Seven Days in Solitary [11/17/21]
Our Weekly Roundup of News and Views on Solitary Confinement
• Health and Justice published an research study which analyzed the results of solitary confinement policy changes in the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, seeking to fill a gap in knowledge about “exactly how various [solitary confinement] reforms have actually impacted the lives of people living and working in the prisons where these reforms have taken place.” The researchers looked at what created the impetus for change within the department, which they concluded was the correctional staff’s participation in a Norwegian Correctional Service program in 2015, as well as the results of those policy changes. They concluded that “reductions in solitary confinement were experienced as beneficial to the health and wellness of incarcerated persons and staff alike.”
• James Byrd, a man who has spent more than three years in a solitary confinement cell in Allegheny County Jail, wrote an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Nonprofit Institute of Journalism about his experience, and about how Allegheny officials “have failed to take the necessary measures to end the use of solitary confinement.” He outlines what isolation for 23 to 24 hours a day feels like, stating, “I no longer simply live in solitary confinement, solitary confinement forever lives within me!” Although Allegheny County banned the use of solitary, Byrd and several others are still being held in confinement for “unspecified safety issues.”
• Barbara Fair, lead organizer for the Connecticut movement Stop Solitary CT, wrote an op-ed in the Connecticut Mirror, arguing that a recent executive order from Governor Ned Lamont insufficiently shifts prison culture away from solitary confinement. Gov. Lamont issued the order shortly after vetoing the PROTECT Act, which would have restricted solitary confinement and provided outside oversight to ensure compliance. Fair describes how individuals in isolation are held on lockdown from Thursday to Sunday, stating that “the administrative staff is unaware this has been going on for months which is exactly why independent oversight and community input must be statutorily implemented.” She further insists that “those who resist change should retire.”
• Salon published an excerpt from Chris Hedges’ book, “Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison,” where he describes one of his students writing a scene about his experience being held in solitary confinement for a full year. The student, whose name is Steph, said, “I hated those in authority by the time I got out of solitary. To me, any person who could live with subjecting a human being to such dehumanizing conditions was evil.” In the scene, Steph depicted discovering his son’s death from a newspaper while in solitary.
• New York Focus published an article noting that prisons in upstate New York “incarcerated nearly 32,000 people, more than five times the population of New York City’s jails, but receive a fraction of the scrutiny from either oversight agencies or the press.” The article dives into systemic issues of beatings, solitary confinement, and unreported deaths in Great Meadow Correctional Facility. Families report that incidents of retaliation from guards are frequent and grievances aren’t recorded. One man who was held in solitary confinement in Great Meadows described: “You see how police are killing people outside and get away with it? It’s the same thing in here, but worse… This prison is the worst prison in New York State.”
• On Monday, November 8th, activists rallied outside New York City Hall in outrage over the failure of the Risk Management Accountability System to end solitary confinement, reports AMNY. The RMAS is Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to bring New York City into compliance with the state’s HALT Solitary Confinement Act; advocates have criticized the plan for having “barely made a difference” in the severity of solitary. Anisah Sabur, who spent 61 days in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, stated, “I tell the mayor to rescind this executive order. This order is not a change, the crisis still remains!” Melania Brown, whose sister Layleen Polanco died in solitary confinement, called out to the Mayor insisting, “You made a promise to end solitary confinement and you didn’t do it. Let my people go…. Let them all go.”
• New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced that six state prisons that are currently operating under capacity will close next year, reports Corrections1. Among those slated for closure is Southport Correctional Facility, which advocates have been trying to shut down for years, including director of the Releasing Aging People in Prison Campaign Jose Saldana. Saldana described Southport as “a prison dedicated exclusively to solitary confinement for decades” that “tortured countless souls and ripped apart many families.” Despite this victory against Southport, Saldana insisted that bills must accompany these prison closures that would “release older people and reduce and accelerate sentences for parole violations.”
• The advocacy organization Zealous, whose recently published project, Silenced, focuses on solitary confinement in Michigan, hosted an online conversation this past Thursday about the history of solitary confinement. As described by an article in Spectrum News, the event delved into a global understanding of the damages of American solitary confinement, describing the way that isolation practices have been exported to other countries. Dr. Baz Dreisinger, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor in attendance at the event, connected solitary confinement programs in prisons around the world to US influence, saying, “all of these practices are grounded in ideas around this supermax model, the U.S. invention that was hoisted on the world.”
• The Washington Post reports that four hundred individuals from the Central Detention Facility in Washington, D.C. will be transferred to the United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, a federal prison in Pennsylvania, after an inspection revealed “widespread human rights violations” in the D.C. jail. Anthony Petty and Shannon Fyfe published an op-ed in the Washington Post condemning the announced transfer. Petty himself was formerly incarcerated in Lewisburg, where he said conditions were horrific and abuse from staff was rampant. Petty and Fyfe insist that “sending CDF residents to Lewisburg would take them from one bad environment to another — one that is perhaps even worse, and definitely farther from their support networks.”
• The Advocate published an article about ICE detainees at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center, where “the water is yellow, the food is always cold, the facilities are filthy and overcrowded, and complaints about health issues are often ignored.” One person who is incarcerated there describes the abusive use of solitary confinement, saying, “If you don’t comply to whatever they say you have to do, if you make any mistake, if you don’t follow every order, they throw you in solitary. There is a room for this purpose called the Cyper Room.” He described witnessing detainees kept in solitary confinement for weeks at a time.
• Candace Steel, a woman who gave birth in 2017 while being held in solitary confinement in Santa Rita Jail in California, has recently been awarded $250,000 in compensation, reports the BL. In January 2020, a US District Court judge found that Steel had been treated with “deliberate indifference.” In an interview in 2018, Steel described her experience: “I was hitting that call button like a million, bazillion times and nobody answered… They ignored me completely. I noticed they shut the little window to muffle my screams because I was screaming, ‘Help me! Help me! My baby’s coming!’”
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