Two Years of COVID-19 Have Fueled a Crisis of Isolation in Prisons

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
May 19, 2022

Most incarcerated people in the United States were left behind bars in dangerous conditions during the pandemic, even though public health experts recommended safely releasing people as the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As the virus spread, visitation was suspended. A heartbreaking number of people did not see or hug their loved ones for nearly two years.

“I feel that my kids maybe even feel like I abandoned them because, you know, how am I going to explain to the 5- and 6-year-old that they can’t see me?“ said a person incarcerated at Avenal State Prison, in a story titled “Kids Suffering” that was told to PrisonPandemic. This digital archive is run by the University of California, Irvine and preserves and elevates the stories of people who have suffered incarceration during the pandemic.

“I, along with other inmates have lost relationships due to the extra strain of lack of visits, access to phone calls and how slow mail is processed,” said another PrisonPandemic contributor, in a story called “Hidden Victims.” “This is what COVID has done. Made our isolation even more extreme here in prison.”

The negative impact of extreme isolation and prolonged separation from family and loved ones is a thread that runs through the archive, says Kristin Turney, PrisonPandemic project leader and professor of sociology at University of California, Irvine. “It was a huge source of pain,” she said, adding that children of incarcerated people especially suffered. “There is an added layer of isolation that a lot of kids were experiencing in a time when they most needed their parents.”

As prisons and jails adjust to a world made safer by COVID-19 vaccines, they should not simply return to pre-pandemic programming and restore those few opportunities for family support and visitation that existed before the pandemic, according to Clinique Chapman, associate director for Vera and MILPA’s Restoring Promise initiative, which creates prison housing units grounded in dignity. Therapeutic opportunities are needed for people who have endured long-term isolation, which harms a person’s physical and mental health. “When someone is incarcerated, they not only lose their physical liberty but also the freedom to experience emotions on their own terms,” Chapman said. “The impact of being physically and emotionally caged while the world navigates a global pandemic will have unforeseen collateral consequences for years to come.”

Specific efforts must be made to reconnect incarcerated people with their families, with particular attention paid to children. Prisons should increase opportunities for people to visit their families and spend time with them. They should allow visits of several hours, especially for children, in welcoming family environments. Too many prison visits happen from behind a wall of glass or in sterile, frightening, and inhospitable surroundings.

Given the connection between poverty and incarceration, families of the incarcerated are often unable to afford transportation to visit their loved ones. A 2015 study of state prison visits found that the majority of people in prison are held 100 miles away from their homes. Numerous studies show that people who receive regular visits from their families are less likely to return to prison after release, making transportation assistance an investment in public safety.

Being separated from a parent due to incarceration profoundly harms a child’s psychological, developmental, and financial health, and a staggering 5 million children in the United States have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their lives. Prisons must create ways to repair and build ties between parents and children that were weakened during the pandemic. One important step is to allow children to have physical contact with their parents. Policies that force a child to see their parent only through a wall of glass or permit only a brief embrace at the beginning and end of each visit are inhumane. Positive interpersonal touch, like sitting on a parent’s lap, is associated with building closeness and has positive benefits for children.

Prisons should also expand access to phone calls and video visits, and the government should ensure that they are affordable. Last year, the FCC attempted to cap the amount that telecom companies can charge for prison phone calls, but companies have found ways to skirt the regulations and exorbitant rates are still a problem. State lawmakers are making strides toward fair phone policies, but a national solution is still needed so that telecommunications companies cannot gouge families of the incarcerated. Families should not have to go into debt to speak with their loved ones.

Family engagement provides a sense of hope for people who are incarcerated. Research also shows that consistent family visitation during a prison sentence makes a person less likely to return to prison after being released. For the well-being of incarcerated people, their families, and society, it is critical to provide space and support to restore these family connections. Helping families stay connected is an investment in public safety.