Mental health effects of COVID lockdown in prison: Interview from inside SCI Albion
This telephone interview with Demitrius Grant, imprisoned at SCI Albion near Erie, Pa., was conducted by Joe Piette for Workers World newspaper on Feb. 16.
Demetrius Grant: We’re going to be covering the issue of COVID-19 today, as to how it impacts prisoners’ mental health. About a week ago, a sergeant told me a prisoner killed himself, and another one tried to kill himself. He said that was the thirteenth episode in the last month. How many more of these incidents are going on — not only in this institution, but in other institutions — because they’re not giving prisoners proper mental health care and treatment?
Workers World: I was doing research earlier this morning, and the latest statistics I could find is 2019. There were 23 suicides in Pennsylvania that year, and that was the most ever. That’s a number that had been increasing in Pennsylvania, before COVID. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 20)
Prison officials hide suicides
DJ: I did research too and found the same thing about suicides rising dramatically across the country. The Department of Corrections (DOC) is refusing to give the numbers of who committed suicide. I found a case called Bowling vs. Office of Open Records out of Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, Appellate Jurisdiction. (findlaw.com, Feb. 5)
It says under the right-to-know law that it is remedial legislation designed to promote access to governmental information, in order to prohibit secrets about public officials’ actions and to make them accountable for them. Exceptions from their actions must be narrowly construed. What it’s basically saying is that under this act’s terms, the DOC can’t refuse to disclose this information if it’s requested. (tinyurl.com/y7xb5uej)
WW: The article I read said prison administrators hide the suicides, calling them accidents, or they give excuses other than suicide because they don’t want to open up criticism of the way they run their prisons. (shadowproof.com, Nov. 16, 2020)
DJ: I found out that as a private citizen, you can go to the Attorney General’s office. It oversees administrative agencies like the state DOC, and there you can request an investigation under these terms. The DOC needs to be scrutinized more closely about their falsified information, when it should reveal to the public what’s really going on. The state Inspector General has an obligation under the Pennsylvania Constitution to conduct an investigation.
WW: Can you describe what is going on during the pandemic lockdown that is pushing people to kill themselves?
DJ: You have no sense of when this is going to end. We’ve been under this situation since March 2020, so every time you make inquiries about when it is going to end, the answer is that it looks like this is going to happen for the foreseeable future. Guys who have preexisting mental health problems are being locked in their cells and only coming out for 45 minutes every other day. I’ve only been out to the yard once since November. I was only just able to go to the law library for the first time since last year.
People feel an utter sense of hopelessness for being locked down in this unbearable situation, in these small cells with another human being they don’t even get along with. And their movements are limited. They can’t contact their families. They can’t fight their legal cases. They can’t keep up with themselves physically. It has a profound influence on your psyche. I wake up during the night having panic attacks, which I also have during the day, because I feel like I’ll never get out of this cell.
It comes to the point when a person loses hope and feels their situation is never going to get better. They feel they can’t cope with it for long periods of time without DOC intervention to correct it. But it seems to the DOC that the institution is fine and dandy with the way things are going. They have absolute control over people.
Cruelty of ban on in-person visits
WW: And there are no in-person visits from their loved ones?
DJ: Captain Skinner told us about a month ago, in-person visits are never coming back. He claimed the introduction of drugs coming into the institution dropped by 20%, so that’s their justification for not allowing people to physically touch their kids, their mothers, their kin.
Those decisions have a dramatic effect on people. DOC experts know this, but they are turning a blind eye to this, because it’s part of their long-term program. They’re not looking at the danger they’re causing to the prisoners, whom they have a duty to care for and protect.
WW: The thing is that the end of in-person visits only dropped drugs by 20%. That means 80% of the drugs are still coming in, and they must come from the guards.
DJ: They know this, but just as they hide the numbers about the suicide rate, they know about the drugs too. They know the numbers, but it’s not in their plans.
I have an article about when they put together their plans in 2018. It’s about the guards being exposed to these drugs, resulting in the switching of the mail, so now it comes through Florida. All the people who claimed they were exposed to this, when the DOC refused to say what the hospital reports revealed, didn’t match what the guards were saying. So once again they keep using these fake incidents to justify what they’re doing, which is having a profound effect on the health, welfare and safety of the prison population.
WW: It’s not just Pennsylvania. It’s going on in Texas, California and other states. The suicide rates are increasing. I can’t find any state that has released these statistics from 2020 during the pandemic.
Lawsuit protests horrific conditions
DJ: No doubt. If you’re like any human being and put in a cage constantly, and if you don’t have any family or friends to lean on, and you’re confined in isolation, you’re in a dire situation. You can’t get more isolated than that. I found a case started by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania against the state’s DOC Secretary John Wetzel about prisoners being held in horrific conditions due to an unconstitutional process that takes no account of mental illness, but in fact exacerbates it.
When prisoners are locked in extremely small cells for at least 23 hours-a-day including holidays, the lights are on in their cells all the time. They are denied adequate mental health care and are prohibited from working, participating in any rehabilitative programs or attending religious services.
The DOC’s mistreatment of every prisoner violates their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution. Prisoners have physical contact with only one other human being — their assigned cell mate — who may be psychotic or violent, which may be injurious to their mental health in solitary confinement.
The Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union said on March 11, 2013: “Prolonged isolation exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness. As a result, often prisoners with mental illness refuse to leave their cells for the limited recreation time or for medical treatment.
“Others experience sleeplessness, hallucinations and paranoia. Still others engage in head banging, injure themselves by cutting or attempted hanging and sometimes are successful in suicide attempts. Frequently, these symptoms are regarded as prison rule infractions, which prison officials punish with still more time in the Restricted Housing Units (RHU). (tinyurl.com/aw7zw5v6)
The result is a Dickinson nightmare in which prisoners with mental illness are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and punishment, which further worsens their mental health and deprives them of adequate treatment and the ability to qualify for parole.
This is the information contained in the settlement agreement compiled by Angus Love, the ACLU, the Prison Project, the Disability Rights Network, David Rudovsky and many other attorneys. The agreement with the DOC settled the lawsuit on Jan. 5, 2015. (tinyurl.com/2v96dh3m)
But they’re not holding to this agreement anymore. Mental health is considered a disability. So this is even more compelling, because mental health problems are being created that should be qualified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That’s the reason this lawsuit was filed, and it’s even more compelling today.
WW: So what they’re doing with the severe restrictions violates the ADA?
DJ: Yes. And they violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, because the restrictions are exacerbating problems — not only with dudes who have mental illnesses, but also creating problems for people who haven’t had them until now. Being locked up in those cells long-term is having a profound long-term effect on people, not only while in prison, but it will affect them making parole. Prisoners can be put in the RHU for rule infractions, when officials know they are suffering from mental health problems which will be long-term.
WW: What conditions are especially aggravating under COVID-19 restrictions?
DJ: The isolation. Perpetual isolation is deadly. People are locked up in cells with no interrelationships, not knowing when it will end. It just drives you crazy.
WW: And there’s no person-to-person contact with your relatives anymore?
DJ: None. You can’t hug your loved ones. Officials are now trying to limit contact to eight or nine cohorts, so you only come in contact with seven other guys you may not even know or like. But you can’t come into contact with your friends, who are on the block with you a couple of cells down. You’re not even allowed to stand at their cell doors to talk to them. It’s maddening!
WW: What about phone calls and video conference calls?
DJ: Don’t get me wrong. Talking on the phone with family or friends is OK okay, but there is nothing like human contact.
WW: When COVID-19 started, you were allowed free video conferencing and free phone calls. Is that not happening anymore?
DJ: No. They gave you free emails, and they brought video games to us, which we shared cell-to-cell for 24-hour use. They would give you free cable, special meals and snacks every now and then. They had games and puzzles on the TVs from the Activities Department. Maybe some people could make some money because they weren’t working anymore, but they stopped all that.
WW: They stopped all that, but COVID-19 has not stopped, and the restrictions are still going strong.
Specter of no–contact visits
DJ: Exactly. COVID-19 is still going even stronger! They are telling us to expect this lockdown to continue. Captain Skinner told us contact visits are not coming back. So if you’re spending the rest of your life in prison, and there’s the prospect that you can’t hug your mother or loved ones ever again, can you imagine how that plays on someone’s mind?
You’re trying to deal day-to-day, to better yourself and get into programs, but now you can’t get into any educational programs or attend any religious services. If you want to work on your legal case to give yourself some hope to get out of jail, that’s gone. You are in an endless cycle of hopelessness. If you could accumulate funds from working during incarceration at decent wages, you would have a nest egg when you get out, which would be a big help to start a new life. But they don’t give you that opportunity.
WW: People on the outside have to learn all this. We have to expose these conditions.
DJ: The conditions are horrible. People think there are COVID-19 restrictions on the outside, but it’s nothing like those in here. They have been getting away with this since last March. They started out slow, so we wouldn’t rebel. They tried to make it tolerable, but as time went on they just implemented some really Draconian stuff.
Build a campaign against lockdowns!
And the DOC knows this. They’re going to keep on doing it until the fire is lit under them to stop doing what they’re doing. It has to be a national campaign, not just in Pennsylvania. I wouldn’t be surprised if all these DOCs have gotten together and collaborated and come up with the approach to use COVID-19 as a means to keep these control lockdowns in place. This is despite their knowing how this situation affects people’s mental and physical health!
A lot of these prisoners are not going to be locked up in prison for the rest of their lives. They’re going to go home, but the psychological and physical damage of what they’ve had to endure is something society will have to deal with. It’s not just a jail issue, but it’s society’s problem. A guy or woman who is mentally and physically damaged can’t work. They will be a strain on the system, because they need medical and mental health care.
WW: Instead of having someone spend time behind bars, giving them skills and training and helping them to get better, they’re doing the opposite and harming the person.
DJ: When the person gets out, their chances of being successful are slim-to-none. Guys who were in bad shape before COVID-19 are worse now. The public says that’s just the jailhouse situation, and officials have to deal with it. But no — it will be a neighborhood problem.
One of my buddies left last week. He was snapping at the slightest reason. He wasn’t always like that, but by locking him in a cell and not letting him speak to anyone, with no one addressing his problems and concerns — means he’s been marginalized. They’re being radicalized in a different way, and then some come home and harm someone. Then what?
Empathetic treatment needed
WW: We don’t want that. We need compassionate treatment — not only on the inside, but afterwards when they return to society.
DJ: It’s just a matter of piecing it together. I have to play hardball with these mental health people, because they only understand if you go after their license, their livelihood. Otherwise, we’re just complaining, and they’re just saying things like they really don’t care.
I try to keep myself mentally and physically sound, because I’ve found myself teetering on the edge. They have guards nitpicking. I ask: Why are you nitpicking? We’re in a bad situation already. Why are you constantly trying to create a situation that doesn’t have to be there? What is your endgame?
It’s an abuse of power. When you abuse people needlessly, it causes a worse situation. I don’t want to be here, but I’m thankful that I have the spirit of my mother to stand up for what’s right. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to do that.
WW: Your voice can play an important role. What would you say to other incarcerated people who read this interview? What would your message be to them?
DJ: Together we can get things done. My message would be: Don’t give up hope, because if you give up hope that means you’ve given up on yourself. You have to find something outside of yourself to keep hopeful — to see a family member, to talk to a friend, to reach out. Instead of looking at the dire situation that I’m in, I try to look at other people’s problems, and I try to help them out. That way I’m helping myself. So they have to try to look beyond their own hopelessness and look at other people to get the strength to go on.
Unity and solidarity are key!
WW: So solidarity is the answer — and not just for people behind the bars, but in society in general?
DJ: Unity and solidarity! That’s what I preach to these younger guys. We must come together. We must stay strong regardless of our petty differences. Whatever the situation is, we’re all in the same circumstances. We suffer the same things. The only way we’re going to deal with this is if we stick together. Some people think this way. Some do not.
I choose to speak to the people who think that way. I show others by example what I do, and I encourage them. There are people on the street who want to help, but we have to help ourselves. We are fighting a battle, but it’s harder to battle alone. Either people will succumb to the situation, or together we’ll overcome it.
Even though I have my moments, I overcome the situation because I have a sense of purpose: That is to help others. I realize by helping others, I help myself.
One’s actions speak louder than anything one says.