IN MY HUMAN development class recently, the instructor showed a documentary about a 13-year-old girl with the pseudonym Genie. Her parents kept her in isolation for most of her life, until a social worker discovered her. Genie was kept in a room, tied to a chair, with virtually no human contact. She was “uncivilized” and could barely walk or talk. While my classmates gasped in horror at the video, I found myself relating to her.
I had been incarcerated in a California juvenile hall for four-and-a-half years. Roughly two months of that time was spent in solitary confinement—the longest stretch was six weeks. Like Genie, I was isolated in a room for 23 to 24 hours a day.
My classmates thought that Genie’s parents were “monsters” and “horrible” people. I wondered how many of them knew that we live in a country where youth and adults are commonly put in similar conditions for months or even years.
Today about 100,000 people—including thousands of youth—are held in solitary confinement housing units in juvenile facilities and adult jails and prisons across the United States. Systems use solitary confinement, or isolation, to keep individuals safe from themselves or others and for punishment. Solitary confinement has been linked to depression, anti-social behavior, anxiety, psychological damage, and self-harm. We now understand that solitary confinement does not keep us safe and does more harm than good, especially to youth who are still developing, physically and mentally.
The critique President Obama articulated of solitary confinement in this week’s speech to the NAACP on criminal justice is truly remarkable. Never before has this president, or any president, spoken about the mistreatment of people in U.S. prisons with such clarity and compassion.
When he spoke, the president echoed what people of faith across the country have advocated for years: Solitary confinement is an affront to our deeply held moral convictions.
Directing the attorney general to review solitary confinement is exactly what is needed to begin the process of ending this immoral practice. Faith leaders hope that with Obama’s scheduled visit to the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno in Oklahoma on July 16, he will ask to see the solitary confinement section. If the president misses a chance to see such a unit, he, and thus the nation, will develop an inaccurate picture of the true suffering and neglect that lie deep inside our U.S. prison system.
When the president named solitary confinement as one of those prison conditions "that have no place in any civilized country," he made a statement of values loud and clear — that the inherent human dignity of people does not end at the prison gates.
They’re small spaces — sometimes 7 feet wide, 12 feet long. And they’re where some inmates are held, sometimes for days, sometimes for decades.
Religious leaders across the country are speaking out against solitary confinement cells that they say should never be used by juveniles or the mentally ill and rarely by the general prison population.
The debate is taking on new resonance as a Boston jury weighs the death penalty — or a life sentence with 23 hours a day in solitary confinement — for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon bomber.
I started this year in solitary confinement.
It’s not that I am regularly in prison or that I had behaved so badly. I was simply in a mock solitary cell located in the sanctuary of a church. I was only there for an hour. I knew I would be getting out.
But that hour did offer a glimpse into the world of how solitary confinement is used – and abused – in our nation’s prisons. And it offered a glimpse at the reform efforts that are gaining steam all across the country, including in my home state of Wisconsin.
When Kate Edwards, a Buddhist chaplain who has worked in the Wisconsin prison for the past five-and-half years, closed the door behind me, I was alone, but hardly in silence.
Last month, the U.S. Senate held its first hearing ever on the issue of solitary confinement in prisons. To draw attention to the issue, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture urged Americans to fast for 23 hours for one day, symbolizing the 23 hours a day prisoners spend in solitary confinement each day.
"Christian scriptures and the scriptures of all religions say much about the way we are to treat other human beings, especially the most vulnerable," said the Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of NRCAT. "And all religious traditions teach that it is important to honor and respect the dignity and worth that God has endowed in each human being. When we put people into solitary confinement cells, which we know are going to cause harm, then we have deeply violated that requirement from God to honor and respect each human being."
photo © 2009 Amanda Slater | more info (via: Wylio)On the first day of this month, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, joined by inmates in other prisons around the state, began a hunger strike to protest "inhumane and torturous conditions" in the Security Housing Unit, which holds inmates in solitary confinement for decades at a time. They're still at it; the state has admitted that as many as 6,600 inmates around the state have participated in the strike. Last week, corrections officials offered the prisoners a proposed deal, which they unanimously rejected.
This comes after a Supreme Court decision in May that ordered California to reduce its prison population, as overcrowding was causing "needless suffering and death."
Part of what's making the standoff worse is the belief that the strike is, in essence, a form of gang activity. For one thing, as Colin Dayan noted in passing in a New York Times op-ed, "How they have managed to communicate with each other is anyone's guess." The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), though, isn't so stumped.