Originally formed, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, to address U.S. torture abroad, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is now one of the leading groups dedicated to ending torture in U.S. prisons, with a specific focus on the widespread use and abuse of solitary confinement.
Since its founding in 2006, according to the group, “more than 300 religious organizations have joined and over 57,000 individual people of faith have participated in our activities. Members include representatives from the Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox Christian, mainline Protestant, Quaker, Sikh and Unitarian Universalist communities. Members include national denominations and faith groups, regional organizations and congregations.’’ At the core of NRCAT’s work is it’s “Statement of Conscience,” titled “Torture is a Moral Issue”:
Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved — policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.
Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now — without exceptions.
In 2009, NRCAT voted to expand its mission to include U.S. prisons, and produced a report explaining how certain domestic prison practices–especially prolonged isolation–constitute torture.
In a recent interview in his Washington office, Rev. Richard Killmer, NRCAT’s executive director, explained to Solitary Watch that the group’s goal is to “pass state legislation that in fact prohibits holding someone in solitary confinement” beyond a designated period, “and also prohibits people with mental illness from being placed in solitary confinement.’’ As for the time limit on solitary, Killmer says, “I think 30 days feels like the right figure…and that’s a long time. I would hope that solitary confinement would be less. Whenever it is used it will only be for a few days at the most, and the reason for that is that it’s really clear that solitary confinement harms people, and we’ve known that for a long time. We’ve known that since the early 1820s. Charles Dickens in 1841 called solitary confinement torture. So we’ve known that it does cause harm…and all people who run prisons should know solitary confinement causes harm.’’ Currently the Campaign is working on legislation in six states—California, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Texas, Colorado, and Maine. It is also making a film on solitary aimed at people of faith, and it is linked to the ACLU’s Stop Solitary campaign.
Killmer believes that a “huge education task that needs to be done with the religious community and American public as a whole…This issue is not on anybody’s priority list.” To advance this goal, NRCAT has prepared a statement on solitary confinement that it is asking people of faith around the country to sign. When the groups obtains 500 or more signatories in a particular state, it mails them to the governor, legislators, and top corrections officials in that state. The aim, Killmer says, is to “create a large constituency of people of faith’’ to challenge the use of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.