Durham County Detention Center is maintaining a policy of keeping their inmates almost entirely in solitary confinement, allegedly over fears of COVID. But the risk of COVID-related death on young men, who make up the vast majority of the jail’s population, is very low. A much greater risk for the incarcerated is suicide, and decades of evidence suggests solitary confinement only spikes this risk higher.

A long list of community groups, including many that I would not normally agree with, put together a letter to the Durham sheriff, police chief, judges, mayor, D.A., and other officials, decrying the current policy. While their suggested remedy of releasing 100 of the 400 prisoners seems unwise, it’s clear they are right to fight this inhumane policy.

The letter notes that most in the county jail are awaiting trial, so they have not been convicted of any crime and should be considered innocent until proven guilty. They also say that 67% of inmates have mental illnesses, which are being worsened by 21-23 hours a day of isolation.

In comments to the News & Observer, a sheriff’s office spokesperson said they have a policy of giving inmates a minimum of 3 hours outside their cell a day. But she said this isn’t always possible because of COVID concerns, in which case it’s as little as 20 minutes. She also dismissed reports that these restrictive policies were due to staffing, saying, “It is not a staffing issue. It is a COVID issue.”

This topic grabbed my attention because a couple years ago, as my wife and I were trapped in our own COVID confinement, one of the shows that we “binged” to maintain our sanity was 60 Days In. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend watching at least a few episodes to get an idea of what life is like for those behind bars.

The show follows volunteers who go undercover as prisoners to help local sheriffs determine if everything is running smoothly in their detention centers. The hidden cameras capture a world that most Americans have not thought much about. Many of the undercover civilians are not able to handle even a single day as a prisoner in the violent, dirty, stressful conditions and wave the white towel (literally) to get pulled out well before their 60-day goal.

But what happens to those who are at a breaking point mentally and emotionally, and whose sentence is much longer than 60 days, but cannot wave the towel? Quite often, unfortunately, they commit suicide, as those behind bars take their own lives at many times the rate of the general population.

The concept of sentencing people to extended incarceration is, in my opinion, a humane one. It protects the public, as well as punishes and hopefully rehabilitates the convicted. But the conditions we keep them in say a lot about us. Their dignity as human beings created equal by God should remain present, even for the most hardened criminal, as that is the basis for all our laws and civilization. For Christians, Jesus directly instructed us to have mercy on prisoners specifically by visiting them, granting them some level of human connection.

These human connections appear to be key for prisoners, allowing them to find meaning sufficient to serve their time and re-enter society without immediately re-offending. The British medical journal Lancet did a comprehensive study of suicide in prisons across the developed world, and two of their main findings were that those who didn’t receive visitors were at a higher risk of suicide, as were those placed in solitary confinement.

And sadly, according to a JAMA study in the U.S., the risk of suicide for those who were placed under solitary confinement remained high even after release, with a 78% higher incidence of suicide in the first year when compared to those who had not been placed in solitary.

International human rights groups have even identified solitary confinement as a form of torture if it extends past 15 days. This maximum is called the “Mandela Rule” after Nelson Mandela, who spent extended periods in solitary confinement in apartheid South Africa. County jails typically hold people for periods up to a year, far beyond that 15-day breaking point.

Many states have adopted this Mandela Rule. A task force on justice recommended the same for North Carolina in late 2020. But the COVID pandemic seems to have taken things in the opposite direction, boosting the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. Typically about 3,000 of the state’s 30,000 prisoners are in isolation, but this doesn’t include the county jails.

Prisons across the country, like in Durham, say they are using the tactic more to stop the spread of COVID, which has also caused strain on staffing. But it’s also easier to watch prisoners, I’m sure, who are each locked in their own individual box where they can’t start fights, trade contraband, or attack guards.

One New York woman, quoted in a BBC article, was placed in solitary confinement for three years waiting for the conclusion of her attempted murder case. Eventually, the court dropped the charge, but the damage had been done.

“I walked right into hell,” said the mother of two. “The cell was like an elevator you are stuck in for 24 hours.”

Her wrists have permanent scars from her repeated attempts to kill herself, saying after a time, she lost touch with reality and all she could think about was how to end her life. She still thinks about ending her life a decade after being released, as she suffers with extreme PTSD and depression from the trauma, which included a rape. New York has since adopted the Mandela Rule.

We might not see them or think about them, but there are others like her in detention centers across the country, including thousands here in North Carolina. At this moment, most of the approximately 400 inmates in Durham County Detention Center are, by default, stuck sitting day after day in isolation, whether or not they are eventually convicted of a crime. Common sense tells us that suicide and permanent mental trauma are far greater threats to them than catching what is likely to be a mild case of COVID. It’s time to open the doors.