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.
While Mr. Johnson will finally see an end to his decades-long torture, for another 80,000 – 100,000 prisoners held in solitary confinement, this holiday season will be characterized by nothing more than the same cruel and inhumane conditions of confinement; more of the same debilitating loneliness. Perhaps this year, we can all do something to make these men and women feel a little less alone.
For years, Solitary Watch has provided a crucial link between those held in conditions of solitary confinement and the outside world, through a project aptly named Lifelines to Solitary. By sending personalized letters, quarterly newsletters, and holiday cards to nearly 5,000 prisoners held in conditions of extreme isolation, Solitary Watch provides hope and comfort to these men and women, many of whom feel like the world has forgotten them. One inmate described the incredible impact of Lifelines: “I can’t tell you how touched I am for you giving me any attention. I am so grateful to you and cried tears reading your card because the torture, abuse and neglect I’m facing makes this cell and my world a lonely place, and many days I think of how to take my own life and end the misery and pain but you inspire me and I continue to fight on.”
Opening the lines of communication between the outside world and those held in solitary confinement not only provides these prisoners with solace and support but also provides advocates and the public with important first-hand accounts of the conditions of solitary confinement. The letters Solitary Watch receives from prisoners help shape their reporting on solitary confinement, and provide material for the compelling Voices from Solitary, featured on their website.
In the past year, Solitary Watch has partnered with The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) to increase the impact of the Lifelines project. The two organizations have been working in tandem to match up student groups and faith communities with prisoners in solitary confinement. They provide guidelines for creating and maintaining a correspondence program and will even arrange an orientation launch event for a group interested in starting a Lifelines chapter. The launch events are led by Solitary Watch staff or local activists, along with survivors of solitary confinement. Additionally, individuals interested in reaching out to someone in solitary confinement need not join a Lifelines chapter to get involved. Solitary Watch welcomes everyone to pick up their pens and start a dialogue. The requirements for starting a Lifelines chapter, or getting involved on an individual basis, are minimal - all that is truly required is a commitment to write a letter a month.
Unfortunately, for most inmates held in solitary confinement, a hug or handshake is beyond the realm of possibilities this holiday season - but a kind word is not. A thoughtful message to let them know that we have not forgotten them, and that we will continue to fight to bring about an end to long-term isolation - that is within all of our power. We urge all advocates and people of conscience to consider taking a moment from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season to get involved with the Lifelines project. This could mean making a donation directly to the project, thereby providing Solitary Watch with critical support to continue this important work. Or it could mean getting together a group of like-minded individuals – family members, friends, or members of your faith community – to start your own Lifelines chapter. Or, perhaps, it could mean something as simple as picking up a pen and drafting a quick note of encouragement and support. If you are interested in getting involved with this wonderful project, please reach out to Marlies Talay at firstname.lastname@example.org. With enough support and involvement from the advocacy community, we can ensure that this holiday season no one held in solitary confinement feels like they are forgotten, or alone.