Fourteen Days in Solitary [12/29/21]

Our Weekly Roundup of News and Views on Solitary Confinement

by | December 29, 2021

 The Oregonian and the Oregon Capitol Chronicle both report on a lawsuit filed by the Oregon Justice Resource Center against the state Department of Corrections, seeking a 15-day limit on the use of punitive solitary confinement in the state. The current policy allows punitive segregation to 180 days. In comparison, neighboring Idaho has a 15-day limit and Nevada a 60-day cap. However, the Oregonian notes, the lawsuit does not target the use of administrative confinement, or behavioral health or intensive management special housing units. 

 The San Francisco Chronicle writes about the growing number of incarcerated people who attend college in California’s state system, focusing on the story of current UC Berkeley student Kevin McCarthy. He spent nine years in Pelican Bay State Prison solitary confinement before the 2015 lawsuit that put limits on indefinite segregation in California. While in solitary, he served as a jailhouse lawyer, which sparked his intellectual curiosity. McCarthy says his work “felt like a puzzle.” It was, he said, “[a] challenge that I loved.”

 William Davis and Isaac Montague, two men incarcerated at Delaware’s Sussex Correctional Institution, have filed a lawsuit alleging that jail employees attacked them, reports Coastal Point. The lawsuit states that officers “brutally attacked Isaac, completely unprovoked,” and that “[t]he victim was placed in solitary confinement without adequate medical care for three weeks after the incident.”

 The Philadelphia Tribune reports that the No215Jail Coalition held a rally outlining their demands for reforms, including but not limited to bringing the city in compliance with the federal Juvenile Justice Delinquency & Prevention Act, and a ban on the use of solitary confinement. Several formerly incarcerated individuals spoke about their experience with solitary at the rally, including John Thompson, who said, “When you think of a youth being placed in there… being placed in one of those boxes, what do you think it does to his mind? The trauma that you suffer in there is going to manifest itself in the street when you come home.”

 The Death Penalty Information Center analyzed recently available data and found that “[m]ore than half of all U.S. death-row prisoners are or have recently been incarcerated in prolonged conditions of solitary confinement that are likely unconstitutional and that violate international human rights norms.” The analysis drew on two sources—a recent law review article cataloguing the conditions of confinement in every US state that still imposes the death penalty and the Bureau of Justice Statistics released this month. The population described in this report represents seventeen states where prolonged confinement on death row has left hundreds in isolation for decades. 

 Rahsaan Thomas and Emily Nonko wrote for Shadowproof about the origins of the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, a collaborative writing program, started in 2020 as COVID hit prisons nationally. Articles from incarcerated writers including Christopher Blackwell, Rahsaan Thomas, Juan Moreno Haines, and many others described a strategy where, “the virus rapidly spread within the crowded housing units, and the ‘solution’ was to send people into solitary confinement.” Of the project, Thomas said, “We were dropping like flies and several men would never get up again. Writing was an act of self defense and Empowerment Avenue my weapon.”

 In the most recent installment of the Guardian’s “The Return” series about post-COVID America, Victoria Law explored how lockdown strategies inside of many prisons are still in place, nearly two years later. Several people Law interviewed told her that when someone reports symptoms, they are still taken to solitary confinement. One woman incarcerated in Pennsylvania said, “I’m more afraid of the psychological consequences of another lockdown than I am of getting sick.”

 The City writes that Mayor-Elect Eric Adams plans to reinstate solitary confinement in the city of New York, and commented, “Enjoy the reprieve now!” Outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order in November delaying a plan to limit solitary confinement, infuriating anti-solitary activists. Adams, however, told reporters that he plans to put individuals into punitive segregation when he becomes mayor. A follow-up piece from The City describes outrage from progressive members of the New York City Council, including Tiffany Cabán, who stated, “any time an incarcerated person is thrown in solitary confinement, one of my constituents is being subjected to torture.” The Unlock the Box campaign also issued a press release condemning solitary in New York City.

 The Intercept reports that despite implementing a new accountability system in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice in 2018, Louisiana prisons still place people in indefinite solitary confinement for “minor and ambiguously defined offenses that are often nonviolent.” Louisiana facilities regularly hold people in solitary longer than their outlined sentences, and have only provided data for two of their eight facilities since the new program was implemented. Formerly incarcerated Haller Jackson said the policy was, “an effort at rebranding” and “as a practical matter, it hasn’t changed a damn thing.”

 Bloomberg reports about plans for the federal jail in Manhattan that has long maintained a notoriously harsh solitary confinement unit, and gained attention when Jeffrey Epstein died there. The facility, Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), was investigated after his death, and several guards have been accused of abuse, blackmail, drug smuggling, and rape. It is temporarily closed, according to the Department of Justice. Officials may decide the future of MCC next year, a decision dependent in part on congressional funding. 

 The Daily Kos reports that over 100 advocacy groups have signed a letter urging the Biden Administration to close down the privately run Immigration Centers of America’s Farmville facility in Virginia. The letter claims that the facility “has long forced detained immigrants to endure terrible conditions, including excessive use of force, solitary confinement, and limited access to counsel and family members.”

 Radio IQ profiles Virginia State Senator Joe Morrissey from Richmond, who is working to pass legislation that would eliminate solitary confinement in the state. Last year he penned a bill that would have eliminated the use of isolation, which the Virginia Department of Corrections claimed was too expensive. Morrissey claims that, “If you were to say, we’re going to start this new program in Virginia DOC and it’s called solitary confinement, I might understand a high-dollar ticket to it. We’re not doing that. We are eliminating the program.” 

 News One reports that Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, a prison abolitionist and former member of the Black Liberation Army and Black Panthers who spent 23 consecutive years in solitary confinement, died on December 17th at 78 years old, reports NewsOne. He was released from prison on October 26th on compassionate release after being diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer. Solitary Watch reported on Shoatz’s transfer out of solitary back in 2016, describing the “kafkaesque” nature of his effort to rejoin general population. The Abolitionist Law Center, which helped Shoatz with his compassionate release, announced his death in a tribute statement.

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