Report Reveals Rampant Abuse in Federal Prison’s Solitary Unit… and Other News on Solitary Confinement This Week

Seven Days in Solitary for the Week Ending 7/12/23

by | July 12, 2023

New this week from Solitary Watch:

In the latest edition of Voices from Solitary, a pair of essays by Michael Bankert describes his search for companionship in confinement and the struggle to survive depths of despair brought about by isolation. Throughout his time in solitary confinement Bankert returns to art and writing as a means of processing his trauma and developing connections with other survivors of solitary. In a letter to Solitary Watch, he said,  “[Writing shows] I am, I exist, I am still a person who can contribute to society through writing.” Solitary Watch


This week’s pick of news and commentary about solitary confinement: 

Six months after the Special Management Unit (SMU) at U.S. Penitentiary Thomson in Illinois was closed, over 120 incarcerated people have come forward with accounts of abuse by correctional staff. According to a new report from The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, incarcerated people in the SMU experienced “rampant racism, and many people who were subjected to unnecessary restraint and forced to cell with another individual who was known to be dangerous.” Many of the accounts featured in the report echo the findings of a 2022 investigation by the Marshall Project and NPR, which uncovered shackled beating by officers, a dangerous lack of mental health care, and a grievance system so dysfunctional it made filing complaints almost impossible. A May 2023 report by the Department of Justice Inspector General found over 8,000 unresolved employee misconduct cases from the SMU. Although most of the evidence against staff comes from the firsthand accounts of incarcerated people, the federal Bureau of Prisons director stated “allegations of employee misconduct will continue to be met with rigorous investigations and decisive action.” However, many of the officer’s named in the report continue to be employed by the BOP at other facilities in Illinois. The Marshall Project | Washington Lawyers Committee Report

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An incarcerated “companion observer” reports that a lack of adequate supervision and access to mental health care has caused a humanitarian crisis for women incarcerated at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility (WNMCF). Despite the state’s policies, the responsibility of observing incarcerated women on suicide watch is often left to other incarcerated women rather than mental health professionals. And while policy requires each person on suicide watch to have one-on-one attention from their own observer, the facility only staffs one or two observers per shift. In 2022, at least three women at WNMCF died by suicide and numerous others attempted suicide, with little intervention by facility staff. According to the companion observer, “the abuse, neglect, disregard, and maliciousness of prison staff pushed them to the point of desperation that made them feel death was the only option.”  ACLU New Mexico 

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In 2021 Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Ned Lamont vetoed a bill meant to restrict the use of solitary confinement. Following the veto, members and allies of STOP Solitary CT doubled down on their efforts to pass anti-solitary legislation, and succeeded. Now their efforts are being used as a roadmap by advocates in California to navigate resistance from Governor Gavin Newsom. Last year Newsom vetoed the California Mandela Act—aimed at capping the use of solitary at the 15-day maximum outlined in the United Nation’s Nelson Mandela Rules—after it passed the state legislature. The bill was reintroduced this session and passed the General Assembly in late May before heading onto the Senate. If signed into law, the bill would limit the length of time anyone can spend in solitary confinement and completely ban the practice for disabled people, pregnant people, people under 26 or over 59 years old.  Mother Jones | Ten years after the historic prison hunger strikes of 2013, which at their height involved more than 30,000 incarcerated people, Victoria Law looks at the impact of the strike and the ongoing movement to end solitary in California. Truthout

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A cycle of resistance and retaliation has intensified at two ICE detention facilities in California. Over the last three years, immigrants have been protesting the dangerous and abusive conditions at two Central Valley facilities operated by the private GEO group. In a class action lawsuit filed on May 18th, plaintiffs argued that staff at the facilities used solitary confinement as retaliation against incarcerated people protesting unsafe working conditions. This recent lawsuit is one of several filed over the last year asserting that immigrants at the facilities are housed in unsanitary conditions and forced to work for $1 a day. Lawyers representing the plaintiffs argue that ICE and GEO group have violated the immigrants First Amendment rights to organize against the facilities’ conditions. The Real News

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A new law now requires the Virginia Department of Corrections to document the reasons for placing someone in solitary confinement, among other restrictions. In 2020, the Virginia DOC implemented a policy requiring people in solitary to have at least four hours of out of cell time per day. As of July 1, 2023, these limits to the use of solitary confinement have been codified into law by the state legislature. While the law does institute some protections for incarcerated people, it fails to limit the length of time a person can spend in solitary. According to Interfaith Action for Human Rights representative Natasha White, “Until you put a limit on the use of solitary confinement, you’ve done nothing.” ABC 8 News

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After relocating to Texas, Damascus James began writing to incarcerated people in solitary confinement as a way of developing connections with these isolated communities. As James became connected with more people, he began collecting stories of people’s experiences of incarceration within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Over time the initiative grew into the Texas Letters Project, an anthology of letters from people in solitary confinement. In a recent interview with PEN America, James discusses the origin of the project and the impact it’s had on the people who write the letters and those who read them. PEN America | Texas Letters Project

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