Seven Days in Solitary [9/16/19]
Our Weekly Roundup of News and Views on Solitary Confinement
• The Colorado Independent reported on the story of Sam Mandez, a 41-year-old man who was sentenced to life without parole under the state’s felony murder law for being the lookout at a robbery at which someone was killed. Mandez was fourteen years old at the time. Under the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that bars mandatory life sentences for children, Mandez was resentenced to at a hearing last Tuesday to 30 years (the minimum allowed in Colorado), meaning he will be released in four to six years. Mandez spent seventeen years in solitary confinement, which had severe psychological effects on him, causing him to become delusional and attempt suicide, saying he was “the living dead.” Since the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) enacted reforms to limit solitary, Mandez has worked his way back out of isolation and toward rehabilitation. In a letter to Judge Julie Hoskins before the hearing, Rebecca Wallace of the Colorado ACLU highlighted Mandez’s role in the CDOC reforms, and wrote, “Our state failed [Sam Mandez]—we locked him away without any opportunity to learn or grow, and we left him to come of age in a cell tormented by the demons of his isolation.” The Independent reported that while resentencing Mandez, Judge Hoskins “apologized for needing to pause to cry midway through announcing her decision.”
• The Vera Institute of Justice released a new report on the use of solitary confinement in Nevada, finding 12.3 percent of incarcerated people were held in solitary confinement across the state between 2016 and 2017, according to the Las Vegas Sun. The report, by Vera’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative, found that rates of isolation varied across the state, with the highest use at Ely State Prison, which holds an average of 31 percent of its incarcerated population in solitary confinement. At High Desert State Prison, people held in solitary confinement only were allowed 1.5 hours outside of their cells every two days. The report provided recommendations to the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC), including at least five hours out of cell per day, alternatives to solitary for vulnerable populations, and a better system of mental health care. The former NDOC director resigned in July, and an NDOC spokesperson said they have “not yet determined” how NDOC will address the report’s findings.
• The New York Daily News reported on new regulations on solitary confinement introduced by the NY Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). The regulations follow the legislature’s failure to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would have banned solitary stays longer than fifteen days across the state. Instead, in a last-minute backroom deal, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders devised an “administrative” plan that gradually introduces more modest limits on solitary and allows for numerous exceptions. Among other things, the regulations allow sixteen and seventeen-year-olds held in adult prisons to be placed in a “separation unit,” where they are isolated for 22 to 24 hours a day. In a letter, advocates wrote: “As currently drafted, the proposed regulations codify existing, dangerous [DOCCS] practices.” According to another article, published on Gothamist, advocates vowed to continue to fight for the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. “I still feel betrayed and my anger has not subsided,” said Victor Pate, statewide organizer for the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement and a survivor of solitary confinement.
• According to The City, the New York City Board of Correction failed to present a highly anticipated plan to limit solitary confinement in New York City jails, called for by many advocates and city residents following the death of 27-year-old Layleen Polanco in solitary on Rikers Island in June. The delayed plan now may not be voted on until December. As of this month, 116 people are currently held in “punitive segregation” in city jails. An additional 26 people have been held in isolation under a newly established “separation status” if they fail body scans meant to detect contraband. Kayla Simpson of the Legal Aid Society said that by creating this new status, the DOC is “completely circumventing [the Board of Correction’s] ability to impose conditions and protections around this practice [of solitary confinement].”
• At a hearing about San Francisco’s maximum security juvenile facility, youth, parents, attorneys, and mentors described troubling conditions inside, reported the San Francsico Chronicle. Youth recalled experiencing isolation, shackling, strip searches, and harsh sleeping and eating conditions at the facility. A member of the Juvenile Justice Commission, Margaret Brodkin, spent 25 hours in the facility to “figure out what it felt like to a young person. I got scared, and I hated it,” she said. Youth call the cells where they can be forcibly confined as punishment “the box.” The department has agreed to review the complaints, although the Assistant Juvenile Probation Chief defended many of the policies as necessary safety measures.
• Stateline published an article on the high rate of suicide in U.S. prisons and jails, which reached the national spotlight with the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein last month at a federal jail in New York City. Between 2008 and 2014, suicides reported in jails increased from 29 to 50 per 100,000 people, and in the same time period, prisons saw an increase in suicides from 15 to 20 people per 100,000. The former head of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch, connected the use of solitary confinement to increased risk of suicide, one of the reasons he chose to largely ban the practice for longer than fifteen days in 2017. While some states have responded to the rising suicide rates by introducing preventative strategies, others have deflected responsibility for the deaths or increased their use of isolation.
• PennLive discussed varying perspectives on the use of solitary confinement in Pennsylvania, with advocates and sympathetic lawmakers clashing with prison administrators and officials. The director of the Department of Corrections, John Wetzel, defended the use of solitary, saying, “Prisons need to have an orderly operation.” But Robert Saleem Holbrook, who spent three straight years in solitary and now leads a grassroots coalition opposing solitary confinement, said, “You have to help people re-enter society once they’ve served their debt. And part of that is making sure that you do not drive them crazy while they are inside.” Another formerly incarcerated advocate, Chris Kimmenez, said, “I have more trauma from six months in solitary than I have from four tours with the Marines.” House Bill 497, sponsored by Rep. Tina Davis, would ban the use of solitary for more than 15 days and implement rehabilitative programs for people in segregated housing.
• Truthout examined the cyclical nature of repeated arrests, based on a new report published by the Prison Policy Initiative. For people putting the pieces of their lives back together, a record of prior arrests—even for minor charges such as trespassing or petit larceny—can increase the likelihood of another arrest or conviction, throwing them into a cycle of homelessness, unemployment, or substance abuse. The report found that annually, 10.6 million people are arrested, 4.9 million are sent to jail, and a quarter of those people have been jailed more than once in the same year. Black people account for 42 percent of those jailed multiple times, while they make up only thirteen percent of the U.S. population. Justina Walker of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund said, “I see people who have 40, 60, 80, 100 arrests. A very small portion of the population—Black, Brown, queer, and trans folks—are targeted.”
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