New this week from Solitary Watch:
Solitary Watch has appointed award-winning journalist Juan Moreno Haines to serve as editor-in-chief. With this appointment, Haines becomes one of a very few currently incarcerated individuals to hold a leadership position at a newsroom or nonprofit organization. Haines has spent 27 years in the California prison system and served for 15 years as a writer and editor at the San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper produced entirely by incarcerated people. His work has also been widely published by outside outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, The American Prospect, Next City, and The Appeal. Haines, who has been a senior contributing writer at Solitary Watch since 2020, assumes this leadership role at a time when the publication is devoting growing attention and resources to the vital work of incarcerated writers, who are uniquely positioned to report on conditions behind bars and to envision solutions to the U.S. crisis of mass incarceration. Solitary Watch
This week’s pick of news and commentary about solitary confinement:
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, leading conservative commentator and columnist George F. Will lays out a case against what he calls “the all-too-common prison practice of protracted solitary confinement.” Responding to last week’s Supreme Court decision to reject the appeal of a man held in solitary in Illinois for years with no outdoor exercise, Will sided with Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson’s dissent. In the op-ed, he affirms solitary confinement as a violation of the Eighth Amendment, even for Constitutional originalists, since “the amendment’s original meaning that matters is: We shall not countenance government-inflicted cruelty.” Will argues: “Conservatives, ever apprehensive about the abuses of power to which empowered people always and everywhere are susceptible, should be acutely alert about potential abuses of prisoners, who exist at the state’s mercy, behind high walls and nontransparent procedures.” He ends by condemning the conservative justices’ decision, stating they “showed undue deference to government.” Washington Post
Despite the growing efforts to end solitary confinement, most leading criminal justice donors still decline to give money to the organizations leading the movement. In a recent op-ed, Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. Prisons Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a survivor of solitary, describes the obstacles he faced when searching for funding. According to Perez, many funders push back on proposals relating to solitary confinement because they believe their money is “better spent reducing the incarcerated population overall” or that it is “fruitless to improve conditions inside facilities that are broken at their core.” Perez argues that while it is essential, decarceration will take decades to implement, and incarcerated people in solitary confinement “need help now.” “Large and small foundations alike,” he writes, “can provide the funds needed to capitalize on growing support to end the torture of solitary confinement.” Chronicle of Philanthropy
Immigrants detained at Northwest Detention Center (NDC) in Washington state are hunger striking for the seventh time this year over inhumane conditions and treatment. Many of the striking immigrants have been placed into solitary confinement. According to documentation from the University of Washington, NDC’s long history of mistreatment also includes medical neglect, sexual abuse by staff, and the use of tear gas. Although a state law was passed in 2021 aimed at shutting down NDC by 2025, a recent ruling from California’s 9th Circuit calls into question whether a state can “exert this level of control over the federal government’s detention operations.” The Spokesman Review
A lawsuit has been filed against the Alabama Department of Corrections on behalf of incarcerated activist Robert Earl Council, alleging a guard encouraged other incarcerated people to kill him. Council, a lead organizer in the 2022 Alabama prison strikes, is currently housed in solitary confinement at Limestone Correctional Facility. According to the lawsuit, Council is at “a substantial risk of being assaulted or murdered by Lt. Jeremy Pelzer, other Limestone correctional facility officers, or inmates who act at their behest.” The suit alleges Lt. Pelzer told Crips gang members that “Even if y’all killed him, I’ll make sure nothing happens to y’all.” The Guardian
Before her friend Vanna died by suicide, Patricia Trimble remembers clearly telling her that she wouldn’t survive another stay in administrative segregation. Vanna was a transgender woman and her story is one shared by many transgender people who have died while incarcerated. The overuse of solitary confinement combined with “unchecked physical and sexual violence and frequent denial of gender-affirming mental and physical health care” leads to horrific trauma which prevents transgender people from breaking cycles of incarceration. Vera Institute of Justice
Richard L. Bean has been the superintendent of an East Tennessee detention center since 1972—so long they renamed the facility after him. He looks back fondly on the days when he was allowed to paddle children in his custody, stating, “I’d whip about six or eight a year and it runs pretty smooth.” To maintain order today, Bean treats “everybody like they’re in here for murder” and relies heavily on holding children in solitary confinement. In 2017, Tennessee codified into law new standards under which children can be placed in 50-square-foot concrete isolation cells only “when necessary to prevent imminent harm to themselves, another person, prevent damage to property, or prevent the youth from escaping.” Although the standards state that seclusion should never be used as punishment, they fail to set limits on how long a child can spend in isolation. ProPublica
In 1990, Mwalimu Shakur was placed in solitary confinement for associating with the New Afrikans, a radical political group. Once the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) “validated” him as a gang member, they were able to keep him in solitary confinement indefinitely. After 14 years in solitary, Shakur is now in general population, writing about his experience in isolation and the impact of existing loopholes in California’s solitary policies. Knock LA
From his solitary confinement cell on Ohio’s Death Row, Keith LaMar has built an abolition movement fueled by art and poetry. Following the 1993 Lucasville Uprising at Southern Ohio Correctional Center, LaMar was offered a plea bargain for his participation, contingent upon his admission to killing fellow prisoners. When he refused, stating he did not kill anyone, the case was taken to trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. During the Covid-19 pandemic, after three decades in solitary confinement, LaMar began working with acclaimed pianist and composer Albert Marquès on the Freedom First campaign. Now a touring concert series and album, Freedom First encourages people to embrace LaMar’s favorite saying: “Love is the only freedom.” Truthout
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