“What little control they had is gone” – Mental Health Concerns Soar Amid Prison Covid-19 Restrictions

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By Koda Slingluff

This account is part 10 of the Vanguard’s series on COVID-19 stories from CDCR. Click here for part 9 and here for part 8. 

COALINGA– In light of the recent COVID-19 outbreak at Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP), Diane* spoke with the Vanguard about her concerns regarding the physical, medical, and emotional issues her partner is experiencing.

Diane’s husband is in his 40s. He has been incarcerated for over 20 years at PVSP where he is enduring inhumane conditions and regulations, like 23-hour lockdowns, due to the pandemic.

To speak with Diane, her husband Robert* holds a bandana over the phone to keep from touching it. He tells her that he tested negative 3 times before testing positive, and suspects that he contracted COVID-19 because of how the test was administered.

During Robert’s fourth COVID-19 test, the nurse lined everyone against a wall and used the same gloves to test each person. Robert’s day-to-day life had not changed between his third and fourth test. 

The only change that could have exposed him to the virus was the nurse’s testing procedure—with incarcerated people lined up without social distancing and with the same gloves. 

As of Jan. 13, 87 PVSP employees are COVID-19 positive—49 cases were reported in the last 14 days. Cumulatively, 400 employees have contracted the virus.

At PVSP, three out of five of the buildings are designated for COVID-positive people. Robert observed an entire block that tested positive and was moved into a dedicated quarantine block, where they were held for about two weeks before being moved back without further testing. 

“They are held in the COVID block for 10-14 days, then moved to the open cells without any tests to confirm they are negative,” Diane told the Vanguard. Many are also being forced to move while ill.

“His friend was moved when he was very sick—so sick that he couldn’t move. [They] shifted him to a non-COVID ward regardless.” she added.

Many incarcerated people have shown resistance to these procedures, by refusing to move cells to avoid spreading the virus further. Robert has observed such people being written up or being forced to move by the Corrections Officers.

“People do not want to move so they do not affect others,” she says. “They are downright refusing to move and being punished [for refusing].”

PVSP’s outbreak peaked about a month ago, with a staggering 1,234 positive cases on Dec. 8. This is within a population of 2,775 people, i.e. nearly half (about 44 percent) of PVSP residents were battling COVID-19 in early December. 

The outbreak swiftly dropped to 91 active cases by New Year’s Eve. As of Jan. 13, there are 13 active cases in custody. Three deaths in total were reported throughout the outbreak.

The source of the outbreak is difficult to delineate. But many suspect it began in the kitchen.

The kitchen is staffed with both external staff and incarcerated workers, and the masking policy is allegedly not being strictly enforced. Many suspect that an outside worker carrying the virus may have brought it in.

With these suspicions, it is no wonder that many residents are refusing to eat food from the kitchen. “They are too afraid to touch the food,” Diane says.

Avoiding the kitchen leaves them with one alternative—commissary. But the demand for store-bought food through the commissary has gone up so much that a shortage has occurred.

“Instead of 25 packs of Top Ramen being available, there would only be 10 available packs” Diane stated, adding that they get “only half of what they order from the store.”

PVSP allows quarterly packages—30 pounds each—from approved vendors. Even these, though, are now in low stock due to high demand. CDCR allowed one extra package during the pandemic. However, according to Diane, the approved vendors are also low on stock due to high demand.

In addition to food shortages, another aspect of concern that has been particularly overlooked is the population’s mental health.

The effects of solitary confinement on mental wellbeing are well documented. People need human interaction for physical and emotional health.

For nearly a year, many Californians have expressed how staying at home due to the pandemic has impacted their mental health. Even celebrities, in homes much bigger than prison cells, have gone on video describing the strain of being confined to their estates.

Diane explained that PVSP residents are stuck in cells for 23 hours per day, only getting 15 minutes on the phone, and much less outdoor time than typical. 

Currently, due to the prison lockdowns, Robert has not been outside in over a month.

For those behind bars, in-person or contact visits are essentially the only means to express their emotions with loved ones—a human necessity. The loss of these visits has been devastating for them.

Now, the only interactions they have with their loved ones are letters and calls, which are often recorded by the prison. 

Even mail delivery has been delayed, with Robert not receiving any mail for a week and a half now. Diane tells us that the prison email service J-Pay also takes longer than 5 days to deliver emails.

In place of visitation, video visits are allowed for up to a half hour per month. This is a half hour a month to see your family, your kids, or anyone from the outside world.

Pre-COVID, prisons of levels 1 and 3 had programs where incarcerated people could train horses and dogs. “It was therapy for the men,” Diane said. Currently, all such animal programs have been halted.

“Why was this program cancelled?” she asks. “It was outside and social distancing would have been possible.” 

All in all, there is no interaction with the outdoors, no interaction with animals or loved ones, and 23 hours a day confined within one’s own cell walls.

This is effectively solitary confinement. The men are suffering from the psychological and emotional damage of near-complete isolation simply due to the pandemic. The long-term effects of this will be visible in months or years to come. Despite this, prisons and jails will perhaps face no repercussions for the damage caused. 

Diane painfully remarked that the CDCR administration is being let off the hook for this mass scale of immense psychological harm masked as “COVID-19 protections.”

Work and school used to keep Robert occupied. But now, he has lost those programs too.

He has not been able to work as a GED clerk for 9 months. The college and vocational classes PVSP typically provides have been stopped altogether. Most therapy and counseling has halted, too, according to Diane, since no groups are allowed to meet. 

“What little control they had is gone,” she said.

Tuned into her husband’s condition, Diane explained that Robert struggles with social skills and being present with others. He has been trying to improve and work on himself, but the pandemic has made self-help even harder.

What little normalcy one can create for themselves while incarcerated, Robert has lost. He has lost work, school, visitation, mail, food access, access to the outdoors, and now even therapy.

There is still counseling for mental health crises, apparently. But this is far different from the group therapy they could use without fear of repercussions. 

“Dealing with mental health issues in a healthy way is a double-edged sword. Going to counseling for mental health crises can be used against you in parole hearings. You can be determined ‘mentally unstable,’” Diane says.

To make matters worse, Robert has dealt with avoidable medication withdrawal because of a clinical mistake.

Robert’s doctor accidentally halved his medication, Suboxone**, which aids those struggling with drug addiction. Not taking the medicine properly results in withdrawals that resemble withdrawal from heavy drug use; sweating, vomiting, anxiety, insomnia, muscle aches, tremors, and more.

Robert had to suffer severe withdrawal symptoms for four days for no reason other than a doctor’s mistake. He had to submit multiple 602 grievance forms before they corrected his prescription.

After Diane’s husband tested positive, he began to lose his sense of taste and smell. Aside from an occasional CO, no one came to check on him. The only medical professional Robert saw was one nurse who checked his temperature. Aside from this, he was on his own.

“No one came to check on their health,” Diane said. “Nurses and doctors do not care if they get sick or if they die.”

*Names changed for anonymity

**In our correspondence, Robert’s drug was called Zoboxin. Given its description and usage, we believe this to be another name for the more commonly known medication Suboxone. The name was changed for clarity.

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About The Author

Aparna Komarla leads the Covid In-Custody project, which partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic's impact on county jails and CDCR to the public eye. See www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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