Prison Journalists Report at Their Own Risk…and Other News on Solitary Confinement This Week

by | September 27, 2023

New this week from Solitary Watch:

In an article this week for Solitary Watch, Spencer Weinreich explores the origin of solitary confinement during the witch trials in the seventeenth century city of Bamberg. Writing about the prison Malefizhaus, Weinreich draws parallels between the torture faced by accused witches and the torture of modern solitary confinement.

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

Incarcerated people who resist or attempt to bring attention to physically and emotionally abusive conditions are frequently punished to serve as an example for others. Incarcerated journalist Christopher Blackwell and Empowerment Avenue Writing for Liberation Director Emily Nonko write that while laws against prison reporting are rare, incarcerated journalists regularly face aggressive intimidation and retaliation from facility employees and administrators. Cells “searches” are common for incarcerated journalists, often resulting in papers and personal items being destroyed. Writers can also be transferred to solitary confinement as a result of their work. Sara Kielly, a trans journalist and jailhouse lawyer incarcerated in New York, says she’s “been given false disciplinary infractions with sanctions ranging from loss of commissary, loss of phone privileges, confinement to my cell with no programming.” Shadowproof

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A class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of men incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary Angola alleging that the conditions under which they are forced to work constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The plaintiffs, most of whom are Black, state that officials forced them to work in the prison’s fields for little to no pay, even when heat indexes reached 145 this summer. Individuals, including those with disabilities accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act, were sent to solitary confinement if they refused to work. According to the lawsuit, the labor served no institutional purpose and is “purely punitive, designed to ‘break’ incarcerated men and ensure their submission.” ABC News

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Individuals accused of crimes in Missouri must wait an average of six months for legally required mental health evaluations to determine if they are competent to stand trial. Meanwhile, they’re placed in pre-trial detention to wait while their cases are on hold, often ending up in solitary confinement due to symptoms of mental illness. For those in pre-trial detention, the conditions of confinement often exacerbate existing mental health issues or create new ones. Even people deemed incompetent to stand trial due to their mental health wait on average eight months for a bed at a treatment facility. St. Louis Post Dispatch

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A recent investigation has uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse and cover-ups at FCI Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. Between 2014 and 2018, 35 women reported sexual assaults at the hands of facility staff—the most of any federal women’s prison. One incarcerated woman was sexually assaulted by her mental health case manager after being sent to solitary confinement for harming herself. According to court documents, twelve staff members at Carswell have been convicted of assault since 1997. However, the actual number of staff assaults is likely much higher as both incarcerated women and staff say they fear retaliation for reporting misconduct. Star Telegram

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The Oregon Justice Resource Center is seeking a court order to prevent the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) from holding people in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days. Currently, individuals are allowed to be kept in solitary confinement for a maximum of 90 days under Oregon state law. However, a recent state-commissioned report found there is “a culture of retaliation and fears among staff and prisoners of being punished for filing complaints.” In response, Gov. Tina Kotek has convened a panel to address the issue of solitary confinement in Oregon prisons. Jefferson Public Radio 

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Despite having made progress in reducing the number of people in solitary confinement, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services still utilizes the practice, and sometimes fails to safely transition people out of solitary. Earlier this year, the department agreed to revise their reintegration policies after an incarcerated man attempted suicide and then died by drug overdose shortly after being released from solitary confinement into general population. However, according to a recent oversight report, two men who have spent years in solitary confinement are still scheduled to be released directly into the community without supervision this December. Omaha World-Herald 

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In June, six staff members at Alger Correctional Facility in Michigan were indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges in connection to the 2019 death of Jonathan Lancaster. However, the judge recently dismissed all charges citing expert testimony that Lancaster was “doomed to die” and the staff members’ failure to provide medical care did not cause Lancaster’s death. Lancaster, who was in solitary confinement at the time of his death, died from dehydration after losing over 50 pounds in the two weeks prior to his death. According to Lois Pullano, founder of Citizens for Prison Reform, “Jonathan Lancaster’s death is not an isolated incident. We have seen death after death in these kinds of circumstances. History continues to repeat itself.” Mid-Michigan Now

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Whether they are trying to build a defense or navigate the grievance process, incarcerated people often face many barriers to accessing legal help while in prison. For people without hired attorneys, access to prison law libraries is often the only way to build a case or defense. However, those who self-educate in the law to help themselves or others often face retaliation from staff, including being sent to solitary confinement. Incarcerated Muslims who become jailhouse lawyers have been particularly hard-hit by such retaliation, but are carrying on with their work nonetheless. Truthout

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