The Word: When Solitary Is Used to Silence

The Word from Solitary Watch for January/February 2023

by | January 31, 2023

Yesterday, a three-week-long hunger strike by people in Texas prisons came to an end. The strikers were trying to draw attention to the use of solitary confinement in the state. At a time when there is a vigorous movement to end mass incarceration in the United States, it is worth remembering that imprisoned people who protest dangerous conditions and agitate for change risk grave harm. Efforts like those in Texas are frequently met with harsh retaliation; often, the retaliation itself is solitary confinement.

Solitary is widely used by guards and prison and jail administrators to intimidate and punish people engaged in peaceful advocacy. Such is the case, also, in immigration detention facilities across the United States, which are subject to even less oversight than prisons and jails.

In recent years, hunger strikes have become distressingly frequent in these facilities, as people deprive their bodies as a last resort, trying to draw attention to months, even years in custody spent awaiting adjudication of their immigration cases. A 2021 report by the ACLU and Physicians for Human Rights chronicled the ways in which detention staff place suffering people in even deeper jeopardy by sending them to solitary:

Although ICE claims that its policy to isolate hunger strikers is for the detained person’s well-being, there is no medical reason to place a hunger striker in solitary confinement, which can lead to additional serious physical and mental health consequences. Placing detained hunger strikers in isolation as a result of their protected expressive conduct also violates the First Amendment. Compounding the harm, ICE also subjects hunger strikers who have concomitant mental illnesses to the same abusive solitary confinement policies. Conditions in solitary confinement units included impermissible punitive measures, such as cutting off water for toilets, washing, and drinking, which is contrary to ICE’s medical guidelines and of particular danger to detainees on hunger strikes.

In 2019, at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, more than 100 people went on a hunger strike and staff responded with violence and by placing people in solitary. Also in 2019, staff retaliated against people protesting at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico by locking them in isolation.

That year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identified 182 instances of ICE having sent hunger strikers to solitary confinement. A whistleblower from the Department of Homeland Security told the group that ICE’s use of solitary confinement “rises to the point of torture.” 

“Imprisoned people who protest dangerous conditions and agitate for change risk grave harm…The least we can do is bear witness.”

Other forms of advocacy by incarcerated people are met with similar repression. Jailhouse lawyers—people in prison who do not have law degrees but have developed a deep familiarity with the legal process and craft arguments for themselves and others—have often found themselves at the receiving end of retaliatory sentences to solitary. Manifestly innocuous behavior is punishable within most prison systems, and near total deference is given to staff claims. This means that officers can easily haul someone they view as troublesome off to an isolation cell without worrying about any meaningful review of that action.

A 2021 Solitary Watch article looked at how prison and jail staff dispatch jailhouse lawyers into isolation as one way of cutting them off from their legal papers, materials, resources, and from the people whom they assist. A 2022 HuffPost investigation looked at the harsh punishment—four months in solitary confinement—that Oregon’s prison system meted out to Mark Wilson, “a prominent incarcerated legal assistant with a near-perfect disciplinary record who ha[d] helped thousands of other prisoners pursue legal claims.”

“Every right that a prisoner has today—to medical care, to religious practice, to adequate food, clothing, shelter, temperature, hygiene and all this stuff has all been because, at some point along the way, some prison official somewhere has denied those basic human dignities to a prisoner,” Wilson told HuffPost. “And they litigated over it and a court said, ‘No, that is a basic right that a prisoner has.’”

This month incarcerated people in Texas—and no doubt in other prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers, where they remain uncounted and unheard—put their bodies, and perhaps their lives, on the line for those basic human rights and dignities. From our safe vantage point outside the walls, the least we can do is bear witness—and lend support.

Send an email to Governor Abbott and Texas state legislators in support of the hunger strikers’ demands for an end to indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement.

—Vaidya Gullapalli, Staff Writer and Editor

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