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The 'wHOLE' Truth Behind Solitary Confinement

Prison cell window
Prison cell window
Sheetal Dhir,
Communications Strategist
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March 27, 2015

On any given day in America there are 80,000 people in solitary settings, not counting youth in juvenile facilities and people in jails.

With no evidence-based research of its effectiveness, solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment that has been overused and abused. According to the experts, the massive expansion of solitary confinement in America is a failed experiment of the late 20th century. By exploring different strategies and solutions producing better outcomes for prisoners, staff, and the community is possible. Even the highest courts are paying attention to the issue of solitary confinement. In a recent appropriations hearing on Capitol Hill, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “Solitary confinement literally drives men mad.”

The following is a dialogue between a lawyer, an artist, and an advocate about solitary confinement. Amy Fettig is senior counsel at the National Prison Project at the ACLU and the leading lady behind the #StopSolitary effort at the ACLU. Ramon Hamilton, writer and director at Think Ten Media Group, is leading the charge on “The wHOLE,” a web series that aims to shed light on the human rights nightmare that is solitary confinement. Jeff Deskovic is an exoneree who was released after 16 years in prison. He holds a master’s degree in criminal justice and is the executive director of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice.

Conducted over e-mail, this virtual roundtable discussion explores the devastating, dehumanizing effects of solitary confinement. It was edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to get involved in the issue of solitary confinement?

Amy: I’ve worked as a civil rights attorney and criminal justice reform advocate for many years, so I knew about the terrible problem of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers. I also knew that most Americans have no idea about what’s happening behind bars and what’s being done to other human beings in their name. So over four years ago, my colleagues and I at the ACLU’s National Prison Project started the STOP Solitary Campaign, which focuses on public education, legislation, policy advocacy, and supporting alternatives to solitary confinement.

Ramon: The issue of solitary confinement first came to me during the Pelican Bay hunger strikes in 2013. I’m a filmmaker who is committed to using the power of storytelling to shed light on social issues and to help shape behavior. After educating myself, I immediately knew what my next project would be. I thank all of those who took part in the hunger strike. They brought attention to this, and it worked. Now I am focused on bringing the harsh realities of solitary confinement to a wide audience and encouraging viewers to get engaged in the movement to stop solitary.

Jeff: While I was wrongfully imprisoned for 16 years prior to being exonerated via DNA for a murder and rape that I did not commit, I spent approximately 21 days in solitary confinement because I had to preemptively defend myself from other prisoners who were going to stab me because they thought that I was a sex offender. Being against injustice on any level, I am fiercely opposed to solitary confinement.

Have you ever been in a solitary cell? What are the three words you would use to describe that experience?

Amy: I’ve been in several solitary cells in different states – all for litigation and all with a court order. These aren’t places that the public can usually go and most prisons and jails aren’t exactly eager for outsiders to see what happens in solitary units. The cells are all oppressive, claustrophobic, and soul-crushing. Over the years I’ve met remarkable men and women who somehow cling to their humanity and hope in solitary. They have amazing resilience and somehow surmount the odds. But more often I’ve met folks who are shattered by the experience.

Ramon: The filming of this show is on location at a real prison. Our first day of filming, we accidentally locked ourselves inside a cell, and a part of me froze. Fortunately, for us, this moment only lasted a few minutes. I still think about that moment to this day. This impacted me in just a few minutes. Imagine several days, weeks, or years? It’s worse than a cage, because at least in a cage you reach out through the bars. The best three words I can use to describe the experience are suffocating, bright, and disconnected.

Jeff: Three words I would use to describe the solitary experience: inhumane, excessive, unnecessary. It is beneath the dignity of a country with our ideals.

Primarily, I found the experience to be disorienting. I was not able to keep track of what time it was. The hallway lights were constantly on, there was no clock, watches were not allowed, nor were there any windows to look up at the sky. The only way I knew the approximate time was when breakfast was served because of the food items. There were also major problems with food. A few times I had the misfortune of being asleep when the guards came around with the food; they would not wake me up. Since I was not allowed to go to commissary and purchase food items or even have food items in my cell, I went hungry when that happened.

One rule of solitary confinement that I hated was that any time I left the cell for any reason – such as to take a shower, recreation, or a visit – I was put into handcuffs. When it was time to go to recreation, I often declined because I didn’t want to be put into handcuffs. Besides, it wasn’t like I was missing out on anything: The “recreation area” consisted of being in a small caged area by myself, where I could not see the sky, nor see any other prisoners. Hence, I was in my cell for 24 hours a day.

There is a serious issue with confidentiality in solitary confinement. Mental health professionals made their rounds several times a week, but there was no confidentiality because they spoke to me and other prisoners right outside our cells, so everyone could hear everything. The same was true when it came to prison chaplains. Correction officers would stand a few feet from health providers and listen to conversations. There was no legitimate security concern: I was handcuffed and had to sit in a chair while speaking. They could have stood right outside a closed door and watched.

The most stifling aspect is lack of access. Unlike general population, where I was allowed to go to the law library and get the materials I needed, I was required to send a note stating what materials I needed, and a law clerk would come around and bring the materials. Consequently, my ability to overturn my wrongful conviction during that time span was severely curtailed. What about prisoners sentenced to long periods of time who are challenging their conviction, often unrepresented, since prisoners are not provided with an attorney as a matter of right when filing a habeas corpus petition or when filing a post-conviction motion?

Why have institutions such as political parties or legislatures shied away from this issue?

Amy: Increasingly, political leaders are actually stepping up to stop solitary. We’re seeing leaders in states as diverse as Texas, California, New York, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Montana introduce legislation to roll back, and sometimes even ban, the practice for vulnerable groups like kids and people with mental illness.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go to fix the problem. It’s important to remember that the problem of solitary confinement was in many ways created by bad political leadership. Instead of funding drug treatment, mental health, and community alternatives to incarceration, our political leaders poured millions and millions of dollars into building “supermax” prisons, which are prisons designed solely for the purpose of putting thousands of people in solitary confinement. At the same time, they passed harsh laws that brought more and more people into prisons and jails for longer and longer periods of time with no emphasis on or funding to provide rehabilitation or re-entry services. The results were bloated systems with endemic overcrowding that simply warehoused people in terrible conditions.

Ramon: I’m happy to see that more and more legislatures and politicians are being more vocal about the negative repercussions of solitary. Many more need to join their peers and do the same. I’m an artistic person, and not a politician, but I would imagine that all politicians need to please their base. When such a large base of people focus on punishment rather than reform, then their elected officials would have to represent their views, which in turns creates a system of punishment in place of reform.

Jeff: Enlightened politicians who understand the issue are not always willing to help educate the public on the issue, which is necessary to avoid political backlash. Another issue is that in some states like California, there are some unions that oppose reform to solitary confinement. Scare tactics – such as publicly predicting that unless solitary confinement is available as a punishment and a deterrent that suddenly there will be a spike in prisoner assaults of corrections officers and staffs, though this is not true – are utilized and these often have an impact. In other states like Texas, however, the officers’ union supports reform to solitary because they have stated the practice is unsafe.

What is the link between solitary confinement and recidivism rates?

Amy: Solitary confinement is not good for people, and it is not good for public safety. But when you’re in solitary, you don’t have access to education, jobs, programming, or any of the services that might help someone build better skills to return to the community and lead a productive, law-abiding life. Most states do not prohibit direct release from solitary confinement to the community. I know from my clients that being released to the streets directly from solitary is incredibly hard, people fall apart, they have extreme difficulties relating to other people, and it is almost impossible to function – especially if you don’t have a family to support you.

Most states don’t keep data on recidivism rates for people being directly released to the streets from solitary, but the states that do – like Washington, California, and Colorado – have found that direct release leads to higher recidivism rates. This is not surprising.

I know from many of my clients who are in solitary right now that as much as they want to leave solitary, they are also afraid of returning home. They are afraid that they no longer know how to interact with other people in a normal way.

I have a client now who will be released this year. He’s terrified, and frankly I’m scared for him too because there is so little community support for solitary survivors. He’s been in solitary for years and is seriously mentally ill. I have regular calls with him because I’m so afraid he will kill himself before he gets a chance to go home. Since coming to solitary he’s attempted suicide many times and also self-mutilates because he says: “It helps me feel something,” and “It helps quiet the voices in my head.”

Ramon: I have talked extensively with those who have been in solitary, as part of my research, and they have made it very clear that it is a very damaging process. Every person that I’ve spoken to, who has experienced solitary for more than a few weeks, has said that it has had long-term damaging effects physically and socially.

Jeff: Prisoners who are mistreated are more likely to come out worse than they were when they first entered the system, and they may have more anger and rage. This can contribute to recidivism. In addition, there is a strong relationship between solitary confinement and mental illness, and prisoners who are released back into the community with undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems are more likely to commit crimes and thus return to prison.

What is the harshest reality related to solitary confinement?

Amy: The harsh reality of solitary confinement is that it destroys human beings. Being placed in a small cell and isolated from all normal human contact for long periods of time degrades the mind and eventually the body. I’ve repeatedly witnessed this horror. As a lawyer who believes in the Constitution and who also believes that citizens in a democracy are responsible for the actions of their government, I cannot stay silent. I must take action.

Ramon: The harshest reality is knowing that it is actually torture. I’ve read a lot about those in solitary, talked with those that have been in solitary, and am connected to someone who is currently in solitary. It is beyond punishment. It breaks one down in such a manner that when used for a prolonged period of time it has negative effects that are irreversible. Now that I think about it, perhaps the harshest reality is that we’re still using it in wide numbers and on a regular basis.

Jeff: I think it’s a close call between being put in handcuffs all the time and the isolation/minimization of human contact. Not far behind either is the message that the system does whatever it wants regardless of morality and that it doesn’t care about prisoners or the general public. Solitary confinement erodes respect for the government, legislature, and corrections in general on the part of prisoners, their families, advocates, and the public once they are educated on the realities of solitary confinement. This is true of people who live in foreign countries.

Additionally, as a prisoner in solitary, one is completely powerless and dependent on correction officers, who have no oversight. The supervisors are co-workers and friends with the guards that work there, and they pretty much look the other way on everything and/or back up whatever the guards choose to do. Rather than objective supervision, instead there is a heavy “Us Versus Them” mentality. The word of prisoners, even several of them, is viewed with suspicion; unless, of course, the prisoner is informing on another prisoner. Then their word is gospel.

What are the biggest challenges you face in regards to your work on solitary?

Amy: Our first challenge in the Stop Solitary campaign was that almost nobody knew about it, even though it’s a pervasive practice in every state in the country and thousands of people are suffering as a result. Solitary confinement is almost entirely hidden from public view or scrutiny.

I think it’s also very difficult for people to believe that solitary confinement exists in this country. For many, it sounds like the sort of thing that only happens in other countries that abuse human rights but not in America where we think of ourselves as human rights leaders. In fact, it’s not surprising that so many euphemisms are used to try and sanitize solitary, like “Special Management Unit,” “Room Confinement,” “Administrative Segregation,” “Special Housing Unit,” or “Restrictive Housing.” Regardless of the label, the practice – and the harm – is the same.

The good news is that all of this is changing. We are now hearing stories from solitary more and more. There is tremendous momentum in the advocacy community and beyond to push for the change that needs to happen in our corrections systems and our communities to stop this practice.

Ramon: In this country, entertainment is king. People consume entertainment all the time and in so many different ways. Since entertainment is so widespread, it needs to be used as a tool. In fact, I feel it’s my responsibility to do exactly that. The show, The wHOLE, which is a web series on solitary confinement and mass incarceration in the U.S. does just this. While the audience experiences the show, they will be informed of the harsh realities of solitary. People are starting to come around to this concept of using entertainment as an advocacy tool, but we need more people and organizations to understand the important role that entertainment can play in the movement to stop solitary.

Jeff: A common reaction to solitary is that whatever happens to a prisoner while they’re in prison is their fault. These people are criminals; they deserve to be treated as such. My answer to that position is multi-fold: A) Some prisoners are innocent; they may be non-violent offenders; many are over-sentenced; others may not have had a fair trial, due to inadequate lawyering by over-worked and under-funded public defenders or prosecutorial misconduct or both. B) Prisoners are people too, and they are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. C) We are talking about fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. Many are people who made bad choices and mistakes, and additionally, while this is no excuse, those bad choices were easier based upon a variety of reasons, like poverty, single family households, poor education, and crime-riddled communities. Many didn’t have the same opportunities that others have had. D) If we mistreat prisoners, then they are more likely to be worse than they were when originally incarcerated. Therefore they are more likely to commit additional crimes. E) If we mistreat prisoners, then in reality we are lowering ourselves to a level worse than the worst imagined offender and are working against rehabilitation.

What alternatives do you propose in lieu of solitary confinement?

Amy: In any system there may be a handful of people who are dangerous and who need to be segregated for safety reasons. And even these folks should not be subject to solitary confinement. There are many things you can do to lessen isolation, like providing programming, increasing human interaction, and increasing incentives for positive social interaction.

Ramon: I would like to see a system that really focuses on improving behavior, rather than simply punishing behavior. Solitary does nothing but punish and torture. How can anyone reform under these conditions? I’d like to see more mental health professionals in our prisons that work regularly with all of those that need that help. Overall, the prison system needs to change its mindset. Swaying away from a traditional prison model, and focusing on what has been successful when it comes to bettering behavior. We need to look at other models around the globe that work, and learn from them. We don’t need to recreate the wheel. There are already better solutions out there. Let’s implement those.

Jeff: Solitary confinement is never appropriate. There are other methods of dealing with misbehaving prisoners, such as “keep-lock,” where the prisoners are kept in the cells for 23 hours a day but are allowed to keep their property; having recreation with other prisoners; prohibiting handcuffing when leaving the cells; having confidentiality maintained; reducing sentences; and restricting the removal of prisoners to locations that have less regular traffic and hence more isolation and cover for violence and cover-up. The special housing unit, in contrast to that, is more isolating and provides more cover for violence and other forms of mistreatment.

What does the future of solitary confinement look like in the U.S.? Abroad? What is the likelihood of abolition?

Amy: I am very optimistic that we will abolish solitary as we know it today in this country. It’s going to take a great deal of work, and it’s not going to happen overnight, but we will get there. And the ACLU is committed to getting us there. There is very progressive legislation being introduced all around the nation. For example, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, and Nebraska all introduced bills that would implement the international human rights standard of limiting solitary to no more than 15 days (in some situations). There is unquestionably a great deal of momentum for change right now.

Ramon: I tend to be a hopeful person. I also feel there is a lack of knowledge and information for the general public, both nationally and globally, when it comes to solitary. Most people aren’t aware of how torturous this form of punishment is, and most people are not aware of some of the extremely frivolous reasons that one can wind up in solitary. At its core, this is why I’m doing this show. I want to create empathy, inform the masses, and also get them to be engaged. I truly believe that if most people knew the true ugliness of this punishment, and the reality of who is actually in solitary, the path to abolishing solitary would move a lot quicker. It is possible, but we all have to do our part.

Jeff: I think that it is hard for the U.S. to maintain its moral authority in the world by mistreating its prison population. So if the recent attention that solitary confinement is getting via donors, grant making entities, criminal justice organizations, the media, and through other awareness raising methods can be maintained, then abolition is likely. I believe that solitary confinement will be abolished.

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