Friday, July 20, 2012

An Update and Reflection on Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons

In the past month, we have taken many steps forward toward ending prolonged solitary confinement in US prisons. Senate held the first ever hearing on solitary confinement, the General Assembly passed a resolution which recognized that solitary confinement can be a form of torture, and Illinois Governor Quinn proposed to close the Tamms Correctional Center, one of the first “supermax” prisons well-known for its use of solitary confinement. I'm Debbie Dyslin, the Office of Public Witness summer fellow working on torture-related issues. I’ve experienced many of these steps forward first-hand and I hope to convey to you some of the injustices that God has placed on my heart.

On June 19th, I attended the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement along with Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson, colleagues from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), and an array of other organizations. Over 250 people attended the hearing, filling the hearing room as well as an overflow room. This was also the first time that I’d attended a Senate hearing. The experience is still strikingly vivid in my mind, and I hope and pray that it does not fade. Below is a picture from the hearing, including several witnesses as well as Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson (infront of the opening of the replica solitary confinement cell).

Photo: Jonathan Ernst for The New York Times
Photo: Jonathan Ernst for The New York Times

“This is a historic occasion” I heard people around me say. “Long overdue”, many added. Waiting outside the hearing room, crowded against the wall, I had very little idea of what I might see and witness in the following hours.

In his opening statement, Senator Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairperson of the Senate subcommittee for the hearing, shared his experience of visiting the Tamms “supermax” prison and concluded with the plea, “if I had one request to my colleagues on this judiciary committee, it is to visit a prison. Do it frequently, see what it’s like.”

The topic of testimony varied from the living conditions of prisoners, statistics about the US criminal justice system, to the mental health impacts of solitary confinement. Odyssey Networks produced this six-minute video after the hearing.
  • The ACLU had built a replica of a solitary confinement cell in the hearing room. Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at UC Santa Cruz, added “it is hard to describe in words what such a small space [not much larger than a king size bed] begins to look like, feel like, smell like, when someone is required to live virtually their entire life in it.”
  • Senators Al Franken (D-Minn) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill) noted that the US has 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of the world’s inmates and a vast majority of prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.
  • Anthony Graves, who spent over 18 years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit, described his living conditions and the mental deterioration of his fellow inmates.
  • “I lived behind a steel door that had two small slits in it, the space replaced with iron mesh wire, which was dirty and filthy. Those slits were cut out to communicate with the officers that were right outside your door. There was a slot that's called a pan hole and that's how you would receive your food. I had to sit on my steel bunk like a trained dog while the officer delivered my food tray. He would take a steel crow bar and stick it into the metal lock on the pan hole, it would fall open, which then allowed the officer to place your tray in the slot. Afterward, he then steps back, which was the signal for me to get off the bunk and retrieve my food. This is no different from the way we train our pets.”
  • "Solitary confinement does one thing, it breaks a man's will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He's never the same person again."
The lack of exposure we have to instances of torture makes it all too easy for us not to care and not to act. With every picture and testimony that was shared at the hearing, the issue of solitary confinement became increasingly heart-breaking, personal, and real to me. When I arrived at home that night, I learned that a young man from my church community would soon be placed in solitary confinement.
There is hope. During the hearing, Commissioner Christopher Epps from the Mississippi Department of Corrections detailed how he worked with the National Institute of Corrections and the ACLU to reform the practices of the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) has a national campaign to gather endorsements from people of faith of this statement calling for government officials across the country to take steps to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement as well as state-specific campaigns in CA, CO, IL, ME, NJ, NY, OR, PA, TX, and VA. NRCAT has also produced a 20 minute film “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard” and other resources on solitary confinement for individual and congregational use.

In Mark 8:17-18, Jesus challenges his disciples, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (NRSV). Those questions shape our response to what we have now seen, heard, and read about the injustice of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. I encourage you to watch the videos mentioned earlier and consider signing the NRCAT Statement Against Prolongued Solitary Confinement and holding a film screening and discussion at your church using NRCAT resources.

Join the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network, PHEWA, the Office of Public Witness, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture as we seek justice for victims of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

A video recording of the hearing as well as witness testimonies and senator statements can be found on the Senate website. The video coverage begins at 16:33.

The 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

1.     Calls upon the fifty states and the federal government to follow the example of Maine, Colorado, and Mississippi in significantly limiting the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement, and to limit a prisoner’s duration of solitary confinement, and to instead offer alternatives that address the mental health needs of prisoners, offer skill building opportunities such as anger management, job training, and educational classes that effectively contribute both to prisoners’ rehabilitation and to their successful transition back into society.
2.     Joins in the call of U.S. faith leaders to urge the president to sign and the Senate to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in order to reduce risk of torture and abuse in U.S. prisons.
3.     Urges presbyteries, congregations, and individual Presbyterians to participate with the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network, and presbyteries may also wish to participate in the work of PHEWA, on the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to significantly limit the use of solitary confinement.