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Last month, the ACLU of Connecticut, The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and The Yale Undergraduate Prison Project partnered to bring together Inside the Box, a multi-faceted program designed to enable solitary confinement advocates to “experience, get educated, and become equipped to advocate.”
On February 6th, HBO will premiere “SOLITARY: INSIDE RED ONION STATE PRISON.” A compelling and haunting documentary from award-winning filmmaker Kristi Jacobson, SOLITARY takes the viewer inside one of America’s notorious supermax prisons to expose the horrors and dehumanizing effects of solitary confinement. You can view a trailer of the film here.
As 2016 draws to a close, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on all of the progress made over the past year to stop solitary confinement. Throughout the country, at both the federal and state level, legislative bodies, departments of corrections and executive agencies enacted progressive, vital reforms, placing severe restrictions on who can be placed in solitary and for how long. Additionally, the courts have approved influential settlements in far-reaching litigations that will affect thousands of incarcerated men and women. Many of the most far-ranging reforms have addressed the issue of placing youthful offenders in solitary confinement – with several states and the federal government effectively putting an end to the use of solitary confinement for kids, at the same time recognizing that the effects of prolonged solitary confinement on a developing mind can be devastating. Below is a brief look-back at some of the reforms that were made in 2016. Please consult this timeline for more information on other crucial milestones in solitary reform.
For a lot of people, the holidays can be a lonely time of year. While the rest of the world celebrates with friends and family, for those who are separated from their loved ones, the pangs of longing and loneliness can be amplified. And nowhere are those desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation felt more acutely than in the solitary confinement units of America’s prisons.
Take for example, Mr. Arthur Johnson, who spent thirty-six years in solitary confinement, despite having not committed a major disciplinary infraction in over twenty-five years. That’s thirty-six Thanksgivings, Christmases and Hanukkahs - without so much as a hug or a handshake. Having spent over 80% of his life in solitary confinement, this holiday season Mr. Johnson will finally have the opportunity to shake hands with someone other than his attorneys. On September 20, 2016, Chief Judge Conner of the District Court for Middle District of Pennsylvania issued an Order for Preliminary Injunction directing the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to release Mr. Johnson from solitary confinement and to implement a plan to reintegrate him back into general population.
On October 1, 2016, an inspirational project, focused on drawing attention to the horrors and injustice of solitary confinement, opened in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. “Solitary Gardens,” the most recent project from conceptual artist Jackie Sumell, the woman behind The House that Herman Built, is a park at 2600 Andry Street in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. It features ten garden beds, the same size and blueprints as solitary cells, as well as open spaces for collective study and community support.
Today, for the 15th consecutive month, advocates will unite across the state of New York to raise their voices in solidarity and demand an end to the practice of solitary confinement. Organized by the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), these monthly rallies bring together a varied cross-section of the advocacy world – from long standing, staunch opponents of solitary confinement, to concerned community members, just beginning to understand the pernicious effects of long-term isolated confinement, to those affected most by solitary confinement – formerly incarcerated persons and family members of currently incarcerated people.
From 2011-2013, inmates in the Security Housing Units (a thinly veiled euphemism for solitary confinement) of Pelican Bay State Prison in California went on a series of hunger strikes. The largest of these strikes began on July 8, 2013, when more than 30,000 inmates throughout state-prisons in California refused state issued food.
Concurrent with the hunger strikes, in May 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed Ashker v. Governor of California, a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates who had spent more than a decade in solitary confinement. The landmark settlement agreement that was reached in Ashker dramatically reduced the solitary confinement population; ended the practice of placing inmates who had not violated any prison rules in isolation; and put a limit on the length of time a prisoner could spend in solitary confinement.
The Ashker case could not have existed without the brave men and women who put their own safety and health at risk by staging the largest hunger strike in the state of CA, possibly the largest in the world. We must not forget their sacrifices, or their stories. And one advocate, Charlie Hinton, is committed to making sure that the legacy of that historic hunger strike is not forgotten.
2016 has so far proven to be an inspirational and encouraging year for those fighting to end the abhorrent practice of solitary confinement, particularly as it relates to juveniles and youthful offenders. The year started off with a bang in January when the U.S. Department of Justice released its Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing. One of the DOJ’s most pivotal recommendations was that the Federal Bureau of Prisons end the practice of placing juveniles in solitary confinement. Simultaneously, the Washington Post published President Obama’s riveting, heart-felt op-ed, where he announced that he had adopted the Report’s recommendations to overhaul the use of solitary confinement in the federal prison system, including a complete ban of the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal system.
This past Memorial Day weekend The National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s (NRCAT) Ron Stief and T.C. Morrow were with the Islamic Circle of North America for their Annual Convention, which was held in Baltimore, MD. At the convention, NRCAT utilized virtual reality as another way to allow people to really see what it would be like to be held in isolation. With over 20,000 attendees at the event, NRCAT, in partnership with Solitary Watch, had a phenomenal trial run of using The Guardian’s 6x9, a virtual reality solitary confinement experience. 6x9 is a mobile app developed by The Guardian, in consultation with survivors of solitary confinement, that gives users a taste of it would like be like to live in a cell measuring only 6x9 feet. The app features the haunting experiences of seven former inmates subjected to extended periods in isolation.
The movement to end long-term solitary confinement is full of tireless, devoted activists whose passion and support, month after month, year after year, is inspiring. But while these efforts have certainly sparked improvements in some areas, still, for many of us involved in the fight, progress can seem frustratingly slow. We are talking about a human rights crisis of epic proportion: tens of thousands of people in agonizing, psychologically damaging conditions akin to torture – and with little to no demonstrated benefits. The facts are on our side, and the issue is one of immediate concern. So how has this practice been allowed to continue?