COVID-19 and the Isolation of the Incarcerated

Blog | August 31, 2020


Written by Erin Bennett

As the COVID-19 public health emergency has enveloped the nation, public health and governmental leadership have emphasized the importance of social distancing and self-isolation as a means of stemming the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, many Americans have living circumstances that pose physical difficulties to following this guidance. Congregate living facilities for older adults, homeless shelters, and particularly prisons have spent the last 6 months struggling to protect residents from the virus while being mindful of the health costs of isolation. Prisons in the United States are often overcrowded and under-resourced, challenging the ability of prison administration to ensure social distancing in common areas, much less provide sufficient sanitation. As a result, many prisons have begun to limit much of the movement of people who have been incarcerated in their care, often leading to increased isolation. Compounding this problem is the fact that visitation by family and outside rehabilitation services have largely been suspended over the last few months.

In March, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety joined other states in announcing that family visitation would be suspended for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency [1]. Although legal and pastoral visits are not affected [2] by this rule in North Carolina, family visits play a large role in supporting the mental health of people who have been incarcerated, ensuring continued connection with outside community and smoothing future reintegration into society. Children of parents who are incarcerated also benefit from routine visits. In North Carolina, more than 20,000 children have at least one parent who is in prison and may already face challenges to in-person visits such as lack of transportation to and distance from the correctional facility where their parent is housed. These children also experience stress associated with seeing their parent behind plexiglass or within the confined spaces. The suspension of family visits at prisons means that even the very few opportunities children have to spend with their parent who is incarcerated may be eliminated. Although some may be able to transition to phone or video calls, limited resources may compromise this as a viable alternative option, as phone and computer usage at prisons may be costly and limited.

Limitations on visitations have also affected access to rehabilitation services such as educational and occupational programs. Educational programs in prisons have long been shown to decrease recidivism and generally improve psychological and physical well-being of persons who are incarcerated in addition to saving tax dollars [3]. Since the beginning of the pandemic, educational services—which are largely outsourced—have been forced to suspend their programs or have scrambled to find ways to continue without face-to-face instruction. Across the country, prison college programs have moved to packet-based learning systems or have instead opted for remote learning over email or videoconferencing. While packet systems have been a logistically easy accommodation, they do not comply with Pell Grant requirements—a relevant factor for persons who are incarcerated who are part of the Second-Chance Pell program. Second-Chance Pell has developed numerous experimental programs across the country to reduce financial barriers for prison populations to work toward college degrees. Remote learning setups also pose difficulties, as prisons may have existing rules that prohibit volunteer-inmate communication, limited internet and bandwidth, and may not have access to the technology necessary to participate in instruction. Moving forward into the fall, it is unclear whether many prison education programs will be able to continue to offer the critical services they provide to persons who are incarcerated.

Ultimately, the burden of the pandemic on those in prisons extends beyond the sheer threat of the virus. Restrictions on visitation and the ability of outside service providers to access persons in prisons may compound isolative effects as family connections and ability to complete rehabilitative educational programs are jeopardized.

1. Many advocates have responded to these limitations with calls for phone and video calls to be made free to ensure inmates can maintain contact with their families.
2. At least 16 states have suspended all visits, including those by lawyers and clergy.
3. In 2013, a team of researchers working for RAND Corporation found that every dollar invested in prison education programs produces an annual cost savings of $4-5 for the first three years after an individual who participates in such a program is released.