Spotlight: Students Rally Together to End Solitary Confinement

Any campaign for change is strengthened by a diverse group of supporters, and the movement to end solitary confinement has long benefitted from a wide range of voices. Since its founding in 2014, students at universities across the country have found their place among this chorus of presently and formerly incarcerated people and their families, activists, scholars, lawyers, faith groups and more with the help of the Student Alliance for Prison Reform (SAPR). Representing a wide network of students, faculty and staff from college campuses nationwide, SAPR is committed to using the unique energy and opportunities available to students to push for safer and more humane prisons.

Comprised of more than 20 schools across the country, SAPR allows students to strategize and support each other across state lines, share resources and experiences, and maximize their impact through collective action. Creative organizing is at the heart of their efforts, and members use a variety of methods to spread the word about the effects of solitary confinement.

Compelling advocacy speaks to both the head and the heart – and SAPR’s monthly actions capture both. By sharing stats about solitary confinement through leaflets, lectures, and panel discussions, SAPR makes the rational case for an end to the practice.  The academic environment makes SAPR organizers uniquely positioned to delve into and strategically utilize the extensive bodies of research that so clearly demonstrate the many risks associated with extreme isolation.

SAPR’s public education materials use numbers to tell a story - 100,000 people are held in isolation in US prisons, costing taxpayers 2-3 times more and putting prisoners at 7 times the risk of inflicting self-harm compared with those in general population—with kids in solitary at particular risk of self-harm and suicide. But more than any other data point, one set of numbers truly captures SAPR’s audience’s emotions: 7’ x 9’, the dimensions of a typical solitary confinement cell. Last October a passerby walking through one of a dozen participating campuses might have been confronted with the unusual sight of a hunched figure inside a 7 foot by 9 foot outline. For 23 hours, student activists took shifts inside this symbolic cell with no books, music, or entertainment, and without interacting with the outside world. This powerful performance art exhibit, founded in 2013 by SAPR advisor Five Mualimm-ak and initiated by Princeton’s Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR), forces the public to confront a powerful visual representation of solitary confinement and challenges them to confront the reality of solitary confinement in the process.

Performance art like the 7 x 9 initiative can be a powerful way to reveal the human costs of isolation. It invites the public to imagine the tens of thousands of men, women, and children in tiny, windowless cells, denied human contact and intellectual stimulation. While academic research and rational analysis will prove that solitary confinement is both expensive and ineffective, performance art like this helps drive home the most important fact – that it is deeply inhumane and morally wrong.

Since its foundation, the young activists of SAPR have lobbied for solitary confinement reform with a special focus on getting kids out of isolation. Last year the group launched a petition alongside the ACLU asking the Attorney General to end solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities. During their Week of Action, participating schools collected petition signatures at panel discussions, demonstrations, and events. A toolkit put together as part of this joint venture helped campuses get involved and continues to serve as a resource for aspiring activists. Last fall, SAPR accompanied its 7x9 actions with informational materials and an opportunity for students and community members to sign a petition hosted by Fusion Network, again demanding an end to the solitary confinement of minors.

Thanks in part to these petitions and the tireless activism of groups like SAPR, President Obama recently announced a series of reforms to the federal prison system’s use of solitary confinement that includes a ban on solitary confinement for youth offenders under federal jurisdiction. SAPR celebrated this announcement as a crucial step forward and a major achievement, but recognizes that there is still much work to do! This semester, SAPR is partnering with a millennial start-up, Strong Returns, to release the first ever Millennial Prison Reform Agenda. The initiative aims to force 2016 political candidates to make prison reform, including solitary confinement reform, a priority. They are currently accepting policy proposals from students, community members, and advocates, which they will review and compile into a final agenda.

SAPR is always expanding its membership and welcomes new student groups. Joining is easy, and instructions can be found on the group’s website.

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