New this week from Solitary Watch:
• In an essay in our Voices from Solitary series, Cesar Villa offers a searing account of living in prolonged solitary confinement in a Security Housing Unit, or SHU, at California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison. “We’re only here to die. The prison administration is paid to put us down. The undesirables. The malignant misfits who have no right to breathe” he writes.
• The latest in our series of monthly dispatches, The Word from Solitary Watch, explores how solitary confinement used during pretrial detention in jails can become an instrument of coercion. Solitary Watch Staff Writer Vaidya Gullapalli writes: “The idea of coercion calls up images of physical torture used to extract information or force confessions—but…people subjected to the torture of pretrial solitary confinement in jail are also under enormous pressure to consider the guilty pleas that are a hallmark of the U.S. system.” For this reason, Juan Méndez, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, called for an absolute prohibition on solitary in pretrial detention.
Our pick of other news about solitary confinement:
• Last Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the California Mandela Act, a bill that would have drastically limited solitary confinement in the state. Instead, Newsom directed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to write the agency’s regulations on solitary. In a San Francisco Chronicle article, Hamid Yazdan Panah, advocacy director for Immigrant Defense Advocates, said potential new CDCR regulations are unlikely to materialize in any meaningful form and would exclude jails and private detention facilities. In an op-ed for the OC Register, former Solitary Watch reporter Sal Rodriguez expressed similar concerns: “I am doubtful that CDCR, a bloated bureaucracy with a history of presiding over the rampant use of solitary confinement, will actually reduce the use of solitary confinement absent a court order or legislation” he writes.
• NBC News reports that the total number of people being held in federal restrictive housing increased 7 percent since May and more than 11 percent since spring of last year. U.S. Senate Majority Durbin and U.S. Congressman David Trone sent a letter to Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters, urging her to uphold Biden’s pledge to reduce the federal use of solitary confinement, which he announced in an executive order last May. The States Newsroom reported that members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee continued to press Peters repeatedly on the issue in a hearing last Thursday, as well on as the department’s plans to protect BOP staff who come forward about abuse.
• Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee introduced legislation that would reduce the federal reliance on solitary confinement by improving access to mental health services. Known as the Solitary Confinement Reform Act, this bill would also provide resources to state and local jurisdictions to assist in reforming confinement practices. The bill is identical to ones introduced in 2019 and 2016, and is significantly weaker than state laws passed recently by New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey—and weaker than a parallel federal bill recently introduced in the House.
• WNYC reported that rallies outside of NY City Hall by activists and corrections officers held dueling opinions on the use of solitary confinement. Corrections officers called for the isolation of “dangerous” detainees, while activists pushed against the continued infliction of severe psychological trauma and indefinite isolation. In an op-ed for the NY Daily News, Andre Ward, who spent 13 years in solitary confinement, writes that the proposed bill is critical for saving lives and fixing the humanitarian crisis within NYC jails. Public Advocate and sponsor of the bill Jumanee Williams shared that while the bill won’t solve all of the city’s problems, “solitary as the way we’re thinking about it, is torture…we must have accountability.”
• Gothamist published new photos showing the deplorable and deadly conditions on Rikers Island that have left detainees in soiled clothing, locked in caged showers inside crumbling buildings. Five Mualimm-ak, a former Rikers detainee, said prosecutors “never see Rikers – they never see where they’re sending people to die.” A clip from NBC NY features Sanford Rubenstein, an attorney suing the city over the use of these cages, on behalf of the family of Elijah Muhammed, who attempted suicide in one of the shower cages, and later became one of 15 people to die in Rikers this year. Jail managers were asked to remove the cage-like showers, stating that they will only be used again if they continue to exist.
• The New York Focus reported that data from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) show that prisons have continued to send hundreds of people with mental and physical disabilities to solitary confinement. DOCCS has reportedly adopted internal policies that conflict with the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which prohibits solitary completely for select populations, while limiting it for all. “I think [the law] is quite clear. And I think they just don’t want to comply with it — or reckon with the fact that an enormous number of individuals in DOCCS facilities are living with a disability,” said Julia Salazar, head of the state Senate’s corrections committee and a lead sponsor of HALT.
• NBC Washington reports that Jazmin Valentine, a woman who gave birth in solitary confinement despite pleading for help for six hours, filed a federal lawsuit last Tuesday against Washington County, Maryland’s sheriff’s department and jail staff. The lawsuit alleges that Valentine’s rights were violated under the state law and Constitution. David Lane, who is representing Valentine, believes this case highlights the problems with privatizing health care behind bars. “As long as jail and prison administrators view inmates as animals these kinds of things will continue to happen,” he said.