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The first Texas prisoner to die after testing positive for the coronavirus was incarcerated at the Telford Unit near Texarkana.

What Happens When More Than 300,000 Prisoners Are Locked Down?

The United States is about to find out as officials struggle to contain the coronavirus.

When prisoners at four federal penitentiaries began rioting in the fall of 1995, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons did something it said was unprecedented: It imposed a nationwide lockdown, shutting tens of thousands of incarcerated people in their cells and dorms.

Lockdowns over COVID-19 are much bigger—and likely to last much longer. The federal system effectively locked down its 122 institutions, holding more than 144,000 people, in a move announced March 31. A few days later, Massachusetts announced similar measures; prisons in California, Oklahoma, Vermont, Illinois and Texas all followed suit. By this week well over 300,000 prisoners were living in full or partial lockdown.

Experts say the widespread use of such restrictions is extraordinary, in scale and in length. No one knows how long hundreds of thousands of prisoners might be confined to their cells or bunks.

But what we do know, more than anyone probably did in 1995, is that lockdowns can levy a heavy toll on the mental and physical wellbeing of prisoners. And they may turn out to be risky for guards as well, by possibly leading to prison violence.

Solitary confinement can increase anxiety and disordered thinking, worsen mental health problems and heighten the risk of suicide. Studies show long-term social isolation comes with a higher chance of dying prematurely, in part because of the physical effects of stress.

“We’re being told in the free world that social distancing and sheltering in place is the appropriate response—so then it is probably the appropriate response in prison too,” said Craig Haney, a psychology professor from University of California, Santa Cruz who has studied the effects of isolation on incarcerated people. “The difference is that what it means in prison is so much more onerous.”

Alison Horn, an investigative supervisor with the nonprofit legal organization Civil Rights Corps, said she worried that fear of a solitary quarantine or a unit-wide lockdown could lead prisoners to hide how ill they are.

“If the response to having symptoms is punitive,” she said, “that discourages them from speaking up about it. You need people to be honest about their symptoms.”

Long lockdowns have led to violence, most recently in Mississippi, where the head of the corrections department said last year that extended lockdowns create “an unsafe environment for my staff.” Lockdowns to slow the virus’ spread in Italy led to fatal riots in several prisons last month.

But some say tight restrictions are the only way to keep prisoners safe. Jeff Ormsby, a prison union president in Texas, has been pushing for the most restrictive lockdown possible across all 104 prisons in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“It would make sure that inmates would have less exposure to each other and less exposure to staff,” he said. “We’re all going to have to make sacrifices to make sure this doesn’t just blow up in the prisons, and those sacrifices need to be made by TDCJ and by inmates.”

By Tuesday morning, the agency had locked down close to two dozen units with confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, closing down mess halls, recreation yards and day rooms in an effort to keep people apart. Officials say that the restrictions at each unit will last until it’s been two weeks since the last positive test.

Lockdowns aren’t the same everywhere. Some prison units contain one-person cells and others are large rooms packed with bunk beds. Sometimes lockdown means at least 23 hours a day alone in a cell, but other times it means long, idle days restricted to two- to four-person cubicles or on the bed in an open-bay dormitory.

When prisons shut down or limit access to common areas and dayrooms, prisoners can’t make phone calls or take daily showers. Typically, meals are no longer served in mess halls; in some facilities prisoners may be given peanut butter or baloney sandwiches for weeks. Every prison system stopped visitation last month, and many began pausing educational and vocational programs, although some prison factory and field work continues.

A federal prison spokesperson stressed that the bureau’s “enhanced modified operations” are not a lockdown, although several legal defense teams report that their clients at medium- and maximum-security facilities are locked in their cells at least 22 hours per day.

Whatever officials call it, experts note that some prisoners consider such restrictive measures more onerous than punitive solitary confinement. At least in solitary, food, medicine and mail get delivered. During lockdowns, prisoners can’t collect mail, medications or meals, and there’s often not enough staff to pick up the slack.

Without access to common areas and televisions, it can be hard for prisoners to find out what’s going on in the outside world, creating more anxiety. “They have no idea, unless somebody in the next cell is yelling out what they heard,” said Donna Hylton, an author and activist who served more than two decades in New York prisons.

Hylton suggested making the experience less hard on prisoners by restricting them to their cells but allowing them to keep the doors open.

Already, at least one facility—the juvenile detention center in Houston—has begun doing that. The children there had been locked down more than 22 hours per day to try to stop the virus, a move that “shocked” Lina Hidalgo, Harris County’s top executive. After she found out from a report in The Houston Chronicle, Hidalgo said she asked the county to come up with another solution—so officials spread the children out more and reopened the common areas with better social distancing.

Keramet Reiter, a criminology professor at University of California, Irvine, said there are already enough infections that some facilities should focus on even more basic questions: “Can we make sure they have phone calls? And food?”

Repeated lockdowns in the 1960s and 1970s ultimately helped lead to the rise of supermaxes and solitary confinement units, Reiter said. She’s worried today’s lockdowns will make solitary confinement seem acceptable again.

“This could be a moment,” she said, “where we could very quickly reinstitutionalize it.”

Keri Blakinger Twitter Email is a former staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization's first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her memoir, "Corrections in Ink", came out in June 2022.