in Florence, Colorado put it thus:

“Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.”

Jesse Wilson, held in solitary confinement at United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado

We encourage the reader who is bored or thinking about violating the stay at home and social distancing orders to consider the plight of the person confined in solitary. While it’s true that some people serving time in solitary confinement are the worst of the worst, many are not. Many people in solitary confinement are there because their mental illness makes it difficult for them to cope in general population or because they are poor and they violate rules in order to get some money for their commissary so that they can buy fresh water and extra food. The United Nations has argued that solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days is a violation of basic human rights and should be prohibited. (2)

What do you think after 2 weeks of shelter in place?


(1) Angela Hattery and Earl Smith, forthcoming, Way Down in the Hole: Race, Intimacy and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies in Solitary Confinement.

(2) United Nations Special Report. 2016. Seeing into Solitary: A Review of the Laws and Policies of Certain Nations Regarding Solitary Confinement of Detainees. p.10

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