Jessica Sylvia had a lot to look forward to this year. A transgender incarcerated person and advocate at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state, she was excited about the sociology classes she was taking for her bachelor’s degree. Her mother was coming for a visit in the spring. And she’d finally gotten scheduled for an evaluation for gender-affirming surgery, something she’s wanted for 27 years.
Then COVID-19 happened, and everything was canceled.
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Now, Sylvia’s more afraid of the impact of prolonged isolation than of contracting coronavirus. “I’m feeling disconnected. I’m feeling higher levels of depression and anxiety,” she said. “And I don’t feel that there’s anyone to listen to me or understand my needs.”
LGBTQ people, especially those who are low-income and from communities of color, are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate. They’re also more vulnerable to sexual and physical violence, and mistreatment.
Sylvia said she regularly experiences transphobia: Her birth certificate was legally changed to reflect her female gender, yet she is housed at a male facility and said corrections officers call her by her birth name. It took her nearly 11 months to get permission to wear barrettes. She spends most of her time, COVID-19 or not, by herself. Department of Corrections communications director Janelle Guthrie did not respond to any of Sylvia’s direct claims, but did point to an updated policy on treatment of transgender prisoners.
Around the country, COVID-19 cases are rising in prisons and jails as incarcerated people continue to have little outside contact. “A worry that’s widespread among all sorts of organizations is that less access to the facility means less oversight and accountability,” said Biff Chaplow, director of the Portland-based organization Beyond These Walls.
The organization connects LGBTQ incarcerated people in Oregon and Washington with pen pals and facilitates programs like the Transgender Leadership Academy, believing “there’s a Marsha P. Johnson sitting in prison right now.” When they paused their programming at three facilities, Chaplow immediately pivoted to create a prepaid crisis line. The goal is to provide emotional support to incarcerated people in the Pacific Northwest no matter how they identify, and to advocate for them. Every two weeks Chaplow sends a report to a coalition of partner organizations, including ACLU of Oregon, working to keep incarcerated people safe.
Other COVID-19 crisis lines for incarcerated people exist, also limited to state or local areas, for instance in California and Texas. So in Portland, 19 trained community volunteers take turns answering one iPhone that gets passed around door-to-door in a Ziploc bag, complete with Lysol wipes. “A lot of prisoners are surprised that somebody is answering the phone because they’re used to contacting organizations and being totally ignored,” said Chaplow. Given the limitation of one phone, however, volunteers sometimes miss calls.
Chaplow first got the word out about the crisis line to incarcerated people in their network through snail mail. He expected a low interest and response rate, underestimating how much incarcerated people needed to talk. Opening the crisis line to all has uncovered widespread fear in response to how prisons and jails are addressing the pandemic.
Volunteers ask incarcerated people whether they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, what precautions their facility is taking, and if they need referrals. They can choose to remain anonymous, although most don’t. Asking “what’s your biggest concern?” has gotten people talking the most. Answers vary, but common themes have emerged: inability to physically distance, inconsistent mask wearing, and not being given information about the pandemic.
Out of 369 calls so far, some of which are from repeat callers, more than a quarter have been about not reporting COVID-19 symptoms out of fear of having to quarantine in solitary confinement. Solitary, or “the hole,” has a long legacy of being dehumanizing and causing psychological harm. It’s a familiar issue for Beyond These Walls. Often, solitary is used in the name of “safety” for LGBTQ incarcerated people who are subjected to violence and harassment by other prisoners. It’s also a way for staff to curtail sexual intimacy. A 2015 report by the prison abolitionist organization, Black and Pink, found that 85 percent of the 1,200 LGBTQ incarcerated people surveyed spent time in solitary — a stigmatizing practice for an already-stigmatized population at higher risk for mental health issues.
Carlee Roberts, a formerly incarcerated transgender activist and board member for Beyond These Walls, was sentenced as a teenager. Back then, she identified as a “loud, flamboyant queer” male and said solitary was a tactic to keep her in line.
“Not only was solitary used as a tool in the moment to punish me, but for a long time it worked my sense of self… that I was this horrible person who maybe should hide who they are as a person,” she said. “Even to this day, a lot of this stuff has stuck with me.”
Now, using solitary units to separate sick, incarcerated people during COVID-19 has become common practice, affecting more than LGBTQ incarcerated people. David Cloud, research director at Amend, a nonprofit that works to transform correctional culture, explained: “Part of the reason I think it’s used is the physical realities of having a vastly overcrowded, understaffed, overburdened, problematic prison system. These are corrections officials and public safety agencies performing the work of what should be a public health response.”
Amend created guidelines to help correctional facilities distinguish between solitary confinement, quarantine, and ethical medical isolation — the last of which includes sanitary conditions, access to amenities, contact with loved ones, and more. Cloud can’t say, however, how widely those suggestions have been implemented.
James Moffatt, a 56-year-old incarcerated man at Santiam Correctional Institution, said he was one of the first to test positive for COVID-19 in Oregon’s prison system at the end of March. It started with a violent cough, then a fever and chills that shook him like a “washing machine on spin cycle.” After transferring to the infirmary at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and spending nearly three weeks there, the rest of his quarantine was spent in solitary confinement at maximum security prison Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).
For Moffatt, who has underlying health conditions and experiences post-traumatic stress disorder, solitary was the worst part. His cell at OSP, he recalled, had fluorescent lights on most of the time and paint peeling off the walls. He slept on a concrete slab without a pillow. Drinking water came from a rusty faucet, and the smell of bleach made it hard to breathe. He had extremely limited access to media or the outside world — he wasn’t allowed to call family much, even though his mom is dying of lung cancer. Officers would yell at him to stop whining.
“Mentally, it was the most draining thing that I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “I kept saying to them, ‘I’m being punished for being sick.’ And they said, ‘Well, we realize you’re in DSU [disciplinary segregation unit], but you’re not being punished.’ And I said, ‘Well, if I’m being treated exactly the same as somebody that’s here on a disciplinary measure, then how is it not punishment?’”
Other incarcerated people said they underwent similar treatment. Oregon Department of Corrections communications manager Jennifer Black said they’re now “making every effort to provide activities to keep [incarcerated people] busy and basic comforts while keeping them safe.” The message that “medical quarantine is not punishment” is also displayed on Santiam’s television for all to see.
Moffatt, whose cough lingers, said he still has conversations with fellow incarcerated people who won’t report symptoms out of fear of going to the hole. He recently called the Beyond These Walls crisis line as a last-ditch effort to implement change and said sharing his story has been vital to his mental health. He was referred to the ACLU of Oregon but when faced with the choice of calling their legal numbers for nine cents per minute or buying toothpaste, his basic needs come first.
Criminal justice reform advocates agree that releasing incarcerated people is the most beneficial thing that can be done right now, although the challenge is balancing the urgency of the pandemic with a slow bureaucratic process.
While incarcerated people wait, the crisis line remains open.
“It’s a safety tool that’s saying to prison staff, ‘Hey, this is a way for folks to communicate with the outside world and let people know what’s going on,’” Roberts said. “Just because we’re not allowed inside doesn’t mean we’re not still watching.”