COVID-19 in Correctional Facilities: Medical Isolation

This is intended to provide guidance to departments of correction, prison and jail residents, advocates, and other key stakeholders to help ensure that using medical isolation or quarantine to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities follow the highest standards of medical ethics. The information below is available via a downloadable PDF. A downloadable version of the above infographic is available here.

The distinction between “solitary confinement”, “medical isolation”, and “quarantine”

  • Solitary Confinement is the practice of isolating incarcerated people from the rest of the prison population while simultaneously imposing punitive measures such as major restrictions on visitors, phone calls, recreation and outdoor time, and access to personal property.
  • Quarantine is the practice of separating and restricting the movement of people who may have been exposed to a contagious disease until results of a laboratory test confirm whether or not they have contracted the disease. These individuals may have been exposed to COVID19, for example, by spending prolonged time in close proximity to someone who has tested positive, or they may have early symptoms of a potential COVID-19 infection.
  • Medical Isolation is the practice of isolating incarcerated people from the rest of the prison population when they show signs or test positive for COVID-19 in order to stem the risk of COVID-19 transmission throughout the prison.

The ease with which COVID-19 can spread in prisons and jails

The millions of people incarcerated in the U.S. are particularly vulnerable to infection, illness, and death from COVID-19, due to high rates of underlying medical conditions coupled with confinement in crowded and often unsanitary conditions with limited access to personal hygiene products. As the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and many others have emphasized, social distancing, regular handwashing, and frequently sanitizing living spaces are essential to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and “flattening the curve” (or delaying the transmission of disease in order to distribute the need for life saving healthcare resources over time rather than all at once). Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to follow these directives in many correctional facilities, where hundreds and even thousands of people are confined in overcrowded, often unsanitary conditions—and where people generally lack sufficient access to soap, sanitizer, hot water, and other materials necessary to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection.

Many public health experts, policymakers, advocates, and community leaders have called for the swift release of as many people as possible from correctional facilities in order to mitigate the accelerated spread of the virus among incarcerated people, correctional workforces, and the larger community. Increasingly, state and local leaders are heeding this call. These actions will surely prevent infections, alleviate suffering, save lives, and help “flatten the curve” inside and outside prisons and jails. However, the number of people released to date has been relatively small. Millions of people will remain in custody as COVID-19 continues to spread. Some of these individuals will require temporary quarantine or medical isolation to stem the transmission of COVID-19.


The complexity of using isolation as a tactic to minimize COVID-19 transmission in jails and prisons

1. Placing people in solitary confinement (punitive isolation) will worsen the COVID-19 crisis.

Many corrections officials lack guidance on how to humanely and effectively separate sick or contagious individuals from the general population. At times, the most feasible and only available housing units in jails and prisons for medical isolation or quarantine of sick patients are those used for punitive solitary confinement in “normal” times (single cells, solid cell doors rather than barred, removed from the main center of the prison). Use of these units for medical purposes, while often necessary, can run the risk of corrections officials falling back on regular policies and procedures governing living conditions in these units that harm the health of those exposed. (see figure for policy differences)

2. Fear of being placed in solitary will deter people from reporting symptoms to correctional staff.

Experts and advocates are deeply concerned that incarcerated people, many of whom will go to great pains to avoid solitary confinement due to well-established mental and physical health harms associated with the experience, will not come forward when they have symptoms of COVID-19 because they do not want to be placed in such conditions. This avoidance of reporting symptoms or illness will not only accelerate the spread of infection within facilities but also increase the likelihood of prisoner deaths due to lack of treatment.

3. Preemptive lockdowns may result in failure to detect symptomatic people and cause undue stress to residents.

Some correctional facilities are preemptively placing entire units or facilities on “lockdown” for indefinite amounts of time, meaning that people are confined to a small cell, alone or with another person nearly all the time. Meals, medications, commissary, and other goods are delivered to the cell door. Recreation, programming, educational and religious services are shut down. As a result, interactions with correctional staff and healthcare staff often become less frequent and people with symptoms may go undetected.

During the COVID-19 crisis, medical isolation and quarantine should be used only as medically necessary, and these procedures should result in living conditions clearly distinct from those found in solitary confinement.

COVID-19 presents daunting public health challenges both inside and outside correctional facilities. Separating people who become infected is a necessary public health challenge, particularly in prisons and jails. But turning to the punitive practice of solitary confinement in response to the COVID-19 crisis will only make things worse.

Research shows that keeping people socially isolated in a closed cell without a meaningful opportunity to communicate with family, friends, and loved ones or to participate in exercise, educational, and rehabilitative programming (solitary confinement) causes immense, and often irreparable, psychological harm. Emerging evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic will last for at least several more months. Moreover, some people in prison will hide symptoms to avoid being housed in such damaging conditions, even if only temporarily.

To minimize the risk of worse health among incarcerated people we recommend the following:

The purposes and practices of medical isolation and quarantine should be clearly described to incarcerated people and their advocates, as well as to the corrections staff that oversees them.
Corrections officials should only require people on an entire housing unit to stay in their cells (“Lockdown”) if medical professionals determine a symptomatic person resides or works on that unit or contact tracing flags a confirmed or suspected case.
  • In this event, time-limitations must be clearly communicated to residents and staff. Based on current evidence, 5 days is the average time from exposure to symptom onset of COVID19, and 97.5% of people show symptoms within 11 days. Depending on how evidence emerges in the weeks to come, unit-specific lockdowns could reasonably last 5 to 11 days, but not beyond 14 days, without new evidence of the virus entering the housing unit.
  • All decisions should be documented and communicated with health officials.

Prisons, jails, and other places of detention that are not able to comply with ethical standards of quarantine and medical isolation in the COVID-19 pandemic should urgently implement strategies to release or transfer people to locations that have the capacity to meet community standards of medical care.