• The UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Crime Justice has revised its international standards for the treatment of prisoners. The rules call for solitary confinement to be limited to a maximum of 15 days (covered by CTV and others).
• A former employee of the GEO Group – who served as a guard at the Adelanto Detention Center – has come forward stating that there are a host of serious issues in the way the site is run, including the overuse of solitary confinement. According to the Huffington Post, “two Muslim men were put into solitary confinement for quietly saying their daily prayers.”
• Illinois’ Tamms prison is likely to remained closed, at least for now. A local paper, the Herald & Review, explores the issue in full.
• The New Jersey Senate passed legislation restricting when children can be placed in solitary and for how long, and increasing the age at which children can be moved into adult court. The bill will now be considered by the Assembly.
• In the wake of the verdict of the Tsarnaev case, two staff members at the Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts published a letter in The Boston Globe examining the use of solitary confinement across the state.
• An Algerian-born Irish man has been spared extradition to the United States, where he was due to face trial for charges. Justice Aileen Donnelly ruled that Alif Charaf Damache, 50, could be subject to “inhuman and degrading treatment” if he were convicted and incarcerated at ADX Florence, the federal supermax.
• Contra Costa County has announced that it will no longer place children who are incarcerated at Juvenile Hall in solitary confinement as punishment. Young people will only be placed in isolation for their safety or the safety of others, and only for several hours at a time.
• The US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the former warden of Michigan’s prison for women can be sued for knowingly placing a woman with disabilities inside a segregation cell that was not equipped to accommodate her. Martinique Stoudemire, who had both legs amputated while incarcerated, was quarantined in the segregation block in 2006 after her stump became infected; during her time in isolation she had to change her own dressings, crawl from her bed to the toilet, and urinate into a bowl.
• The Las Vegas Review-Journal covered the story of Michael Sanzo, who “was forced to smash out his teeth by punching himself in the face, other macabre means” after prison guards allegedly ignored his cries for help. This occurred during Sanzo’s eight month stay in solitary confinement at High Desert State Prison near Indian Springs.
“Across the United States, staff working in jails and prisons have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force on prisoners with mental disabilities such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”
This is the conclusion of Callous and Cruel: Use of Force Against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons a Human Rights Watch report issued last week about the use of physical force by staff on the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people with serious mental health needs. The report draws on many sources – interviews with current and former prison and jail officials, current and former correctional mental health professionals, use of force and mental health experts, lawyers, disability rights advocates and academics with relevant expertise – though not on interviews with currently or formerly incarcerated persons. Their stories are derived from court filings in which they were plaintiffs or from newspaper articles. In a few instances, there were videos of the incidents described.
The narratives and analysis described display the collision of two realities of incarceration in the United States – the exile of people with mental illness to prison and the ease with which corrections officers can inflict violence on the imprisoned. It highlights gross inadequacies staff training, conditions of confinement, and mental health care, despite the fact that jails and prisons are now the nation’s biggest psychiatric facilities.
There’s the story of Robert Sweeper, a South Carolina man charged with trespassing after he was found sleeping in a university classroom doorway on a cold night. His erratic behavior made the authorities believe he had mental health concerns but rather than placing him in a hospital he was placed on suicide watch in the local jail. An officer went into Mr. Sweeper’s cell, ostensibly to search it and make sure there was nothing with which Mr. Sweeper could hurt himself. Instead, as Mr. Sweeper was on the floor of the cell with one hand cuffed, the officer proceeded to beat Mr. Sweeper so badly that when he was finally taken to the hospital four days later it was found that he had a punctured lung, two fractured vertebrae and three broken ribs.
The report makes clear that the brutality against Mr. Sweeper, at the hands of a government employee, is not exceptional. Callous and Cruel focuses on people with ‘mental disabilities’ – the term preferred by international human rights instruments – a category that includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. Unsurprisingly, people with these conditions have a harder time than most obeying the strict rules that define life in a prison or jail.
The report shows how, over and over again, security staff treats non-compliance with rules and orders willful disobedience rather than recognizing it as a symptom of mental disabilities. Security staff receive little or no training in recognizing the symptoms of mental health conditions and in how they can effect behavior. They are rarely trained in verbal de-escalation techniques or required to use them before resorting to physical force. Nor are they trained to have mental health staff intervene before using force. And even in cases when force is required to control a person the use of force imposed is excessive or continues beyond that immediate need.
Moreover, beyond sheer physical brutality, the report provides detailed examples of the widespread use of pepper spray, cell extractions, chemical agents, stun devices, and full body restraints against people with serve mental health needs.
Moreover, the report highlights how too often, the default response to people with mental health needs is to place them in solitary confinement even though this is counter-productive. In addition to the damage that isolation can do on its own, the quality of mental health care for those in isolation can be abysmal. According to the report, too often it is simply a combination of psychotropic medication, the occasional private meeting with a clinician and the more common “walk bys”, where a mental health staff person speaks to someone from outside their cell.
The story of Prisoner AA, a person held in a Pennsylvania prison, show the reflexive use of solitary confinement, even for the most vulnerable, and then the lack of effective mental health interventions despite clear signs of mental health deterioration, including self-harm.
According to the Department of Justice, a prisoner it identified as Prisoner AA, had a mood disorder, an IQ of 66, was on the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ mental health roster, and had been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons. He attempted to hang himself after more than five months in solitary confinement. He was removed from solitary for a day and then returned for another five months, after which he again attempted to hang himself.
Another tragic story told is that of 44 year old Jerome Laudman, who died after being incarcerated in South Carolina prisons for 10 years. Despite his history of mental illness and treatment for bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, including 13 visits to hospitals while incarcerated, he was placed in a Supermax unit, in extreme isolation. Though his previous placement had been in a crisis intervention unit, the administrator of the Supermax said Laudman was transferred there because he had been “trashing his room”, was uncooperative, and was parading around naked.
Once in the Supermax unit, Laudman’s condition rapidly deteriorated, he refused food, ingested fecal matter, and smeared feces all over himself. On the day he died, there were 15 to 20 trays of decaying food in his cell, and he was found “lying naked on the floor, in feces, urine, and vomit, still alive but breathing shallowly.” He subsequently passed away at an outside hospital after going into cardiac arrest. The total neglect of his condition is epitomized in the fact that his prison medical record showed only five medical entries in the last month and a half of his life.
Again, Prisoner AA and Laudman’s experiences are not out of the ordinary. A Department of Justice investigation into the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that is cited revealed, for instance, that seventy percent of all suicides in the system were committed by people in solitary confinement. One of the report’s recommendations is that people with mental disabilities never be placed in solitary confinement, and that if they must be separated they are given at least 20 hours of out of cell time a week.
Callous and Cruel also documents the frequent intersection between solitary confinement and staff brutality against people with mental health needs. Many people whose experiences are described faced staff uses of force while held in some form of isolation. The report quotes Steve J. Martin, a correctional expert, who argues that when an incarcerated person with a mental disability is placed in solitary confinement, that person is “in a situation in which he simply cannot cope on a daily basis without decompensating, without struggling more and more, which again leads to efforts to manage the offender with force.” In fact, the reports cites to expert opinion that the use of force by officers is higher in isolation units.
This report helps make clear that incarceration, solitary confinement, and staff brutality, with all their destructive potential, are used too often in place of alternatives to incarceration, real mental health treatment in the community and in the prisons, and mechanisms of de-escalation and support. As long as the logic of the prison system is one of control at the expense of everything else, the real interventions and systems that can keep people healthy, safe, and on the path to rehabilitation will continue to be ignored.
• Curry County, New Mexico has again been sued on allegations of abuse at its jail facilities. Alejandro “Alex” Romero, 36, did not receive any medication for his diagnosed schizophrenia during a 2012 incarceration on misdemeanor charges; according to his lawyer, in the six months Alex was held in solitary confinement, his mental health “deteriorated to the point that he smeared his own feces all over his cell.”
• The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois announced that its federal lawsuit against the state for its treatment of juvenile offenders has been settled. Under the new policy, children will be required to spend at least eight hours each day out of their cells, and those in isolation will continue to receive education and mental health services.
• The UK’s Independent published an article about the recent guilty plea of Mahdi Hashi, who in 2012 was stripped of his British citizenship and flown to the United States on terrorism charges. “[Hashi’s] supporters say that such harsh treatment and all those years in solitary confinement left him little choice but to end his ordeal by pleading guilty.”
• Human Rights Watch released a report, entitled “Callous and Cruel,” that examines the treatment of people with mental illness inside America’s prisons. According to the investigation, “compared to other prisoners, [people with mental illness] are disproportionately at risk of being confined in solitary,” and more likely to deteriorate once moved from general population. (Covered by The Daily Beast and others.)
• Time’s Jeffrey Kluger published an article exploring how a civilized society should punish its “monsters,” specifically looking at the use of solitary confinement. He writes, “We can punish them and pen them without forfeiting an important part of ourselves as well.”
• Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco, a 24-year-old Guatemalan trans woman, has been released from immigration detention. Polanco spent periods of time in “protective” solitary confinement during her six months at the all-male detention facility in Florence, Arizona, where she also endured sexual violence and harassment from guards and detainees.
• The outlet Mic published an article about the placement of children in solitary confinement, entitled “One Dark Side of the Criminal Justice System that Everyone Should Know.”
• The Texas House of Representatives has passed legislation requiring that prison officials perform mental health assessments on individuals before placing them in solitary confinement.
• Louisiana’s The Advocate covered the case of Kenny “Zulu” Whitemore, who has spent more than 30 years in solitary confinement at Angola Prison. His lawyers have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit demanding his return to general population.
• The Washington Post published an article examining the role interfaith activists have played in the fight against solitary confinement.
• According to The Daily News, jail officials on Rikers Island “want to override lenient solitary rules to punish violent inmates.” Under a little-known section of the new rules, the Corrections chief can override the 30-day limit on segregation if the individual engages in “persistent acts of violence, other than self harm.”
• The Department of Justice reached a settlement with Leflore County, Mississippi, to address “security and facility conditions” at the juvenile detention center. Under the agreement, solitary confinement will not be used as a form of disciplinary punishment, and placement in isolation will be limited to a cool-down period of one hour maximum.
While there, we will be speaking with officials and inspectors of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, as well as prison reform advocates, scholars, and currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. We also hope to visit several prisons. Our particular aim is to investigate alternatives to the widespread use of long-term solitary confinement, practiced in the United States but virtually nowhere else in the Western industrialized world.
If time allows, we’ll also take a look at some of the icons of the British carceral state, including the Tower of London, where enemies of the crown were once held in extreme isolation, and Pentonville Prison, which has been in operation since 1842 and was built on the model of the U.S.’s notorious prototype of solitary confinement, Eastern State Penitentiary.
Please check back in mid-May, when we’ll begin to post stories based on our experiences and findings.
• A 64-year old man was found dead in his cell at San Quentin Prison. He had spent 14 years on California’s death row where 752 people still remain.
• A crisis intervention specialist recounts her experience of meeting with a man incarcerated in a California supermax prison and describes the on-going crisis of mental health care in the correctional system.
• Raymond Luc Levasseur tells WBUR about “walking into a tomb,” his experience of five years in ADX, the federal supermax in Colorado, where Dzokhar Tsarnaev would serve a life sentence if spared the death penalty
• Three guards were indicted on charges including involuntary manslaughter and civil rights violations in the 2009 death of a young patient with schizophrenia at Bridgewater State Hospital. The case was reinvestigated by a special prosecutor after revelations that led to the firing of the guards and the resignation of the Massachusetts state Corrections Commissioner.
• Shocking surveillance video showed a man held at a Louisiana parish jail thrown to the ground by a guard, attacked by a dog while on the ground, and then stomped and kicked by the guard. Prison officials fired the guard two years after the incident, while the third federal investigation in three years into the parish is underway.
• According to a recent report, the number of people with mental illness in US prisons and jails is ten times the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals.
• Florida’s state House ended its legislative session early, ending the possibility of prison reform legislation passing this session. State Senators had been pushing for an independent commission against a backdrop of widespread reports of abuse, including the arrest of two prison guards and one former prison worker accused of being KKK members and of plotting to kill a formerly incarcerated man.
• A man held in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay for five years describes meeting the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, whose review of solitary confinement led to his conclusion that more than 15 days in solitary constituted torture.
• A survivor of 2,054 days in solitary confinement describes the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, a bill introduced in the NYS legislature, as the best hope for the 4,500 people held in solitary in New York.
• New York City council members introduced 10 bills to increase transparency and strengthen the rights of people held on Rikers Island and in other city jails, including reporting on the controversial Enhanced Security Housing (ESH) units.
• One man has been held in administrative segregation in Texas for thirty years.
• Locked [In] depicts the horrors of youth living in solitary confinement, accompanied by the poetry of Gabriel Cortez.
On Tuesday, a federal judge struck down a Pennsylvania law that had the potential to severely curtail free speech for people convicted of crimes. The Revictimization Relief Act, enacted last fall, was initially aimed at silencing Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of a police officer, and whose case and writings have made him an international figure. The plaintiffs who brought suit opposing the law, including Solitary Watch, argued that it infringed on the free speech rights both of people who had been convicted of certain offenses in Pennsylvania and of those who might rely on information from people whose speech was blocked.
The law, in the words of Judge Christopher Conner, “in toto…comprises four sentences.” It gave victims (loosely defined) the right to bring a civil action against an “offender” for an injunction or other relief, including payment of attorney fees, for “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” This conduct was further defined only as “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.” The term “offender” was never defined.
On September 29, 2014, Goddard College, a tiny liberal arts college in Vermont announced that its graduating class had chosen Abu-Jamal as their commencement speaker. In the announcement, the President of Goddard said of the choice, “Choosing Mumia as their commencement speaker, to me, shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.” Abu-Jamal, who was a political journalist and prominent member of the Black Panther Party prior to his arrest, is considered by some to have been deprived a fair trial due to his activism.
The day after the announcement, Maureen Faulkner, the widow of police officer Daniel Faulkner, whom Abu Jamal was convicted of killing, appeared on Fox News, saying at one point, “Why doesn’t the justice system say he’s not able to speak?” Days later, Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Vereb introduced a bill to do just that–allowing crime victims to petition courts to ask for injunctions on acts that would cause them “mental anguish.” In his memo seeking co-sponsors Rep. Vereb said, ‘A convicted murderer is still traumatizing the victim’s family and it needs to stop.”
Pennsylvania state elections were only a month away when Vereb introduced his bill and legislators lined up behind the legislation. The bill was fast-tracked to ensure passage before the end of the legislative session and sped through both the House (unanimously) and the Senate (with 38 votes out of 50). Governor Tom Corbett, who was up for reelection and whose poll numbers were described in the Washington Post as “epically bad,” signed the bill into law at the Philadelphia intersection where Daniel Faulkner had been killed. He described the law as a way to strengthen victims and curb the “obscene celebrity” of those convicted of crimes.
Abu-Jamal’s commencement address at Goddard on October 5 was a recorded speech, played along with a slideshow. Abu-Jamal did not discuss his case. Instead, he reminisced about his time at Goddard, the green hills of Vermont, and talked about how Goddard reawakened his love of learning. At the time that this speech was being played in Vermont, members of the Fraternal Order of Police gathered in Philadelphia at the site of Daniel Faulkner’s killing to register their protest.
This is not the first time Pennsylvania law enforcement has fervidly pushed its views of Abu-Jamal and the advocacy around his case. Last March, the Senate rejected the President’s nominee to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Debo Adegbile. Adegbile was litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund when it represented Abu-Jamal in an appeal of his death sentence. The national Fraternal Order of Police had sent a letter to President Obama to express their “vehement opposition” to Adegbile immediately after his nomination; a number of Democrats refused to vote for him; and Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senator, Bob Casey, sealed the nomination’s fate by voting against it after deliberation that included a meeting with the Fraternal Order.
The “Silencing Act”
The swift support for the Revictimization Relief Act was followed by a groundswell of opposition and it was quickly dubbed ‘the Silencing Act.’ First, Jamal v. Kane was filed in November. In addition to Mumia Abu-Jamal, the plaintiffs included two other writers in state prisons, Prison Radio, the Human Rights Coalition, and Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal. The plaintiffs were represented by the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, the Amistad Law Project in Philadelphia and the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School.
At the time, David M. Shapiro, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, expressed confidence that the plaintiffs would prevail, saying, “This law is unconstitutional. The facts are on our side and the law is on our side. The Silencing Act targets a huge amount of constitutionally protected speech based on who is speaking.”
In January, the ACLU of Pennsylvania along with other legal firms and organizations filed another federal lawsuit on behalf of journalists, news outlets, advocacy organizations, and community leaders who were formerly incarcerated, arguing that the law “stifle[d] public debate on critical issues…because reporters covering these issues now fear they will be prevented from or even penalized for publishing interviews with prisoners.” Solitary Watch was among the eleven plaintiffs represented by the ACLU in Prison Legal News v. Kane.
Both lawsuits asked for a temporary and permanent injunction against the law and that it be declared an unconstitutional infringement on the free speech of plaintiffs. The plaintiffs argued that the law was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad and was a content-based restriction on speech. A joint stipulation filed with the court contained figures from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing showing that just between 2004 and 2012, over 180,000 people were convicted in Pennsylvania of personal injury offenses – all potentially subject to the Silencing Act.
Sara Rose of the ACLU addressed the specific fears of media outlets and reporters. “With respect to publications,” she said, “they also are concerned, and not only about people not speaking to them. Some of the publications that represent reporters do in-depth, time-consuming investigative pieces, put months into a story. What if they put all that time into that story, and the victim finds out that it is coming out, and seeks an injunction and all of a sudden all that time is for nothing. It’s a hastily drafted and very poorly written law.”
Additionally, a provision that would allow for the recovery of attorney’s fees from the people or organizations targeted was a source of disquiet. “Not only does somebody who’s been convicted of a crime have to be worried that that victim is going to take them to court,” Rose said, “but if that victim is successful you’ll have to pay the attorney’s fees. That just multiplies the chilling effect on speakers.”
Both sets of plaintiffs sued the office of the Attorney General as well as that of the Philadelphia District Attorney, but the case against the District Attorney was dismissed because of his guarantee that he would not make an application under the law until the court ruled on its constitutionality. The Attorney General, making no such guarantee, was the sole remaining defendant when the case went to a hearing and a trial.
“The First Amendment Does Not Evanesce at the Prison Gate”
On Tuesday, Chief Judge Christopher Conner of Pennsylvania’s Middle District ruled that the Revictimization Relief Act was “manifestly unconstitutional”. Judge Conner, an appointee of President George W. Bush who ruled in 2011 that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate was unconstitutional, declined to accept the proposition that criminal convictions eroded free speech rights. He wrote, “the fact that certain plaintiffs have been convicted of infamous or violent crimes is largely irrelevant to our First Amendment analysis…The First Amendment does not evanesce at the prison gate.”
Both the plaintiffs and the defendants agreed that no actions had been brought under the Act, but the judge recognized that because of the Act a number of the plaintiffs had decided against writing and speaking projects that they would have otherwise pursued.
Pennsylvania’s Attorney General ended up arguing that the Act targeted behavior rather than speech. The court’s decision dismissed this argument, reasoning that neither the “four sentences” of the Act, nor the legislative history behind it, supported the argument that it was intended to limit conduct instead of expression.
The court found that the Act was unconstitutional on all three of the grounds argued by the plaintiffs – unjustified content-based restrictions on speech, vagueness, and overbreadth.
It rejected “revictimization” as a ground on which to restrict expression. It also noted the Act’s “wholesale lack of definition,” making it impossible to know what and to whom it could applied. The court referenced discussions of the law in the legislature suggesting third-party expression, like that of journalists, could be restricted. It also referenced indications by lawyers for the Attorney General’s office that even people who had been arrested but not convicted could be silenced under the law. In the court’s words, “Taken to its logical conclusion, the Attorney General’s statutory interpretation would limit an accused person’s right to profess his innocence before he is proven guilty.”
Finally, the court was troubled by the sweeping reach of the law, which could potentially encompass “protected—and critically important—speech,” such as “pardon applications, clemency petitions…public expressions of innocence, confessions, or apologies; legislative testimony in support of improved prison conditions and reformed juvenile justice systems; programs encouraging at-risk youth to avoid lives of crime; or any public speech or written work whatsoever, regardless of the speaker’s intention or the work’s relation to the offense.”
The Right to Free Expression
In classic First Amendment fashion, Judge Conner’s response to the pleas to silence Abu-Jamal was a recommendation to fight speech with speech.
“The right to free expression is the shared right to empower and uplift, and to criticize and condemn; to call to action, and to beg restraint; to debate with rancor, and to accede with reticence; to advocate offensively, and to lobby politely.”
As for the Goddard students who listened to Abu-Jamal’s speech last October, a representative from the college had this to say in his appearance on the same Fox News show that had featured Daniel Faulkner’s widow: “The graduating students believe that Mumia has a message, coming from prison – from a unique perspective – and speaks to issues that are important to them – that are important in a world where we have Ferguson….where we have police brutality; where these issues are real and in their lives.”
A bill to significantly limit the use solitary confinement in New York state prison and local jails gained momentum last week, after nine Assembly members and two state senators agreed to support the legislation. The new sponsorships, secured after a day of lobbying that brought more than 120 activists to Albany from around the state, brought the total number of co-sponsors to 33 in the Assembly and 11 in the Senate.
Citing the words of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez, who condemned long-term solitary confinement as torture, advocates convinced the legislators of the urgency of a sweeping bill called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would limit the maximum time of isolation to 15 consecutive days, and a maximum of 20 days over any 60-day period.
The bill would also completely ban the use of isolation on individuals with mental illness, as well as youth, seniors, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and members of the LGBTQI community—groups that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of solitary, or prone to abuse while in solitary, or both
“The practice of solitary confinement is subject to widespread abuse,” Méndez said in a videotaped statement, which was played at an educational event held on the morning of April 22 in the Legislative Office Building. “It leads to the violations of fundamental human rights, including the right to personal, physical or mental integrity, and may constitutes cruel and inhumane treatment, and even torture.”
Scientific evidence shows that people who are held in isolation for 22 to 24 hours a day suffer severe irreversible psychological damage, Méndez said, adding that long-term solitary confinement “must be absolutely prohibited.”
Studies have shown that people held in isolation often develop acute forms of paranoia and psychosis that cause them to mutilate themselves, and in many cases, to commit suicide.
Figures obtained by the Correctional Association of New York from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) indicate that the rate of suicide in New York state prison is 59 percent higher than the national average for incarcerated persons.
Among the individuals who took his own life while being held in isolation was Benjamin Van Zandt, whose mother, Alicia Barraza, also spoke at the morning event.
Van Zandt was arrested and charged for arson when he was 17. Despite being diagnosed with mental health problems, he was placed in solitary confinement multiple times over the course of three years. He reportedly also endured repeated physical and sexual abuse at the hand of other incarcerated with him at Fishkill Correctional Center. At some point during his downward path through despair and acute depression, Van Zandt decided his life wasn’t worth living, and hanged himself in his cell at the age of 21.
Since her son’s death, Barazza has become a passionate advocate for the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. “There is absolutely no reason that another family should have to endure what we went through,” Barazza said
“I think we should put an end to the number of suicides that come from solitary confinement” said Selestina Martinez, a social worker born and raised in the Bronx who joined in the lobbying, which was organized by an advocacy group called the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC).
Martinez’s cousin, who has completed 23 years of a 25-year sentence, spent large portions of his time in solitary confinement. Now that he only has two years left before he will be released, Martinez said, her cousin is frightened to come home because he doesn’t know how he will be able re-enter society after a long time spent in isolation.
“It’s kinda like throwing somebody into the water and expecting them to swim when they don’t know how,” she said, referring to people who have done time in solitary confinement.
“I’ve Known Men Who Lost Their Minds”
Across the country, at least 80,000 people are being held in some form of isolated confinement, locked down in one- or two-person cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. In New York State prisons, the number is about 4,500 at any given time. Each year in the state of New York, the Corrections Department sentences over 14,000 people to terms in so-called Special Housing Units (SHUs).
About 8,000 of those sentences, roughly 57 percent, result in three or more months in the ‘box,’ as solitary confinement is commonly called by those who experience it. About 3,900 of the sentences, nearly 28 percent of the total, send people to isolation for six months or longer. Some individuals are kept in “disciplinary segregation” for years at the time, while “administrative segregation” can last for decades.
“I’ve known men who lost their minds,” said Tyrrell Muhammad, who spent seven consecutive years in solitary confinement, and spoke of his experiences at the morning event. During each day in isolation, Muhammad said, he had to fight hard to stay sane.
A few week after entering solitary confinement, Muhammad began suffering the consequences of extreme isolation and idleness.
First, he began having hallucinations while staring for hours at the flaking paint on the walls, which he saw transforming into the faces of famous people. One time, Muhammad said, he recognized Dr. Jay, a basketball star who played during the 1970s. Another time, he saw the face of Abraham Lincoln.
“This is how you could tell you’re slipping,” Muhammad told Solitary Watch. After more time spent in complete isolation, Muhammad said, he often would not realize he had been talking to himself loudly for hours until a guard outside his cell told him to be quiet.
Contrary to what is commonly thought, only in a small number of cases people are put in isolation because of violent behaviour inside prisons or jails. Most of the time, they end up in solitary confinement for minor actions that are considered to be in violations of prison regulations, for example having too many postal stamps, occupying the wrong side of the cell, or talking back to a correctional officer.
Pushing Legislation to Limit Solitary Confinement
The April 22nd morning press event featured sponsors of three bills to limit solitary confinement. A bill introduced by Assembly Correction Committee chair Daniel J. O’Donnell would ban solitary for youth and people with developmental disabilities, as well as individuals with mental illness, and states that solitary confinement sanctions be imposed as a measure of last resort, and for the minimum period necessary. . A bill already passed by the Assembly, after being introduced by Nily Rozic, bans solitary for pregnant women.
The lead sponsors of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act also spoke at the event. Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry and State Senator William Perkins originally introduced the bill in January 2014.
“We have a human rights crisis here in New York State. The cost of solitary confinement as a state and a society are immeasurable,” said Perkins, a democrat from Harlem. “The encouraging news is that legislators, advocates, and the public have finally come together.”
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act does more than simply reducing the use of solitary confinement. It also seeks to create alternative Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRU), which would substitute the isolation and deprivation of the SHU with treatment and programs of rehabilitation that would help incarcerated people prepare for their transition back into the general population and the outside world.
On April 22, advocates for the bill met with legislators and staffs throughout the day. Organized in teams of four or five, activists spelled out the key features of the bill to Assembly members and state senators, some of whom were not yet familiar with the issue of solitary confinement. In some of the meetings, activists directly affected by incarceration system were able to share their life stories with the legislators.
Tama Bell, the mother of a 23-year old man who’s currently in jail, told Assembly Member David Weprin her son ended up in solitary confinement despite a long history of mental illness and after being diagnosed with a serious form of bipolar disorder.
After only month locked up in a cell alone the size of an elevator, Bell said, her son began talking about suicide. She reached out to the elected officials in her district, and contacted both the state’s Department of Correction and the Office of Mental Health to let the officials know about her son’s situation. Finally, her son’s solitary confinement sentenced was reduced from 18 months to three.
“I can’t even imagine him making it through beyond the three months,” Bell said, adding how lucky she feels that his son is still alive. Were the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in place, her son would have never walked inside an isolation cell in the first place.
While her intervention helped improving the condition of her son, there are large numbers of less fortunate children whose families have no means to get them out of isolation.
Weprin was among the first Assembly members last week to add his name to the list of those who sponsor the legislation. By the end of day last Wednesday, six more Assembly members had decided to co-sponsor the bill, a sign that advocates have been effective in getting the attention of the elected officials on the issue of solitary confinement.
“So many people did so much to make this day a success,” Scott Paltrowitz, Associate Director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of New York and an organizer of day’s events.
“I feel honored, inspired, blessed, humbled and excited to be part of a movement that is challenging such horrific practices with such fierce advocacy, passion, dedication, energy, and love,” Paltrowitz wrote in an email to the activists who took part in the lobby day.
The dozens of activists coming from all across the state, organized by the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), included a heterogeneous mix of people from different walks of life. While individuals cited different motives for taking part in the day, all of them share the belief that solitary confinement is inhumane and degrading.
“I’m here just because I don’t want to live in a country where we treat anybody like this,” said Shirley Ripullone, who lives in Columbia County.
“As an American who believes in the stated values of our country, I hate to see us acting [in a way] that if it were happening anywhere else we would be wary and self-righteous about it,” said Kenneth Stahl, a man who had no direct experience with solitary confinement but decided to mobilize in favor of the bill out of his own moral principles.
Social workers, lawyers, members of religious communities, and people from the general public were joined by formerly incarcerated people and families of currently incarcerated people in an action that defied demographics.
A Long Road Ahead
Although lobbying efforts in Albany were successful, there are still significant obstacles that sweeping legislation like the HALT Solitary Confinement Bill will have to overcome before it will be able to make it to the floor of the Assembly, much less the Republican-controlled Senate.
Partisan divisions are only part of the problem. Geographic and demographic splits also play a role in opinions on solitary confinement. As illustrated in an infographic distributed by CAIC, African Americans are even more over-represented in solitary confinement than they are in the prison population. In addition, while a majority of incarcerated people come from New York City, most prisons are located upstate, and most prison staff are white.
Political support for solitary confinement is still large around the state, especially in those counties where the local economy relies heavily of the business of correction facilities, and where correctional officer unions have powerful connections inside the state legislature.
Even in a liberal stronghold like New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to fix a correction system plagued by violence and dysfunction, reforms have taken place amid a climate of caution and sometimes skepticism.
“I don’t think it is cruel and unusual,” said Correction Department Commissioner Joseph Ponte in regard of solitary confinement, during a hearing at City Council last month.
But people who have done time in “the bing,” the nickname for the Rikers Island’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit, see it differently.
“Once you go into solitary confinement, all privileges are gone,” said Hallie West, who has twice been in solitary confinement at Rikers. “Privileges mean: telephone calls, food commissary, your books, your music and all that extra stuff. They take it away from you, and they put it on the side. You might get your clothing if you’re lucky.”
Since she first ended up in a SHU on Rikers Island in 1993, West said, things have gotten worse. Today, she said, people held in solitary confinement are never allowed out of the cell for any reason. Visits are heavily restricted, and inmates are denied the chance to make phone calls for several days at the time.
In March, De Blasio and Ponte co-announced a 14-point anti-violence agenda that includes a set limit of 60 days as the maximum amount of time that a person can spend in solitary confinement within any six-month period, and a ban on isolation for all inmates who are 21 or younger.
Despite being a step forward towards a more humane approach to incarceration, it is not yet clear how significantly the agenda will actually reduce the use of solitary confinement.
For opponents of solitary across the state, April 22 gave cause for encouragement, but also served as a reminder of the long road ahead.
“Many don’t believe as we believe, and it’s our job to convince them that they’re wrong,” said Jeffrion Aubry, the democrat from Queens who first introduced the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in the Assembly.
“They may not agree with us at the moment,” Aubry said about those legislators that are unconvinced about the bill. “But information and right ultimately win out.”
• Three women held at Kernes County Residential Center have sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as the GEO Group, the corporation that runs the detention center. The women allege that they were placed in solitary confinement along with their children in retaliation for going on hunger strike.
• A 2012 video just published by the New Yorker documents the guard abuse experienced by Kalief Browder, a teenager then held at Rikers’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit. Browder spent about a total of about two years in solitary confinement at the jail before the charges against him were dropped.
• More than 100 advocates gathered in Albany to lobby for the passage of an anti-solitary bill currently moving through the state’s legislature. The bill would prohibit the placement of certain populations in isolation and set a 15-day limit for all others. State-wide actions to end solitary also occurred in California.
• The Boston Globe published an article on Florence ADX, the federal supermax prison where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may serve a life sentence. “Nobody can go through that experience without being scarred,” said Ray Luv Levasseur, who served about five years at ADX. “It deadens you emotionally. You have to withdraw like a turtle into a shell.”
• US Representative Chaka Fattah reintroduced the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act into the House. The bill would prohibit the placement of children in solitary confinement except in extreme cirumstances.
• Solitary Watch’s Aviva Stahl published an article about Ashley Jean Arnold, a trans women who committed suicide in a Virginia federal prison in February. Last summer, Arnold spent 30 days in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) after various feminine items – including bras, panties, makeup items, etc – were found in her cell.
• The US Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General published a report on the Reeves County Detention Complex, called “the world’s largest for-profit prison.” In 2009, an individual with epilepsy died in his isolation cell, sparking a riot; prison staff allegedly use solitary to punish those who complain or organize against their confinement.
The following article was published on Wednesday on The Intercept. It was written with the support of a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
In 1986, Patty Prewitt was sent to prison for the murder of her husband. In addition to maintaining her innocence, she, like many others her age, has also been a model prisoner for nearly 30 years. Yet Prewitt, now 65 years old, will not be eligible for parole until 2036, so she is virtually guaranteed to spend the rest of her life behind bars.
In an essay published in the 2013 anthology Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough, Prewitt described an incident in a women’s prison in Missouri a decade ago, when a caseworker sat her down and presented a modest proposal. “I think we should start a cemetery behind 2-House,” the caseworker said. “A graveyard for you and the others serving no-parole.”
While she described her vision down to the flower beds and flat gravestones that can easily be mowed over, I sat sad, dumb and numb. It never occurred to me that the state was patiently waiting for me to die, although it makes perfect sense. In their opinion, a pine casket is my only way out, and since I am not directly sentenced to the death penalty, they must wait for me to die on my own … a second-class dead-woman-walking.
Patty Prewitt is one of the tens of thousands of Americans who will never again experience life outside of prison. While inside, Prewitt, a grandmother of 10, runs education and parenting programs, produces award-winning writings, and crochets teddy bears for charity. Yet for a crime committed three decades ago (and currently being reviewed by the Midwest Innocence Project), she will forever be barred from society, never again to live among free people.
In ancient times, communities would often rid themselves of convicted criminals and other undesirables through the practice of banishment: casting unwanted people out into the wilderness. The Romans often employed banishment as an alternative to capital punishment, and indeed, considered it a fate nearly as terrible as death. Later, the British Empire liberally employed the punishment of banishment and transportation to colonies such as Australia, while the Soviet Union became known for its use of internal banishment to Siberia. The terms exile, outlaw and outcast all owe their origin to this once widespread practice.
As the world grew smaller, banishment, as a practical matter, virtually ceased to exist. Though it still remains on the books in a few Southern states, it is generally thought of as an archaic form of punishment, and one that cannot function effectively in the modern world.
Yet the impetus behind banishment — to permanently remove individuals from society, and subject them to a kind of “social death” — flourishes today in the American criminal justice system, where prisons and jails are the settings for a new kind of internal exile.
The United States holds more than 2.2 million people in prison and jail, grossly outpacing the rest of the globe in terms of both sheer numbers and incarceration rate. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we hold nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Compared with Western Europe, we incarcerate five to ten times as high a percentage of our citizens.
But those overall numbers are just part of what sets us off from other industrialized nations. In Europe, the nature of sentencing is such that virtually every person who is sent to prison will one day return to society. Even those who receive “life” sentences are eventually eligible for parole. The International Criminal Court stipulates that those convicted of the very gravest crimes should serve 25 years before having their status reviewed. That is one key reason why rehabilitation, and not purely punishment and incapacitation, is the primary aim of the prison system.
In the United States, people sentenced to death number slightly over 3,000. With the number of legal and de facto state moratoria increasing, more of them are likely to die in prison of suicide or natural causes than by an executioner’s hand. They join tens of thousands of others in suffering permanent banishment to the carceral state.
Read the full article on The Intercept.
Last week, men incarcerated at Ohio’s supermax prison, the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, brought a month-long hunger strike to a close. Between 30 and 40 men had refused all meals since March 16 to protest new restrictions placed on already severely limited recreation and programming for those in solitary confinement. On Wednesday, April 15, all but one of the men agreed to suspend the hunger strike after a meeting with the warden at which the prison agreed to lifting some, but not all, of the new restrictions.
The Ohio State Penitentiary, or OSP, opened as Ohio’s first super maximum security facility in 1998. Conditions for the over 400 men held there are more restrictive than on Ohio’s death row. Even under policies that now exclude people with serious mental illness from placement there, the men incarcerated at OSP include those with mental health needs, including people with depression, dementia, cognitive and developmental disabilities.
Litigation by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights about OSP’s conditions and the criteria for determining who was placed there went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005. In that case, Austin v Wilkinson, the Court recognized that solitary confinement at OSP was an “atypical and substantial hardship.” The Court’s opinion, authored by Justice Antony Kennedy, included a description of the prison:
Incarceration at OSP is synonymous with extreme isolation. In contrast to any other Ohio prison, including any segregation unit, OSP cells have solid metal doors with metal strips along their sides and bottoms which prevent conversation or communication with other inmates. All meals are taken alone in the inmate’s cell instead of in a common eating area. Opportunities for visitation are rare and in all events are conducted through glass walls. It is fair to say OSP inmates are deprived of almost any environmental or sensory stimuli and of almost all human contact.
The Supreme Court held in Austin v Wilkinson that individuals placed in isolation at OSP were entitled to due process in the form of hearings and periodic reviews—but it did not ban or limit the use of solitary confinement. Even before the recent additional restrictions were imposed, these men were guaranteed a total of only five hours outside their cells in a week.
These new restrictions affected men classified in the highest security levels at OSP (4B, 5A and 5B). Under the new policies their access to programming and recreation outside their cells was even more severely limited, and their isolation deepened even further.
Specifically, the restrictions eliminated “range recreation” for incarcerated persons in the highest security levels– a practice that meant that one person was allowed out of his cell to have access to the area between cells. While only one person was allowed out of his cell at a time this allowed a person to at least walk the length of the common area and have conversations with people in other cells.
In addition, the restrictions eliminated what is considered group programming and group religious services, involving the use of programming cages or “booths”, for incarcerated persons in the highest security level, a group that includes over 50 men.
As Michael Brickner of the ACLU of Ohio put told Solitary Watch, “People think when you go to programming you go to a classroom.” Instead, at OSP each person is placed in an individual cage. “The cages are in a crescent shape and they put the prisoners in there for…group programming, or any interaction with a staff member. Say you had to meet with the prison psychiatrist, or had to have your blood pressure taken by the prison doctor, that’s all done in those cages.” When even this form of group activity was halted, the only available alternative was for a a clergy member to go cell to cell, standing at a distance of a few feet from a cell door, offering religious counseling to the man inside the cell through the narrow food slot in each door.
In a press release on their website related to the hunger strike (that has since been taken down), the Ohio Department for Rehabilitation and Correction explained the additional restrictions as a response to numerous incidents, including an assault with a weapon on a corrections officer in December and gang-related activity.
Meanwhile, the ACLU of Ohio wrote letters to the Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the Warden of OSP, and the State Senator who chairs a legislative body that oversees the prisons calling for a lifting of the restrictions and an investigation into the conditions at OSP. According to Michael Brickner, “The prisoners at OSP were already in some of the harshest conditions in our prison system. We already know that solitary confinement, in and itself, deteriorates a person’s mental state. With these additional restrictions they [we]re being subjected to such a severe level of solitary confinement it will be even more dangerous for the prisoners and ironically for the staff members who are there.”
By April 15, five men had been striking for a month. The decision to suspend the hunger strike that day came when the warden finally met with the hunger strikers and set out a timeline for restoring group religious services. It is unclear whether the educational programs will be restored. Range recreation will not be restored. One remaining hunger striker is protesting medical care that is unrelated to the restrictions.
One of the hunger strikers was Siddique Hasan, one of the ‘Lucasville Five’ – a group of men who were involved in the Lucasville prison uprising of 1993 and subsequently convicted in connection with the uprising. On the twentieth anniversary press sought in-person access to these men to interview them about the events at the prison. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction denied in-person access to these men and has continued to do so. Solitary Watch is a plaintiff in the case being litigated by the ACLU and Staughton and Alice Lynd that challenges this ban on the Lucasville Five’s media access as a violation of these men’s right to free speech.
Though his own conditions of confinement had not been affected by the new restrictions Mr. Hasan was reportedly fasting out of solidarity with those affected. After the suspension of the strike he was able to give a statement over the phone and in that statement he explained that the suspension of the strike was in response to the warden’s promise that he would reinstate religious services and a recognition that “range recreation” would not be restored no matter how long the strike went on. The warden also left open the possibility of restoring educational programming and investigating concerns regarding food quality and safety equipment in the shower areas. Finally, the men agreed to suspend their strike on the condition that the warden meet with the last hunger striker, whose concerns were about medical care.
In the wake of the suspension of the hunger strike, Michael Brickner said, “We’re still going to be very concerned that there are some prisoners who are going to be in severe isolation that is very detrimental to anyone’s mental state.” He described out-of-cell programming as “critical towards prisoner rehabilitation” and said an investigation by CIIC would still be helpful.
Alice and Staughton Lynd, lawyers from Youngstown, were heavily involved in the litigation regarding OSP in the early 2000s. Speaking about the new restrictions they expressed their concerns over a trend towards isolating people as much as possible. They said it was a trend that reversed policies in Ohio that had recognized the necessity of socialization and group interactions for people in isolation. They emphasized the importance of people having “more and more congregate experiences so they would become accustomed to dealing with groups as they will have to when they are released, or even returned to general population.”
• A California judge ordered a remediation plan in a lawsuit over conditions at Monterey County jail that included the placement of people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement.
• An editorial in the Toronto Globe and Mail faulted the government for Canada moving in the wrong direction with increasing use of solitary confinement. Also, data submitted to the Canadian parliament an article showed that the number of people placed in solitary confinement in Canada climbed over the past five years and this increase was especially steep for aboriginal Canadians who are in prison.
• An op-ed in the New York Post contrasts the NYC corrections officers’ union stubborn embrace of solitary with the condemnations of myriad others, including NYPD’s former commissioner Bernard Kerik.
• Media interest in ADX supermax prison was high amid speculation that convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would likely end up there if given a life sentence. A description of life at ADX was provided a man who was once held there in a 12 foot by 7 foot cell.
• April 17 marked 43 years since Albert Woodfox was placed in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola prison. Prosecutors continue to seek a third trial after his conviction was overturned for the second time.
• Calls to end solitary confinement in North Carolina accompany county jail officials’ acknowledgement that people in jail are only allowed out of their cells for a total of 6 hours a week. But officials claim this is not solitary confinement.
• An op-ed in the New York Times discusses the problem of prison rape and the writer’s own sexual assault by a guard while she was in a solitary confinement unit.
• Religious leaders in Texas denounce the use of solitary confinement and urge passage of legislation that would limit its use.
• A replica of a solitary confinement cell, as well as the dream home of Herman Wallace, a man who lived in solitary confinement for more than 40 years, were placed on display at the Brooklyn Public Library.
• A public health radio series explores solitary confinement in New Mexico
• An article in the Johns Hopkins magazine discusses the health consequences of solitary confinement and the role of health professionals in reform.
Kijana Tashiri Askari has been in solitary confinement since 1994 after he was “validated” as a member of the Black Guerrilla Family. Until recently in California’s prisons, people who were validated as gang members were sentenced to indeterminate stays in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), where they spent nearly 24 hours in windowless cells. In 2012, following two hunger strikes in 2011, CDCR introduced its Step Down program, in which people who had previously been validated as members of prison gangs or Security Threat Groups could ostensibly work their way out of the SHU and into general population. As reported previously in Solitary Watch, there has been some reduction in the number of people in the SHU statewide, although the numbers in Pelican Bay have risen between 2012 and 2014. In this piece, Askari describes his transfer from one supermax prison to another—and his first taste in 20 years of the world outside prison walls. He can be reached at: Kijana Tashiri Askari, s/n Marcus Harrison #H54077, PO Box 3476, 4B1L #31/Step-4, Corcoran, CA 93212-3476. —Victoria Law
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On January 29, 2015, my quest of travel began with a wake-up call at 2:20 am, where I was told to be ready in 30 minutes by the first watch unit officer. Myself and a total of 17 prisoners were all rounded up like “chattel slaves” and placed in the C-facility SHU visiting room holding cells till we boarded the bus at 6 am. In hitting the highway, my sensibilities immediately went through the whirlwind cycle of “shock and awe” via the vivid reminder of what freedom used to entail. I mean think about it, we’re talking about 20 years of being entombed in Pelikkkan Bay’s torture chambers without any environmental stimulation or human contact!! So just imagine how my sense voraciously feasted upon: the sight of cows and horses parlaying in the open fields; the sight of the ocean’s waters roaring and brushing up against the elements of Motha Earth; the sight of enormous mountains and trees, along with green grass and birds flying in the clear blue sky—as free as they wanna be!! The sight of social activity, in seeing other human beings exercising, walking, driving their cars, and doing everything they wanted to do—simply because they were free!!
To my surprise, it got better!! We had a one-hour layover at San Quentin and times definitely have changed since I was last there in the late 80s and early 90s. San Quentin’s lower yard now has tennis courts?! And they’ve completely remodeled the receiving and release (r&r) building.
As we left San Quentin, I was reminded of the old saying: “That some gifts just keep on giving.” As I was able to take in the sights of the historic landmarks of the new Bay Bridge extension, the Golden Gate and San Rafael bridges, the BART train, and part of my hometown in West Oakland, California, via the West MacArthur Maze Freeway. While not a religious person, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Because as a person serving a life sentence, I never would’ve believed that the good fortunes of seeing home would come to fruition in my lifetime…ever again.
The safari from Pelikkkan Bay continued…while awaiting transfer to Corcoran SHU per Step 4 status of the Step Down program (SDP) in the Administrative Segregation Unit (Ad Seg) at Deuvel Vocational Institution (DVI)-Tracy State Prison (“slave kamp”) via the now standard week-long layover. The only good things about DVI were:
1. The food is prepared with seasoning and taste a whole lot better, and they still issue real jelly and syrup unlike Pelikkkan Bay;
2. You finally see prison guards of color (“Afrikans/Mexicans”) who treat you fairly decent; and
3. They’ve upgraded the r&r holding cell area with top-of-the-line flat screen TVs where they’ve showed us quality “grown folk” movies that just came out, which is a complete 360 from the kindergarten flicks shown at Pelikkkan Bay.
However, the living conditions in the Ad Seg unit of L-Wing are outright deplorable, filthy and disgusting. The cell sinks are broken with holes in them and the drinking water is brown!! It’s like drinking water from a water hole in an underdeveloped country!! And you know the water is compromised when the prison guards are walking around with bottles of drinking water for themselves and when your soap doesn’t even lather up during showers. Every environmental water agency needs to be notified about this—so that it can be investigated and corrected ASAP!! There is no telling what level of contaminants these prisoners are being forced to drink?!
On February 3, 2015, we were back on the road and for the first time in 20 years, I had the pleasure of seeing the sun rise!! The script couldn’t have played out any better, until the rude awakening of my arrival to the Corcoran Slave Planation, my new internment kamp for the next foreseeable years…via indefinite SHU status.
Unfortunately, we had a New Afrikan of the Damu tribe lose his discipline as he fell for the fascist antics of Corcoran’s welcome committee that greet you upon exiting the bus where they intentionally roughhouse you to try and provoke a “reaction.” As I approached the stairs to exit the bus, I was immediately identified by a sergeant who told me I would be going to 4B1L (the “validated gang housing unit”), but for reasons unknown I’m currently housed in 4A4L (“housing unit for informants/debriefers”), which is a typical COINTELPRO tactic aimed at neutralizing/isolating all committed revolutionaries. Upon my relentless protest, I was rehoused.
Our struggle continues!
• A student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote a piece for the Huffington Post calling for the end of youth solitary in prisons across the country. A bill to end the practice of putting children in solitary confinement is being considered in the California legislature.
• A new report highlights the conditions of confinement endured by men locked up in a high-security unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary. The Oregonian reports, “most are in their cells for 23 hours a day and few regularly shower or have a chance for recreation even though both are required under state Department of Corrections policies.”
• The Washington Post published an editorial calling for the federal government to overhaul its use of solitary confinement. “The federal government should be leading the effort to end the abuse of isolating prisoners from meaningful social interaction and other basic needs. Instead, the federal system’s practices are clearly contributing to the morally inexcusable overuse of prisoner isolation.”
• The New York Times published an in-depth article about Michael Megginson, a 25-year-old man who deteriorated psychologically after being incarcerated on Rikers Island, “becoming one of the most violent inmates on the island.” He spent 127 days in solitary confinement in 2013.
• A 23-year-old trans man, Ky Peterson, was placed in protective custody – a form of isolated confinement – the day before an article about him was set to be published. Peterson is serving a 20-year sentence for killing his alleged rapist.
• An advisor council of ACLU of Nebraska has called on the legislature to enact a series of pending prison reform bills, including legislation designed to ensure the “appropriate” use of segregation. “Meaningful policy reform, like the initial effort underway in the Nebraska Legislature is the most efficient, most certain and least expensive route to cure constitutional violations in the prison system and mitigate state liability.”
For the past four years, Solitary Watch has been sending a quarterly print edition, with selected stories from the website, to individuals in solitary confinement. Our list now numbers more than 1,500. If you know someone inside who would like to receive our mailings, please email their address to email@example.com, or send it to Solitary Watch, PO Box 11374, Washington, DC 20008.
• Slate published an article about a program instituted in Washington state, which is “premised… on the idea that every prisoner, even the so-called worst of the worst, deserves a chance to improve himself, instead of being left to waste away in a tiny, windowless cell with no human contact for months or even years.” The project, which has resulted in an almost 50% drop in the number of people held in isolation, “divide[s] people with different problems into different programs, all of which operate out of separate prisons.”
• A woman incarcerated in Mercer County Correctional Center is suing high-ranking staff at the jail for $10 million for allegedly “turn[ing] a blind eye” to sexual abuse she suffered on the inside. Two women maintain that they were forced to perform oral sex on a corrections officer while being held in solitary confinement.
• ScienceDaily featured recently published criminologist research, which challenged the effectiveness of solitary confinement. “You’re not getting a reward one way or the other for exposing inmates to solitary, so you have question its utility,” said the publishing author. “It’s costing money, it’s costing time and there are potentially harmful side effects.”
• California prison officials filed a new mental health policy in a Sacramento federal court. Incarcerated people with mental illness who act out will now receive counseling instead of being sent into isolation automatically.
• A bill that would prohibit placing pregnant women in solitary confinement has passed through New York’s state Assembly. The legislation now moves to the Senate.
• According to a two-year study conducted on Rikers Island, and set to come out in June, jail health workers should play no role in determining when or if an individual is placed in solitary. “Whatever the security reasoning for placement in such units, the participation of health staff in this process is cumbersome, time intensive, of questionable value and does not reflect a patient-health provider interaction that is in the patient’s best interest,” wrote city health officials.
• A group of 78 mothers have gone on hunger strike at Karnes Detention Center in Texas to protest the continued detention of their families as they pursue asylum claims. At least three mothers – along with their children – have allegedly been placed in isolation in retaliation for their actions.
• Lawyers for Albert Woodfox, the last incarcerated member of the Angola 3, argued in court that he should be released from prison and the state barred from prosecuting him for murder for the third time. Woodfox has spent several decades in solitary confinement.
• As the New York State Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association initiates an ad campaign demanding additional “staffing and technological resources,” allied Republican state lawmakers have asserted that “humane” isolation is necessary to keep staff safe. Meanwhile, former Police and Correction Commissioner Bernard Kerik said that solitary confinement can amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
• Al Jazeera America published an op-ed calling for the US to abolish solitary confinement. Another opinion piece, this one printed in The Baltimore Sun, called for the city to stop placing kids in adult jails, where they often end up in isolation.
The New York Times Magazine feature story on the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, in Florence, Colorado, appeared under the headline “Inside America’s Toughest Prison.” In fact, no journalist has been inside ADX for at least 15 years, but 400 men live there, some for years or decades.
The story has suddenly spurred interest in the federal supermax prison, which its own former warden described as “a clean version of hell.” A number of journalists have been writing about this torture chamber for years, including Susan Greene in The Colorado Independent and the Dart Society Report, Alan Prendergast in Westword, and Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic. We’ve written about it ourselves, here on Solitary Watch, and have also published many pieces of writing by men currently or formerly held in ADX.
In light of the heightened interest in the prison, we provide below links to the voices of people who know what it is like to live inside the walls of ADX.
In January of this year, the Wisconsin prison system implemented new policies which will revamp the way in which solitary confinement is used as a correction measure against prisoners violating prison rules. While the Legislature endorsed the changes, guards, people in prison, and prison activists say that it remains unclear whether the adjustments means fewer people will spend less time isolation.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) holds approximately 1,500 people of the state’s 22,000 prisoners in some form of segregation on any given day, sometimes for months, years or even decades at a time. According to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, solitary is routinely used to punish individuals for violations of prison regulations. A 2013 report by the Association of State Correctional Administrators found 118 people in Wisconsin correctional facilities were held in solitary confinement for over two years, 14 of whom were kept in isolation for over a decade. According to a 2009 Wisconsin state audit, almost half of all people held in solitary suffer from serious mental illness.
At Waupan Correctional Institution, a state prison 55 miles of Madison, cells are about the size of a bathroom with a small window. People in the unit are held in 23-hour-a-day lockdown with no contact with the external world aside from that with corrections officers — and incoming mail if they are lucky. According to The Cap Times, the unit combines severe isolation and frequent use of force on people confined in the prison. In fact, two people held in solitary confinement at Waupun have committed suicide between December 2013 and July 2014. The story states:
The use-of-force reports release for Waupan from 2012 and most of 2013 include six cases in which was force was deployed against inmates in segregation while they were engaged in acts of self-harm or attempted suicide.
One inmate cut his wrist and forearm with metal from his glasses and was pepper sprayed. Others were tasered or sprayed after taking pills or attempting to hang themselves with a bedsheet or pillow case.
Waupun’s isolation unit has elicited numerous grievances from prisoners alleging abuse by officers. Since 2011, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found 40 physical or psychological mistreatment claims of people in isolation, comprising 33 prisoners since 2011. Officials deny any instances of abuse, however, instead accusing the prisoners of fabricating claims of mistreatment.
Secretary of Correction Calls for Change; Advocates Call for Clarity
Wisconsin secretary of Correction Ed Wall has stated that he would like to reduce the use of solitary in the state. In an April 2014 message to his staff, Wall writes: “Are we placing inmates in segregation because we are mad at them? And if we are, does this help our inmates or does it make us any safer?”
Wall’s communication with staff, obtained by Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, stated the DOC would be working with “scientists, scholars and mental health professionals from across the country” to outline new approaches, recognizing that the topic “will undoubtedly touch nerves with staff for a variety of reasons.”
According to WisconsinWatch.org:
Despite these internal communications, the DOC has been publicly tight-lipped about policy changes regarding its use of solitary confinement. Wall declined an interview request and agency spokeswoman Joy Staab has declined to answer questions about specific changes.
The DOC took more than two months to fulfill an Aug. 1 request from the Center for records on the matter, then provided only records up until the time of the request. Still, nearly 250 pages of records were released…
Wall went on to muse that segregation has at times become “a method to isolate and punish inmates as a form of internal judge, jury and executioner. Depriving people of outside contact, personal property, programming, etc., seems to focus on doing psychological harm rather than achieve desirable goals.”
Wall also wrote, “Courts have repeatedly found that forcing prisoners with mental illness to undergo solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. How would our placements be viewed by the courts?”
According to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR), “[Wall’s memo] questions the effectiveness of putting inmates in isolation cells for as long as a year for non-violent rule-breaking, such as not taking their medications. The memo also suggests using alternative punishments that simply reduce a prisoner’s privileges and offer incentives for changed behavior instead of punishment.
The memo, which Wall requested not be disclosed, included instances of solitary being used “harshly and punitively.” In one case, he said an individual was sentenced to 180 days for having kitchen spices in his cell and wondered how this had “anything to do with the safety and security of the institutions.”
Others, however, feel the proposed changes are unclear and should be more extensive. According to WPR, Kate Edwards, a Buddhist prison chaplain who advocates for people held in segregation, says ” the new rules actually increase the number of rule infractions that can land an inmate in segregation for a year”:
[Edwards] said the new rules also seem to ignore the plight of mentally ill inmates. One phrase in the new rules requires consideration of an inmate’s serious mental illness during hearings on whether to send them to segregation. She said that’s not enough when international experts agree that solitary confinement is more likely to make a mental illness worse.
New Guidelines Call for Limits on Use of Solitary Confinement in Wisconsin
As concerns over the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons grow, DOC officials are taking measures to overhaul the state’s use of the practice. According to CBS WDJT Milwaukee, the Wisconsin DOC has issued the following statement: “The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has been working on restrictive housing reform for several years, which has included programming and psychological staff. The Department remains focused on our mission of protecting the public, our staff and those in change.”
In a September 2014 memo to staff, Cathy Jess, administrator of the DOC’s division of adult institution, writes:
The disciplinary process should be used as a means to motivate the inmate to alter their negative behavior, with long-term correction of the behavior as the end goal… Long-term segregation placements have been shown to be ineffective in terms of discipline and do not serve our corrective or rehabilitative goals.
According to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Jess’s memo signals change on the part of the DOC’s current disciplinary code, which has been in place since 2001. While officials have yet to discuss any specifics and any potential changes remain unclear, Jess is on record as stating that the new rules are “an excellent opportunity to focus on making positive changes” to the state’s use of segregation. The story further states that the new code calls for expediting the process of enacting discipline for minor violations, while “upholding the ideals of rehabilitation and fairness.”
According to a December 2015 story by Wisconsin Public Radio, new regulations were planned to go into effect in January of this year. The story states that the policies “will change the way the Wisconsin prison system uses solitary confinement to discipline inmates who break the rules.” WPR adds:
The Legislature approved the changes [last] spring, but correctional officers, inmates and prison reform advocates say it’s still not clear whether the changes mean fewer inmates will spend less time in what is commonly called “the hole.”
Training for correctional officers in enforcing the new rules has just begun and inmates received new rule books this month…
But, Brian Cunningham, the head of the correctional officers union, calls the new rules an effort to placate troublesome inmates. He said officers who must now enforce the new rules weren’t asked for input in designing them, and he’s convinced training young, white officers to have the kinds of conversations with inmates the new rules call for will be next to impossible.
“You cannot have some 18-year-old, non-graduated yokel talking to some 40-year-old, inner city, black inmate. It doesn’t work,” he said.
According to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), the average yearly cost of holding a person in solitary confinement is $50,000 — double the cost of housing a prisoner in the general population. Reducing Wisconsin’s use of the practice by half could save $70 million over the next two years, a needed cost cutting measure in light of the state’s current prison budget crisis. According to Kenosha News, the costs of incarceration in the state have risen dramatically from 1990 to 2011, from under $200 million to more than $1.3 billion, respectively.
Movement to End Use of Long-Term Solitary
Faith-based organization WISDOM, a statewide group of congregation-based community organizations, is drawing attention to the use of segregation in Wisconsin. As part of the advocacy group’s efforts, the organization recently displayed a solitary cell replica in the lobby of Marquette University’s Raynor Library, attracting students and others interested in getting a taste of what those held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails experience.
The Journal Sentinel describes the segregation cell replica:
The gray walls are made of wood but look like cinder block and the stainless steel toilet and sink, mattress pad and door with small window and slot to slide a food tray are accurate. The 6 feet by 12 feet exhibit was made by the theater department at Madison’s Edgewood College…
An iPad and headphones are proffered to anyone who wants to hear the sounds of incarceration — the audio comes from a Frontline story on solitary confinement.
According to one event attendant, “One of the things people find so frightening is the sound. You can talk about solitary confinement, but when you sit in the place it’s quite a different experience.”
The story goes on to say that visitors “have the option of going in [the segregation cell replica] only with a Bible or Qur’an and pen and piece of paper, just like actual prisoners.” During the event, visitors are asked if they would like to sign a petition calling for changes in the way solitary confinement is used in Wisconsin prisons and jails, specifically “limiting time to 15 days and ending incarceration for people under 18.”
In a video describing the mock cell’s construction, Kate Edwards said, that after ministering to people in isolation, “I took a vow to make visible the torture and the abuse that I was seeing in how we make use of solitary confinement.”
• Federal investigators have concluded that Baltimore City illegally placed teens in solitary confinement. One youth spent 143 days in isolation.
• At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that “solitary confinement literally drives men mad.” He and Justice Stephen Breyer called for reforms to the criminal justice system.
• Aakash Dalal, 22, has been held in solitary confinement for three years as he awaits trial for allegedly firebombing four synagogues in New Jersey. The state’s Supreme Court is considering a change of venue in the case.
• NET, Nebraska’s PBS & NPR stations, published an interview with Scott Frakes, Nebraska’s new director of Department of Correctional Services. “Today, roughly 700 inmates are held in some form of segregation, out of a population of 5300. So that is a pretty significant ratio. I would want to see that number – a couple of years from now – I would hope to see that number at least halved, if not less,” he said.
• The Vera Institute of Justice announced that it will work in collaboration with jails and prisons in five states with the aim of reducing the use of solitary confinement. Nebraska, Oregon, and North Carolina, along with jails in New York City and Middlesex County, New Jersey, will engage in the two-year process.
Supreme Court Justice Kennedy: Corrections System Is “Broken” and “Solitary Confinement Literally Drives Men Mad”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on Monday used long-term solitary confinement as evidence that the “idea of total incarceration just isn’t working.” Solitary “literally drives men mad,” Kennedy said, noting that more humane alternatives are employed elsewhere in the world.
Kennedy’s comments were made during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the 2016 Budget Request for the Supreme Court. In response to a question from Arkansas Republican Steve Womack about prison overcrowding, Kennedy made the following statement. (To watch, click on the photo and go to minute 29.)
I think that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions—functions—that we have in our entire government. In law school I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt, innocence, adjudication process. And once the adjudication process is over we have no interest in corrections. Doctors know more about the corrections system—and psychiatrists—than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had more than 187,000 people in jail, at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. Compared that with the amount they gave to schoolchildren, about $3,500 a year.”
And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working–and it’s not humane. The federal government build—what do they call them—supermax prisons, with isolation cells. The prisoner we had come before our court a few weeks ago…had been in an isolation cell according to the attorney—I haven’t checked it out—for 25 years. Solitary confinement literally drives men mad.
Kennedy then referred to a character in the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities, who spent 20 years in isolation in the Bastille.
Even Dr. Manette had his workbench and his cobblers tools in Tower 105 North, and even he lost his mind. We simply have to look at this system we have. The Europeans have systems for difficult, recalcitrant prisoners in which they have them in a group of three or four, and they can stay together with three or four, and they have human contact. And it seems to work much better. But we haven’t given nearly enough study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our corrections system. In many respects, I think it’s broken.
Kennedy’s most famous tretise on the humane treatment of prisoners came in his majority opinion in the 2011 Brown v Plata case, where he wrote: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” The Eighth Amendment determines whether a punishment is cruel and unusual based on “evolving standards of decency.” Now it seems that those standards may be evolving in the view of a key voter on the U.S. Supreme Court.
• ThinkProgress published an article about one unexpected reason why Republican support for prison reform is increasing. “Conservatives are increasingly joining the fight to end solitary confinement on the basis that it constitutes a form of torture and undermines principles of morality and personhood.”
• Solitary Watch’s Sarah Shourd covered the release of Juan Mendez’s findings from his tour of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, a facility known for keeping individuals in indefinite solitary confinement. “There’s no doubt in my mind this is torture,” Mendez concluded.
• A federal judge issued a strong ruling against currently and formerly incarcerated plaintiffs, in an ongoing lawsuit intended to challenge the Bureau of Prisons’ Communication Management Units. “Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote that the Bureau of Prisons’ units do not violate inmates’ rights because the additional restrictions are ‘limited in nature’ compared to ordinary prison units, and are far better than solitary confinement.”
• The Texas Observer published a second article in a series entitled “Letters from Death Row,” this one focused on the effect of solitary confinement. The author writes, “Long periods of solitary confinement can result in loss of speech,” and quotes from a survey participant on the inside. “When you live in an environment where nearly everyone is hostile to you, you learn to say less and less until you arrive at the point where vocalization seems increasingly odd to you.”