Seven Days in Solitary [9/07/22]

Our Weekly Roundup of News and Views on Solitary Confinement

by | September 8, 2022

 An editorial in Tuesday’s Washington Post carries the headline: “Solitary confinement is torture. U.S. prisons should stop using it.” Citing solitary’s devastating psychological harms, the piece notes that progress in reducing solitary “is encouraging but piecemeal—and would benefit from federal leadership” from the White House. To date, the piece is the strongest statement against solitary confinement to issue from the editorial board of a leading U.S. newspaper.

 NBC News reports that a bill to end solitary confinement has the support of a veto-proof supermajority within the New York City Council. “During my most recent visit to Rikers, I spoke with a man who was kept in ‘involuntary protective custody’ without a bed for nearly two days awaiting adequate mental health observation,” said Carlina Rivera, Manhattan Councilwoman and chair for the Criminal Justice committee, who introduced the bill along with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.” Rivera called on City Council to pass the bill and “end solitary confinement, in all forms and by all names.” The dire conditions inside the city’s jails give the legislation urgency: So far this year, 13 people have died while detained or just after release from the jails. More people died in New York City jails in 2021 than in any year since 2013.

 The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) has adopted a resolution supporting an independent oversight body for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It states: “NACDL believes that an independent body is necessary to ensure the transparency and accountability of our nation’s federal prisons… Medical care, the treatment of people with mental illnesses, excessive use of restricted housing, a broken administrative remedy system, and the problematic implementation of the First Step Act are only some of the many issues that need to be addressed independently. An independent entity will allow better transparency, accountability, and communication with legal professionals, the courts, and stakeholders. It will also improve the conditions of the incarcerated and directly impact adjustment, rehabilitation, re-entry, and community safety.”

 In an op-ed in the Orange County Register, opinion editor and former Solitary Watch reporter Sal Rodriguez writes that the Mandela Act, a bill that would cap periods of solitary confinement and protect vulnerable populations from solitary, cleared both chambers of the California Legislature. Rodriguez states that “it’s not being ‘soft-on-crime’ or ‘soft-on-criminals’ to treat people imprisoned by the state humanely. It’s the right thing to do, from a humane perspective as well as a public safety perspective. People should be exiting prisons better off, not worse off, than when they entered.”

 A former United States Department of Justice Chaplain, James Theodore Highhouse, was sentenced in federal court to 84 months in prison with five years of supervised release for sexually abusing an incarcerated woman and lying about his actions to federal agents. Earlier this year, an Associated Press investigation revealed years of sexual abuse occurring at Federal Correctional Institution-Dublin. The AP reported that steps were taken to keep the abuse secret, including ignoring allegations, retaliating against whistleblowers, and sending incarcerated individuals to solitary confinement for reporting abuse. Chaplain Highhouse is the first of the five charged Dublin employees to reach sentencing. 

 An opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News states that staffing problems within the Texas Juvenile Justice Department have resulted in facilities keeping youth in isolation for up to 22 hours a day and rehabilitation programming being cut. The authors report a staff turnover rate of over 70 percent, noting that “higher staff absences can undermine youths’ rehabilitation and success upon release” and the suspension of programs in facilities “puts an already at-risk group of youth at even greater risk.” They urge the state to look beyond simple “solutions” and instead address the organizational issues that result in youth being put in solitary confinement.

 Prison officials at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility used solitary confinement to force a transgender man to undergo genital examinations, as reported by New York Focus. John Smith, a pseudonym being used in court filings, alleges that officials subjected him to three genital exams upon his transfer into the women’s prison. When he refused further examinations officials placed him in “medical lock,” confining him in a solitary cell in the medical reception area for 23 hours a day. Smith reported that although it was January, it felt like “sitting in a sauna in the middle of summertime.” He says a case worker threatened him with long-term solitary confinement and exclusion from programs that could reduce his sentence if he continued to object to the examination.

 Executive Director of DC Theater Arts John Stoltenberg reviews “The Box,” Sarah Shourd’s play set in a solitary confinement unit, which recently concluded its End of Isolation Tour. Stoltenberg describes the performance as “powerfully immersive,” with many formerly incarcerated actors “who brought to their roles what seemed an embodied sense memory of inhumane incarceration and coldhearted loneliness.” Stoltenberg shares that the “disturbingly palpable” and “inhumane” conditions transformed the audience to “become complicit spectators to a staged synecdoche of America’s shame.”

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