New this week from Solitary Watch:
• The latest in our series of monthly dispatches, The Word from Solitary Watch, explores depictions of solitary confinement and its myriad harms through film, theater, visual art, and writing. It features the newly released short film “Tuesday Afternoon,” selected as an “Op Doc” by the New York Times, which follows Jack Powers on his first day out of prison after more than 20 years in solitary confinement.
Our pick of other news about solitary confinement:
• Many publications this week marked the passing, on August 4, of Albert Woodfox, an activist, mentor, leader in the Black Panthers and later the anti-solitary movement, and survivor of nearly 44 years in nearly continuous solitary confinement (thought to be the longest period in U.S. history) in Louisiana. He had far too few years of freedom after his incarceration finally ended in 2016, but his New York Times obituary ends with this quotation: “When I began to understand who I was, I considered myself free. No matter how much concrete they use to hold me in a particular place, they couldn’t stop my mind.”
The very best thing to read about this inspiring man is his own autobiography Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement: My Story of Transformation and Hope, written with his partner Leslie George. More recent pieces include a New Yorker profile, an interview in The Guardian, and tributes this past week from Democracy Now! and the New Orleans publication Verite, among dozens of others.
In addition to the many other marks he leaves on the world, Solitary Watch would not exist without Albert Woodfox. In early 2009, James Ridgeway, then on the staff of Mother Jones, published a story about Albert and his quest to have his conviction overturned, titled “36 Years of Solitude.” Jim was so moved by the story of Albert and the Angola 3, and by what he learned about the widespread but hidden torture of solitary confinement, that together with Jean Casella, he founded Solitary Watch later that year. All of us at Solitary Watch pay tribute to Albert, his life, his spirit, and his remarkable legacy.
• Two publications report on a concerning lack of COVID-19 data reporting in correctional facilities. Truthout writes that 17 states and Washington, D.C. have stopped reporting data for COVID-19 cases in prisons and jails. A study from the Davis Vanguard found many people in California jails who test positive for COVID-19 antibodies were never diagnosed with having COVID. Among those who said they had experienced COVID-19 symptoms but not reported them to staff, the primary reason given was because their facility would have placed them in solitary confinement.
• The Marshall Project writes about Colette Peters, former Oregon prison director and recently appointed head of the federal Bureau of Prisons. During her 10 years in Oregon, she started an initiative called the “Oregon Way,” with the intention of “humanizing and normalizing” life in prison by making reforms like reducing over-reliance on solitary confinement. Reforms were slow, however, and a prison worker’s union called the changes “lipstick on a pig.”
• The Boston Globe reports that a class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of three men held in solitary confinement in MCI-Cedar Junction, alleging that the conditions of their confinement have led to “depression, anxiety, and a loss of social skills.” NPR interviews Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed, who explains that the suit seeks injunctive relief and a declaration that Massachusetts is violating the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act. In 2019, Solitary Watch reported about this violation, writing that the Massachusetts DOC “has done its best to circumvent the solitary reforms and weaken the law’s oversight mechanisms.”
• AP News reports that the family of Lason Butler, a man who died in solitary confinement in a South Carolina jail, has filed a lawsuit alleging that “unsanitary conditions and staff negligence” caused his death. Butler was put in a solitary confinement cell and placed on suicide watch for two weeks prior to his death, during which time he lost 40 pounds and was completely dehydrated. Butler is the third person to die in Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.
• The Orange County Register and LA Times published pieces in support of Assembly Bill 2632, which would limit all California solitary confinement to 15 days. Advocates rallied outside of the offices of State Sen. Anthony Portantino, the chair of the California Senate Appropriations Committee, where the bill will be heard.
• ABC reports that “Texas’ juvenile prison system is nearing total collapse.” The turnover rate for staff is 70 percent, and on weekends, youth are put in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Brett Merfish of advocacy group Texas Appleseed asked, “What is it going to take to say we need to do this? Is it going to be kids left in their cells for 22 hours a day? Is it going to take suicide rates going up by X%?”
• MYNorthwest reports that the Department of Children, Youth and Family (DCYF) and Columbia Legal Services have reached a $102,000 settlement on behalf of three teens in Washington solitary who were subjected to “inhumane treatment.” The teens will receive monetary damages, and DCYF will change their policy so that people cannot be strip searched and restrained unless they present a “specific, credible, ongoing threat to safety with no other way to resolve it.”
• Ms Magazine profiles Erica Sheppard, who has been in solitary confinement in Texas for 27 years. She is on death row, and spends 22 hours a day in her cell. In an analysis by Ms, of the 50 women on death row in the US, 52 percent survived child abuse, 72 percent survived domestic violence, and 74 percent are mothers, all categories which apply to Sheppard.