Crystal Barber, who spent 7 months in a local jail during the pandemic, said serious lockdowns and ignored grievances left her and many others feeling lost.
“It was like punishment without reform,” Barber said.
After a little more than a year of living with the pandemic, The Temple University National Lawyers Guild hosted a panel discussing mental and medical health inside the prison system during the pandemic. Featured panelists Corie Priest and Crystal Barber reiterated concerns about isolation, medication and health care that have surfaced frequently during the pandemic.
“Data shows that most people who are incarcerated suffer from some form of mental illness,” Danielle Phillips, a panel organizer, said. “If we do not treat mental illness while our neighbors are incarcerated, not only will this have massive detrimental effects to their health while inside, it may lead to them re-offending once released.”
Some of the largest outbreaks in the country have occurred in prisons. According to a study by Amistad Law Project and Drexel University, Pennsylvania prisons and jails house a large number of individuals at high risk of catching COVID due to almost impossible social distancing standards and the large immunocompromised and elderly populations.
“The prison system is the largest mental health facility in the country,” said Priest, a Community Engagement Specialist for the Delaware Department of Justice. “Many people going in are already dealing with some kind of mental health issue.”
According to a 2018 report from The Philadelphia Inquirer, 40 percent of Philadelphia’s incarcerated population are on psychotropic medication. Across the state of Pennsylvania, 29 percent of incarcerated individuals are reported to have a mental illness.
Barber, a criminal justice reform advocate, said during her time at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, appointments with mental health staff were often limited to once per month.
“They don’t have the staff to compensate for the demand,” Barber said. “Nor enough housing programs or placements to take on the growing number of incarcerated with mental illness, including addiction.”
Quarantine guidelines in prisons and jails have been fairly strict across the state, oftentimes limiting individuals to only one hour out of their cell per day. COVID restrictions also limited phone time and restricted visitation to prisons statewide.
“Some girls knew they had COVID and refused to tell staff because they were afraid of being locked down,” Barber said. In a later interview, Barber said that if someone tested positive for COVID, their entire unit was then under quarantine, while the infected individual was sent into isolation.
While these measures were taken to stop the spread of disease, isolation and confinement are also used as forms of punishment in prisons. According to The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, isolation is known to negatively impact mental health patients, especially in vulnerable groups.
“In Delaware, people didn’t want to tell staff about COVID symptoms because you would have to stop working, and if you stopped working you would lose your goodtime,” Priest said, referring to time off for good behavior.
When COVID hit across the state, Gov. Tom Wolf restricted medical co-pays for symptoms relating to COVID or the flu. But according to Barber, medications like Tylenol and Ibuprofen were taken off of the commissary for purchase and required a medical visit.
“By the time they see you, you don’t need it anymore,” Barber said.
As Pennsylvania and Philadelphia move into the 1B vaccination phase, incarcerated individuals and staff are able to receive the COVID vaccine if they want to. The Philadelphia Department of Prisons has started offering the vaccine to incarcerated individuals and staff members if they want it. At the state level, three facilities have started offering vaccines.