One year ago today – March 23, 2015 – communities in Arcata, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose and Santa Cruz gathered for California’s first Statewide Coordinated Actions to End Solitary Confinement. In the twelve months that have followed, this prisoner-initiated, community-organized effort to protest solitary confinement on the 23rd of each month has expanded inside and outside the state. With the support of formerly incarcerated people, folks with incarcerated loved ones, students, lawyers, activists, faith communities and others, it grew last fall into the nationwide initiative Together to End Solitary that now links advocates coast to coast in the common goal of putting an end to solitary confinement.
The popularity of these monthly events and the sustained commitment of the people who organize them are representative of an increase in public support for solitary confinement reform. Over the past year, awareness has grown around this issue; new data has emerged; and new reforms have been implemented. Now, as we mark the one-year anniversary of the movement that birthed Together to End Solitary, we take a moment to stand back and reflect on the milestones of the past twelve months.
In the past year, solitary confinement has grown rapidly as a topic of national and international interest. This past December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules. These international standards prohibit indefinite isolation and long-term solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days, and place restrictions on who can be housed in solitary confinement even for a short duration.
Powerful figures within the United States have also begun to speak out against long-term isolation. Last summer, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned the very constitutionality of the practice. In a concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala, Justice Kennedy wrote that solitary confinement “exacts a terrible price,” bringing people “to the edge of madness, perhaps to madness itself” and suggested that if the issue were brought before the Supreme Court, corrections systems might be required to adopt alternatives to long-term isolation.
In a statement just as powerful and with a more immediate impact, President Obama made national headlines in January with an announcement that he would take executive action to reform solitary confinement practices in the federal justice system. These reforms include ending solitary confinement for youth in federal facilities, banning solitary as a response to low-level infractions, expanding mental health treatment for mentally ill inmates, and increasing out-of-cell time for those in isolation. In an op-ed introducing these reforms, the President called solitary confinement an “affront to our common humanity.” A Presidential Memorandum released this month urged speedy implementation of these reforms.
These three statements—Obama’s acknowledgment of the harms of solitary confinement, Justice Kennedy’s indication that the practice may be unconstitutional, and the United Nations’ support for strict limits to its use—send a powerful message that strengthens existing efforts and will likely set in motion new reforms across the nation.
Already, the past year has brought state-level reform to much of the country. A settlement in California will dramatically reduce the number of prisoners in the state’s Security Housing Units (SHUs) by repealing a practice of sending people to solitary merely for alleged gang affiliation, It will also provide for significantly more out-of-cell time and limit prolonged solitary confinement. A New York settlement announced late last year is expected to reduce the state’s isolated population by more than 1,000 people, limit the length of solitary sentences, and abolish some of the more dehumanizing aspects of solitary confinement including the prohibition of reading materials and the food-punishment known as “loaf.” And in a promising move toward reform, Nebraska passed a law limiting the use of restrictive housing to “the least restrictive manner consistent with maintaining order in the facility” and establishing a working group to create a long-term plan for reducing the use of restrictive housing in the state.
Several states have made strides in the past year toward protecting the most vulnerable populations from solitary confinement. An Illinois settlement will prohibit the use of punitive isolation on youths in the state’s juvenile justice system and increase out-of-cell time for youths separated from the general population. A revised Colorado policy prohibits solitary confinement as a punishment for juveniles in the state’s Division of Youth Corrections, and limits any use of isolation to 4 hours. New Jersey passed a bill limiting the permissible duration of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities to between three and five days, depending on the youth’s age. And a new law in West Virginia rewrites the state code to prohibit the use of punitive solitary confinement for children in juvenile custody or detention.
States also made an effort to curb the use of solitary confinement on the mentally ill. Settlements in both Illinois and Indiana will prohibit prisoners with serious mental illness from being placed in solitary confinement and will provide better care for mentally ill prisoners in those states’ corrections departments. In Texas, a new law will require inmates to pass a mental health assessment prior to being placed in administrative segregation. Thanks to an agreement with the Oregon Department of Corrections, inmates held in Oregon State Penitentiary’s Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) will be provided more out-of-cell time, better mental health services and programming, and better-trained staff. And finally, Delaware’s legislature made a move toward reform with a resolution requiring a third party examiner to study and create recommendations regarding the use of restricted housing, including on the mentally ill, in Delaware correctional facilities.
These reforms and the increasing support behind them have also led to increased media coverage of this important issue. When Louisiana prisoner Albert Woodfox was finally freed last month from nearly 44 years in solitary confinement, news outlets rushed to cover the story. The coverage brought attention to the issue of long-term solitary confinement and allowed Mr. Woodfox to advocate for an end to the practice. News outlets play a large role in shaping public opinion, and in an important moment for the anti-solitary movement, the New York Times acknowledged for the first time earlier this year that solitary confinement “is a form of torture.”
The impact and pace of these reforms is tremendous, and there is more to be excited about in the coming year. Mobilizing around New York’s HALT Solitary Confinement Act and other pending state legislation could still pay off. In fact, in the past year, more than 40 bills proposing solitary reform have been introduced in at least 20 states – an indication of growing interest and support in the state legislatures. New reports released in the past year help reveal the extent of our dependence on solitary confinement in federal, state, and juvenile systems and will serve as valuable support for future reforms. Also expected in the next year is a trial in a case alleging constitutional violations related to the confinement of Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a former Black Panther held in solitary confinement for nearly thirty-three years by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The case is not a class-action suit, but could set important legal precedent.
There is still much work to be done on behalf of the 80,000 – 100,000 Americans currently suffering in solitary confinement. But we take inspiration and energy from the achievements of the last year and from the promise of more reforms to come. These changes cannot happen without the support of the public, and it is urgent that we continue our monthly actions and our work to end solitary confinement and mass incarceration. As the plaintiffs stated on settlement of Ashker v. Governor of California on August 31, 2015: “We celebrate this victory while, at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle. We are fully committed to that effort, and invite you to join us.”