Life in jail, made worse during COVID-19


It’s a good question, because like everybody, they’re having to balance the safety of the staff and the patients. Mental health interventions are mostly in person and very time intensive, and social distancing guidelines don’t allow for that now.

I expect that the jails are trying to stratify patients based on severity, both physical and psychological, although increasingly it’s likely harder to separate those who are sick from those who aren’t. In areas where patients are sick, I think the mental health staff are likely doing as much intervention as they can safely, including remote work like telehealth. Telehealth actually got its start in prisons, because they couldn’t get enough providers to come in and do the work in person.

I’ve read a lot of the criticism around this, specifically at Rikers Island, where inmates are still closely seated at dining tables, with no possibility of social distancing. [Editor’s note: At the time of this writing, Rikers Island experienced its first inmate death due to COVID-19.] But I see the other side of it. What are jails supposed to do when limited to such a confined space?

That’s correct. I think it is hard for someone who has not lived or worked intensely in these settings to understand how difficult it can be to implement even the most basic hygiene precautions. There are all sorts of efforts happening to create more space, to reduce admissions coming into the jail, to try to expedite discharges out, to offer a lot more sanitation options. I think they may have opened up a jail that was empty to allow for more space.

In a recent Medscape commentary, Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, from Columbia University detailed how a crisis like this may affect those in different tiers of mental illness. Interestingly, there are data showing that those with serious mental illness – schizophrenia, severe mania – often aren’t panicked by disasters. I assume that a sizable percentage of the jail population has severe mental illness, so I was curious about what your experience is, about how they may handle it psychologically.

The rate of serious mental illness in jail is roughly 16% or so, which is three or four times higher than the general population.

Although I don’t know if these kinds of crises differentially affect people with serious mental illness, I do believe very strongly that situations like this, for those who are and who are not incarcerated, can exacerbate or cause symptoms like anxiety, depression, and elevated levels of fear – fear about the unknown, fear of illness or death, fear of isolation.

For people who are incarcerated and who understandably may struggle with trusting the system that is supposed to be keeping them safe, I am concerned that this kind of situation will make that lack of trust worse. I worry that when they get out of jail they will be less inclined to seek help. I imagine that the staff in the jails are doing as much as they can to support the patients, but the staff are also likely experiencing some version of the abandonment and frustration that the patients may feel.

I’ve also seen – not in a crisis of this magnitude but in other crisis situations – that a community really develops among everybody in incarcerated settings. A shared crisis forces everybody to work together in ways that they may not have before. That includes more tolerance for behaviors, more understanding of differences, including mental illness and developmental delay. More compassion.


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