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Now Available—Our New Book: The First Collection of Voices from Solitary Confinement

Thu, 2016-02-04 15:38

Dear Readers and Supporters:

This week marks the official publication date of Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. Edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd, Hell Is a Very Small Place is the first-ever trade book on solitary confinement, and the only book to feature firsthand accounts of life in solitary. It is now available in bookstores and online (see links below).

Our publisher, The New Press, had this to say about the book in a press release:

President Barack Obama, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Pope Francis have all criticized the widespread use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez has denounced the use of solitary beyond fifteen days as a form of cruel and degrading treatment that often rises to the level of torture. Yet the United States holds more than eighty thousand people in isolation on any given day. Now, sixteen authors vividly describe the realities of life in solitary.

In a book that will add a startling new dimension to the debates around human rights and prison reform, formerly and currently incarcerated men and women describe the devastating effects of solitary confinement on their minds and bodies, the solidarity expressed between individuals who live side by side for years without ever meeting one another face to face, the ever-present specters of madness and suicide, and the struggle to maintain hope and humanity.

These firsthand accounts are supplemented by the writing of noted experts, exploring the psychological, legal, ethical, and political dimensions of solitary confinement, and a comprehensive introduction by Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway and Jean Casella. Sarah Shourd, herself a survivor of more than a year of solitary confinement, writes eloquently in a preface about an experience that changed her life. The powerful cover art is by renowned political artist Molly Crabapple.

Advance reviews for the book have been strong. Kirkus called Hell Is a Very Small Place a “potent cry of anguish from men and women buried way down in the hole,” and Publishers Weekly called it as a “no-holds-barred expose” filled with stories that “pack a visceral punch and make a convincing case for more humane conditions, better oversight, and continuing prison reform.”

The book is already generating press coverage. The New Yorker featured Hell Is a Very Small Place in a moving piece by Jennifer Gonnerman about the work of James Ridgeway and Solitary Watch—specifically, his long history of correspondence with people in solitary, which yielded many of the pieces in the book. Slate produced a video about book contributor Five Mualimm-ak and his journey home from solitary.

Stay tuned on Facebook and Twitter and on the “Our New Book” page on this site for more coverage and reviews, as well as upcoming book events still in development.

Leading advocates have also praised Hell Is a Very Small Place:

“An extraordinary collection of testimonials from men and women who have endured solitary confinement and, unlike many others, survived. . . . Hell is a Very Small Place probes the darkest corners of a prison system where, all too often, the urge to punish has prevailed over law, morality, and human decency.”  —DAVID C. FATHI, Director, ACLU National Prison Project

“A devastating look in the mirror for a society that has hidden the depths of its cruelty behind concrete and steel. Hell is a Very Small Place puts us face with the smells, the sounds, and the profound despair of solitary confinement, and is a call to moral outrage, repentance, and action.”
—REV. LAURA MARKLE DOWNTON, Director of U.S. Policy, National Religious Campaign Against Torture

“This important book leaves no doubt that solitary confinement has no place in a civilized society. The story of each person subject to solitary shows that he or she is somebody and that the life that is thrown away is not beyond redemption. Together they demonstrate the urgency of turning from hatred to understanding and from vengeance to reconciliation if we are doing to have a decent, moral and compassionate society.” —STEPHEN BRIGHT, President and Senior Counsel, Southern Center for Human Rights

“Confronts the moral catastrophe of solitary confinement through compelling and courageous testimonies by the world’s premier experts on the matter: the confined themselves.”  —GLENN E. MARTIN, Founder and President, Just Leadership USA

“We will never achieve justice in this country until we have the courage to look unblinkingly into the hidden corners of our system of mass incarceration, where men and women are locked away and forgotten—stored like meat in a freezer. This book does just that.”  —VAN JONES, author of Rebuild the Dream

“Please take the time to read these haunting voices of people in solitary, along with experts and activists. It is vitally important.” —RALPH NADER

For those of you who made generous donations to our year-end Lifelines to Solitary fundraiser with the promise of the book as a thank-you gift: Your books are now on their way! For others, the book is available in local bookstores, and at the links below:

Order now from The New Press.

Order now from Indie Bound.

Order now from Amazon – Hardcover or eBook

 

 

We have dedicated this book “to those who find the courage to break the silence, and to those too shattered to do so.” We are honored to be able to serve as a conduit to these brave and powerful voices, and we hope our book will help them reach into the hearts and minds of thousands of new readers. Please help us spread the word.

With best regards,

Seven Days in Solitary [1/31/2016]

Sun, 2016-01-31 15:17

• A Syracuse 16-year-old is suing the Onondaga County Justice Center for allegedly placing him in solitary confinement for more than two months. According to one local site, “Chief Onondaga County Custody Deputy Esteban Gonzalez called [the teenager’s housing conditions] ‘segregation housing’ in a response to the lawsuit, saying that the conditions “do not meet the criteria or the level that (solitary confinement) implies.”

• Solitary Watch founders and co-editors Jim Ridgeway and Jean Casella were featured in a New Yorker story.

• The Nation published a groundbreaking investigation into a string of deaths at the Bureau of Prisons’ privatized, immigrant-only facilities. One man locked up in these prisons, 28-year-old Jesus Enrique Zavala Montes, who had a known history of mental illness and self harm, committed suicide while in the SHU in March 2013.

• The Guardian’s David Smith addresses the culture of secrecy that remains in US prisons, despite Obama’s proposed crackdown on solitary confinement. “The concealed nature of the practice condemned by Obama as ‘an affront to our common humanity’ illustrates the scale of the challenge that remains,” he writes. The Washington Post also traced the limits of the reforms.

• A survivor of childhood solitary confinement, now in law school, writes about his experiences for TIME. “Given my experience, my response to President Barack Obama’s ban on solitary confinement for juveniles and low-level offenders in federal facilities is tempered.”

• The Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture addressed why “labor unions should heed Obama’s call to reform solitary confinement.”

• Advocates in North Carolina, and lawmakers in New Mexico, are seeking state prohibitions on putting children in solitary confinement following President Obama’s remarks.

• Indiana’s Department of Corrections has reached a settlement to sharply limit the placement of people with mental illness in solitary confinement. The settlement is the result of a 2008 lawsuit brought by the state’s ACLU. [Covered by BuzzFeed and others].

What Obama’s Actions Mean for Solitary Confinement in America’s Prisons

Wed, 2016-01-27 10:00

Citing the “devastating, lasting psychological consequences” of solitary confinement, President Barack Obama on Monday evening announced a set of policy changes designed to dramatically reduce the use of prison isolation. The changes, which apply only to the federal prison system, will have a limited initial impact on the total number of people held in solitary, but they set a powerful precedent for further reforms across the country.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Obama begins by referencing the case of Kalief Browder, the young man who committed suicide after spending two years in pre-trial solitary confinement as a teenager on New York’s Rikers Island. Such “heartbreaking results,” the President writes, are the reason “why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.”

These steps include “banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells” within the federal prison system.

Mentioning his belief in “second chances” and “redemption” as well as “public safety,” Obama makes a powerful argument against solitary on both practical and moral grounds. “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?,” he asks. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”

In his reference to “unnecessary” solitary, however, the President clearly leaves the door open for some use of prison isolation. He acknowledges that “there are circumstances when solitary is a necessary tool, such as when certain prisoners must be isolated for their own protection or in order to protect staff and other inmates. In those cases, the practice should be limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort.”

The reforms announced by the President draw on a set of policy changes recommended by the Department of Justice. These resulted from a review of federal solitary confinement by a DOJ “Working Group” that included representatives of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Civil Rights Division, and various other bodies. Obama directed Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct the review last summer, when he first denounced solitary in a speech on criminal justice before the NAACP.

The Justice Department last night released the full report, which includes an overview of the use of “restrictive housing” in the federal system, followed by a set of 50 “guiding principles” and finally a series of “policy recommendations,” which are what Obama is codifying through executive action.

A close reading of the 123-page report reveals just how far these policy changes will go in reducing and reforming the use of solitary confinement, in the federal system and beyond.

Adding Up the Numbers

Obama’s op-ed is remarkable simply for its frank use of the term “solitary confinement.” Recently retired BOP Director Charles Samuels had repeatedly testified before Congress that restrictive housing in the federal system did not, in fact, constitute solitary confinement. (Samuels also, famously, had no idea of the size of a federal isolation cell.) In addition, in his reference to the “10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement,” the President clearly included individuals in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in double cells in federal Special Housing Units (SHUs) and Special Management Units (SMUs).

To be precise, the review found that as of December 2015, the Bureau of Prisons held 9,914 people in solitary confinement, or “restrictive housing,” in BOP-run prisons, and an additional 924 in private contract prisons. This is slightly less than 6 percent of the total population of about 185,000 in all facilities. An unspecified additional number are held in isolation by the U.S. Marshals Service.

Bans on Solitary for Juveniles, Pregnant Women

For a few specific categories of people, Obama’s policy changes will bring a near-complete ban on the use of solitary confinement by the BOP. This includes juveniles under the age of 18. In fact, very few children are held in federal custody—and even these are farmed out to state and local facilities, since the federal Bureau of Prisons runs no juvenile jails. In December 2015, there were 26 incarcerated juveniles in federal custody. Over the course of the previous year, the report states, “the Bureau [of Prisons] was notified of 13 juveniles placed in restrictive housing at its contract facilities.”

Also virtually banned from solitary are women “who are pregnant, are postpartum, recently had a miscarriage, or recently had a terminated pregnancy.” The report does not provide data on how many such women, if any, have been placed in restrictive housing in the past.

Ban on Solitary for Low-Level Offenses

The policy recommendations also ban the use of Disciplinary Segregation for “low-level” disciplinary offenses, which include “Malingering/Feigning Illness,” “Abusive/Obscene Language,” and “Violating Visiting Regulations,” among others, as well as for first instances of “moderate-level” offenses, which range from “Destroying Property ? $100” to “Being Unsanitary/Untidy” to “Smoking in Unauthorized Area.”

However, very few individuals held by the BOP are placed in solitary for low-level offenses; instead, they face other sanctions, such as fines or loss of “good time” credits or visiting privileges. in 2015, of the 712 convictions for low-level offenses, only .014%—10—were punished with terms in solitary.

The number of convictions for moderate-level offenses that resulted in solitary time was much higher—6.1% of 62,043, or 3,785. The review does not say how many of these were first offenses, and thus potentially impacted by the ban. This number also reflects convictions for infractions, and the number of people in solitary for such infractions at any given time might be considerably lower.

Time-Cuts for More Serious Offenses and Special Management Unit Programs

Perhaps more significant are dramatic cuts in the length of time individuals can be placed in solitary in Disciplinary Segregation for more serious offenses, ranging from “Tattooing or Self Mutilation” to “Engaging in a Sex Act” to fighting, weapons possession, and assault.  For example, the policy recommendations reduce the maximum amount of time in solitary for a first high-level offense from 365 days to 60 days.

The impact of these reductions on the total population in Disciplinary Segregation is impossible to calculate. But a relatively small number of people in solitary are actually in Disciplinary Segregation—1,417 in November 2015, according to the review. Instead, most are in “Administrative Detention”—pending investigations or hearings for infractions, or awaiting transfers or classification, or held over after their disciplinary sentences are up, presumably because they are considered high risk.  The report recommends that the hearing and transfer processes be speeded up, but leaves the details up to the BOP.

Time cuts are also recommended for the 1,235 men in the Special Management Units, or SMUs. Most are gang members who are going through a four-phase program meant to “correct inmates’ disruptive and violent behaviors, while gradually preparing them for return to the general population.” The review advises the BOP to shorten the length of the program from 18-24 months to 9-13 months, which if implemented could significantly reduce the SMU population.

Alternative Housing for People Diagnosed With Serious Mental Illness

The policy recommendations call for something close to an eventual ban on the isolation of individuals with mental illness. Any people in solitary with “Serious Mental Illness” (SMI) are meant, under the new policies, to be rehoused in “Secure Mental Health Units.” To make this happen, the capacity of these units, which already exist, will need to be increased, and as the report notes, “Any expansion of these programs is contingent on increased funding.” A fact sheet provided by the DOJ states: “The President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget will include a request for $24 million to support these efforts.”

The numbers provided for people with SMI currently in restrictive housing in the federal system are, however, suspiciously low. According to the report, only 629 of the more than 9,900 people held in solitary by the BOP have significant mental health care needs (with an additional 285 for whom the information is not available). This low percentage does not track with most past studies of state prison system, which have found that anywhere from a quarter to a half of people in solitary suffer from mental illness.

The low numbers may be the result of past reforms in the federal system. But they may also reflect narrow definitions of SMI and a general trend toward underdiagnosis. In fact, when the BOP underwent an independent audit in 2014, the auditors, the CNA Group, “concluded that restrictive housing inmates with mental health needs were routinely underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed, resulting in insufficient treatment for mentally ill inmates. The CNA audit criticized the Bureau’s methods for assessing mental illness, and repeatedly stated that the Bureau lacked sufficient psychiatric staff to provide adequate mental health treatment to all inmates who require it.”

Alternative Housing for People in Protective Custody

The policy changes also affect people in solitary for “Protective Custody,” which includes significant numbers of LGBTQ individuals, people convicted of sex offenses, and former gang members, among others. In November 2015, there were 921 individuals in Protective Custody. The new policy recommendations call for most of these people to be moved to “Reintegration Housing Units”—again, pending the expansion of these units, and the funds to pay for the expansion.

More Out-of-Cell Time for All

When Obama stated that “these steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement,” he must have been thinking of one of his final directives: “Wardens at all BOP facilities will be directed to develop institution-specific plans for increasing the number of hours restrictive housing inmates spend outside of their cell, and allowing greater opportunities for rehabilitation and reentry services.”

The report further states that the DOJ “believes that reducing the total number of restrictive housing inmates will lessen the intense demands currently placed on officers assigned to SHU and SMU units, freeing up staff to provide additional programming and services for the remaining inmates in restrictive housing.” Nowhere do the new rules set any minimum for out-of-cell time.

Total Reductions

If all of the President’s directives are followed, and if they remain in place under a new president (since some will take years to implement), they stand to reduce the federal solitary population significantly. By the very roughest of estimates, they should eventually cut the number of people held in solitary by the BOP by perhaps a third.

As with all prison reforms, only implementation will tell the real story and yield the final numbers. The reductions could be undercut if, for example, prisons assign more people to Administrative Detention or to the SMUs to make up for cuts in Disciplinary Segregation. On the other hand, the reductions could be greater if people with mental illness in the BOP receive proper diagnosis and diversion from solitary.

Reading Between the Lines

Opponents of solitary confinement have much to celebrate in Obama’s actions. The very fact that a sitting president chose to take on an issue that, only five years ago, was all but invisible, is remarkable in itself. Advocates who have been working on the issue for years, and who late last year sent an open letter to the President urging him to take meaningful action on solitary, can be encouraged by the eloquence of the President’s denunciation, and by the spirit as well as the letter of the policy changes laid out by the DOJ.

The reforms Obama announced put the federal government at least in line with states like New York and California, which recently announced their own plans to reduce the use of solitary. But those states had their hands forced by lawsuits, whereas at the federal level change came as a result of Obama’s leadership. And if, as the President hopes, the reforms also “serve as a model for state and local corrections systems,” most of whom have still done little or nothing to reduce solitary, the impact on the 100,000 individuals in isolation nationwide could be much greater.

Yet if one accepts—as Obama himself seems to—that long-term solitary is at best inhumane and damaging, and at worst torture, then there are troubling aspects to these (and most other) solitary reforms.

For one thing, the changes leave much to the good faith of wardens and other prison staff—a group not famous for its opposition to solitary confinement. For example, the lack of specific minimums for out-of-cell time, or other enforceable minimum standards for the treatment of individuals held in isolation, mean that the thousands of people who will remain in solitary confinement after the reductions take effect may experience no change whatsoever as a result of the President’s reforms.

This is because, by relying on an incremental approach, the reforms threaten to create two classes of people in prison. On one side are those who do not need or deserve to be in solitary and must be released: children, people with mental illness, other vulnerable populations, and individuals who committed only low-level violations of prison rules. On the other side are the rest, who, by implication, belong where they are.

The latter group tends to be left out of solitary reforms altogether. Yet in reality, those deemed least “deserving” of relief from the torments of solitary are often among the very people who need it most, because they have been in solitary the longest and in the most extreme conditions of isolation and sensory deprivation. In the federal prison system, 400 men live in such conditions in ADX federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, and Obama’s reforms seem to have little to offer them.

This is not to say that the President’s reforms are insignificant—only that they are incomplete. If Obama wishes to show further leadership on this issue, he will insist on humane conditions—and perhaps even “second chances”—for all people held in federal custody. In the meantime, the danger is that the public and policymakers will think that the work on this issue is done. Most advocates, on the other hand, know there is still a long road ahead, as do the tens of thousands of people who remain in solitary confinement in American prisons at this moment.

Seven Days in Solitary [1/24/2016]

Sun, 2016-01-24 14:46

• The Crime Report published a report from a two-day colloquium about the use of segregation that occurred last fall and involved corrections agencies, academic experts and advocates. The colloquium aimed to “further a national consensus on ending the over-use of extreme isolation in prisons.”

• A Colorado statistician who accused state prison officials of manipulating statistics about the use of solitary will be paid more than $280,000 in a whistleblowing settlement. According to former employee Maureen O’Keefe, prison officials had understated the number of seriously mentally ill people in solitary confinement, the number of inmates released directly from solitary confinement to the streets and how much time inmates spend outside their cells and other issues.

• Just weeks after the ACLU published a report on the placement of youth in solitary confinement, the Nebraska legislature is considering legislation that would mandate documentation of any use of isolation in juvenile facilities that lasts for longer than two hours. Legislative Bill 845 would also require juvenile facilities to complete quarterly reports on their use of solitary confinement, although it would not create any explicit limits on the use of isolation.

• The Ninth Circuit has agreed to rehear a challenge to placement in solitary confinement, this time en banc, in a case that will test the limits of habeas jurisdiction when it comes to conditions of confinement. Two prisoners, Damous Nettles and Matta Juan Santos, filed habeas petitions asking the court for relief from their placement in isolation.

• Trans people and their allies marked the first International Trans Prisoners Day of Solidarity. As RH Reality Check noted, “Under the guise of “protecting” them from other inmates, trans prisoners are often placed in solitary confinement, a practice that has been widely accepted as a form of psychological torture.”

• Solitary Watch’s Aviva Stahl published an investigative story about Daisy Meadows, a trans woman incarcerated in Nevada who once spent sixty days in the hole for stuffing her bra. “I would rather be raped every day than be in the hole,” she told Broadly.

• New Hampshire’s House criminal justice committee is considering three bills that would establish commissions to study the use of solitary confinement in the state and create restrictions on who could be placed in isolation, and for how long. The proposed bills, however, have been met with skepticism; one committee member said, “It seems like correctional officers are being painted with broad, nasty brushes.”

• A political prisoner and the last incarcerated member of the “NATO 3,” Jared Chase, is facing charges for alleged aggravated battery against a prison guard, despite an existing medical condition that impairs his ability to control emotional outbursts. A neurologist who assessed Chase found that his misconduct was “likely a result of Huntington’s disease”; Chase is believed to be currently serving a year in solitary confinement for an outburst that occurred in August 2015.

“Suicide Checks” Lead to Extreme Sleep Deprivation at California’s Pelican Bay Prison

Thu, 2016-01-21 11:00

Since August 2015, men in the Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit have been subjected to loud, disruptive “welfare checks,” causing sleep deprivation that amounts to torture, according to prisoners rights activists.

The welfare checks, which occur throughout the state prison system, were only recently implemented in the Pelican Bay SHU, which still houses approximately 900 men in solitary confinement despite the recent settlement to reduce isolation in California’s prisons. The checks were originally ordered by the courts in 2006 to reduce suicides in Administrative Segregation Units, which serve as short-term solitary confinement units, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has since expanded them to all segregation units, including the SHU, Psychiatric Services Unit, short- and long-term restricted housing units and death row.

“Security welfare checks were implemented at the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU on August 3, 2015, to further CDCR’s efforts to reduce suicides,” CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton told Solitary Watch. Soon after the policy’s implementation in the Pelican Bay SHU, complaints began to emerge about the noise of the checks, which are meant to occur twice an hour in staggered increments to ensure individuals held in the isolation units don’t know precisely when they will happen.

According to several reports, the checks are particularly disruptive at night, as they disrupt the sleep of those in the SHU, causing sleep deprivation and a litany of related health effects.

According to one account from a man held in the Pelican Bay SHU, provided by Peoples’ Action for Rights and Community: “So the thing with this new ‘system’ is that it’s really more of another form of torture and adding sleep deprivation to our already torturous conditions by constantly banging on our cell doors, shining of flashlights in our face, and loud beeping noises that can be heard going off on each door all day and night, and waking us up each time. So we really haven’t had a good nights sleep since it started and are all walking around like zombies from lack of sleep.”

In November, the Jail and Prison Health Committee of the American Public Health Association issued an open letter expressing their concern over the checks, saying “the impact of these checks is further damaging to the mental health of persons who are already denied both direct human contact and exposure to nature.” The committee recommended an end to the checks until they can be done less intrusively, and suggested prison officials consult with mental health professionals to develop solutions going forward.

Legal action has brought about some improvement in the past few weeks. “CDCR officials are aware of and are being responsive to the complaints of noise and sleep deprivation,” said Thornton. “CDCR has been studying the causes of the noise and possible solutions to reduce the amount of noise in the SHU.”

Under the terms of an agreement between prison officials and attorneys representing those in the SHU, dated December 28, 2015, the checks will be reduced to once an hour between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am in the Pelican Bay SHU, “while [prison officials] work to assess and possibly reduce the noise caused by the opening and closing of the Unit’s pod doors.” Under the terms of the order, CDCR must report to the plaintiffs and the court-appointed Special Master on the status of any changes.

“The parties shall thereafter confer with the Special Master regarding this matter, and if necessary conduct a site visit to the Pelican Bay SHU to assess any changes relating to pod-door noise,” the order reads. “This Stipulation will expire on May 1, 2015, but may be continued by further Stipulation and concurrence of the Special Master.”

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition argues that even if their frequency is reduced, the checks still do more harm than good. “Our stance is that the checks need to stop in PB SHU,” the coalition told Solitary Watch via email. “They are causing sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation is torture. These checks serve no welfare or security purpose; they only harm the prisoners, mentally and physically.”

From the coalition’s perspective, the better thing for CDCR to do is to provide “meaningful mental health and medical care” instead of relying on the checks to achieve the goal of suicide prevention. “Certainly ‘best practice’ does not include denying mental and physical healthcare (as is happening in PB) to people who are living in draconian conditions, then jarring them every 30-60 minutes to see if it has led them to suicide yet,” the coalition said.

Agreement Will Reduce Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill in Oregon Prisons

Tue, 2016-01-19 11:00

Oregon corrections officials have agreed to reduce the isolation of people with serious mental illness in the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) at Oregon State Penitentiary, settling over a year of discussions with Disability Rights Oregon (DRO), the state’s federally designated Protection and Advocacy System.

The agreement, signed January 8, has the potential to significantly improve the quality of life for those in the BHU (pictured above), a unit designed to house 48 of the most severely mentally ill men in in the state prison system. Ostensibly meant to manage and treat those whose behaviors are known to be driven by mental health problems, including self-harm and suicide attempts, the BHU has been under scrutiny by DRO since 2014.

In May 2015, DRO issued a damning report on the conditions of the unit, finding a persistent pattern of long-term solitary confinement in windowless 6 x 10-foot cells, a lack of mental health services and “a culture that promotes unnecessary violence and retaliation by correctional staff.” While the report was publicly met with derision by the Oregon Department of Corrections – in a letter dated May 1, 2015, ODOC Director Colette Peters said it “appears to be more sensational rather than fact-based” – subsequent discussions over reform were evidently productive.

“I am proud of the long-standing relationship and collaboration between [ODOC] and DRO to develop this Memorandum of Understanding,” said Peters in announcing the agreement. “This is an important step in improving treatment options for those in [ODOC] custody with serious mental illness and improving their chances for success upon their release.”

The MOU, among many things, provides for over 20 hours of guaranteed out of cell time a week for those held in the BHU. Ten hours of this time will include classes and treatment programs, and ten hours will be unstructured, allowing for out-of-cell meals, phone calls and physical exercise. Other key components of the agreement include making good-faith efforts to hire and retain “sufficient” mental health staff, ensuring “reasonable access to a psychiatric provider,” and improving training of security and clinical staff to deal “with adults in custody with mental illness, including interviewing techniques, medication side effects, and crisis intervention.”

“When prisoners get an opportunity to spend time outside their cells engaged in constructive activities, they are more likely to be healthy, more likely to learn how to cope with their illness, and more likely to succeed when released,” said DRO Executive Director Bob Joondeph. In light of the substantial and growing international consensus that solitary confinement is especially harmful to those with mental health problems, the set of reforms agreed to would go far in preventing the well-documented abuses in the BHU.

“There’s a lot of miserable, unhappy people howling, banging their heads on the walls,” said Joel Greenberg, coauthor of DRO report. “They’re locked up 23 hours a day, it’s dark, the TV is not even visible and for people who are hearing voices, TV or music are the only way to drown out those things. Then you have the constant cell extractions. There’s just no way out of it, a lot of serious self-harm, suicide attempts, almost everyone in the BHU would prefer to be elsewhere.”

The report features the stories of several men in the BHU. One man, known to engage in self-harm “as a desperate strategy to get out of his cell or compel medical or mental health attention,” has often been subjected to abuse. As the DRO reported, “the security-driven response to his self-harming behaviors is a mixture of physical force and the imposition of further isolation and deprivation.” For as long as 18 days at a time, he would held on “dry cell status” in which water would be turned off in his cell and personal belongings taken away. ODOC policy only allows for dry cell status up to 72 hours.

Other stories include that of “Caleb Freeman,” a pseudonym, who had been in the BHU since 2011, with brief periods in the Mental Health Infirmary and Disciplinary Segregation Unit. Like many in the unit, he too was subjected to uses of force, including tasering. The report also includes the accounts staff in the unit, many of whom who made it clear that balance of power in the unit was mostly in favor of the guards, rather than mental health staff. One clinician reportedly told DRO: “Don’t upset security. If you do, you can’t do your job.”

With the set of reforms ODOC has promised to work on, such imbalances in power can be corrected and improve the prospects for mental health workers to actually help those in the unit. Critical will be ensuring the ODOC actually follows through on this, which in part depends on funding and support from the state. “ODOC’s commitment to these aims includes a commitment to take reasonable steps to obtain funding, when needed, from the Oregon Legislative Assembly to accomplish this plan,” the agreement reads. “If adequate funding is not authorized, ODOC will assess which of these goals, if any, it will pursue.”

It appears further reforms in the Oregon prison system are also on the way.  “[ODOC] is continually evaluating its policies and procedures, including those specific to BHU,” agency spokesperson Elizabeth Craig told Solitary Watch via email, noting that the department is participating in the Vera Institute’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative. “As part of this initiative, we are receiving two years of technical assistance with the goal of safely and effectively reducing our use of special housing.”

Seven Days in Solitary [1/17/2016]

Sun, 2016-01-17 23:31

• RH Reality Check published an article about trans people in prison “suffer[ing] rape, coercion, denial of medical treatment.” The piece also discusses the frequency with which trans people are placed in solitary confinement, ostensibly for their own protection.

• San Francisco is considering placing limits on the time incarcerated youth can spend in solitary confinement. The use of “room confinement” is currently not limited by policy or state law.

• The Discovery Channel published a video entitled, “How Solitary Confinement Impacts the Mind.”

• The American Correctional Association (ASA) is developing new accreditation standards when it comes to the use of solitary confinement. “The punishment that we give to Americans is deprivation of their liberty, but it doesn’t mean that we try to punish them more while their liberty is deprived,” said ASA executive director James Gondles.

• People held at Waupun Correctional Institution were not told that Wisconsin had decreased sentences for time spent in the box. One individual, Markell Simon, agreed to serve 180 days in disciplinary segregation because he was not aware that the DOC had cut maximum sentences by 75% – from 360 days to 90 days – for individual offenses.

• MinnPost published an op-ed calling for the end of solitary confinement of children in Minnesota. Authors Jason Sole and Rachel Wannarka write, “Minnesota should pass legislation defining confinement practices that amount to solitary confinement and then prohibiting it for juveniles, except for strictly limited intervals under legitimate emergency conditions.”

• The Yale Law Journal published a collection of essays on solitary confinement, in response to the ASCA-Liman 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison:

 

Legal Settlement Demands Better Mental Health Care, Less Solitary Confinement in Illinois Prisons

Thu, 2016-01-14 13:10

People held in Illinois prisons will receive an improved level of mental health care in coming years, thanks to a major class action settlement in late December.

In the case of Ashoor Rasho v. John Baldwin, the Illinois Department of Corrections agrees to:

  • Hire 300 new mental health workers, as well as additional security and administrative staff
  • Renovate spaces in three prisons to improve mental health care and and build one entirely new mental health facility
  • Create 50 desperately needed beds for people whose mental illness necessitates hospitalization
  • Require individuals with mental illness who are in solitary confinement for longer than 60 days to spend at least 20 hours out-of-cell each week

The settlement affects more than 11,000 incarcerated people currently receiving mental health care.

The lawsuit alleged that mental illness in Illinois prisons is “chronically underdiagnosed and undertreated,” compromising prisoners’ constitutional rights. Those affected are “subjected to brutality instead of compassion…are mocked and abused by correctional staff, sprayed with caustic chemicals and derided for their illness.” It also stated that prisons lack necessary health care staff and facilities, and that individuals with mental illness are often punished for their condition, including in segregation.

Alan Mills, Legal Director of Uptown People’s Law Center, which coordinated the case, said UPLC started looking into the state of mental health care in Illinois prisons around 2005. When supermax Tamms Correctional Center closed in 2013 at the urging of groups like UPLC and Tamms Year Ten. Mills said its mentally ill individuals held at Tamms were subsequently scattered throughout the system. “A lot of them ended up in segregation, and some in other quasi-specialized mental health units.”

UPLC worked with 13 named plaintiffs, advocacy organization Equip for Equality, and two law firms that acted as co-counsel.

“[The Illinois] prison system is one of the most overcrowded in the country, and definitely one of the most underfunded,” said Mills, noting a 2014 Pew study that ranks Illinois 48 in the country in per-prisoner health care spending. “So we were starting from a really, really low point.”

One major part of the settlement will be a new rule requiring people with mental illness who have been in solitary for 60 days to spend at least 10 structured and 10 unstructured hours out of their cells each week. Mills said this will quadruple many individuals’ time out of cell.

Furthermore, those with mental illnesses will be permanently removed from segregation if their reasons for being there are minor offenses, or behavior that was caused by their mental illness in the first place.

Mills is hopeful the out-of-cell requirement will have drastic effects. Studies show that people in solitary confinement develop psychopathologies at higher rates than those in the general population—an effect he has witnessed firsthand. During negotiations for the case, he interacted with some individuals before and after their out-of-cell time increased. “There’s just such a dramatic change in the way that they operate, the way they present, their overall mental health,” he said. “Just getting people out of their cells is so important.”

He hopes the Department of Corrections will notice these positive effects and expand the out-of-cell policy to prisoners without mental illness as well.

In addition to out-of-cell time regulations, three prisons will receive new therapy rooms and other mental health facilities like mental health offices, crisis cells, congregation areas, and pharmacies. A vacant youth prison (the state has dramatically decreased juvenile incarceration) will be converted to a high level mental health care facility for over 500 prisoners. This new capacity is crucial: The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2014 that Illinois prisons were at 150 – 171 percent capacity.

The DOC will fulfill its construction, hiring, and hospital-level care requirements within three years. The time out-of-cell requirement will be implemented within four years, once the necessary facilities and staff are in place.

“While we didn’t get everything that we would have liked in this settlement, we’re starting from such a low standard, that we will see dramatic improvement—assuming, of course, that it’s implemented,” said Mills. “We’re not walking away and declaring victory. We’re very much committed to seeing it through.”

He notes that the DOC has already made positive steps, such as starting construction early at one prison.

In a DOC statement, Illinois Prison Director John Baldwin said that although Illinois prisons were not originally intended to be psychiatric hospitals, the DOC must adapt to the reality of prisoners with serious mental illness. The Department declined to admit liability in the suit’s allegations, but acknowledged that “adequately treating offenders with mental illness will require a shift in departmental operations.”

“We believe that they have a commitment to making these changes,” said Mills. “And I’m hoping that they’ll go even further than what the settlement is. I feel pretty good that they’re actually going to make some changes that will mean something for our clients.”

Children Held in Solitary Confinement in Nebraska for “Days, Weeks, Even Months”

Tue, 2016-01-12 13:07

Passing notes, talking in the hallway and having too many books in your room are among the reasons children in Nebraska detention facilities have been locked in solitary confinement, according to a report released last week.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska found widely varying policies governing the isolation of juveniles in the nine detention facilities throughout the state, while some maintained little documentation of their use of the practice. “Before they are old enough to get a driver’s license, enlist in the armed forces or vote, some children in Nebraska are held in solitary confinement for days, weeks, even months,” the ACLU reported.

Based on a growing consensus that solitary confinement is harmful to the developing brain, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E.Méndez, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Medical Association have called for either the prohibition or restriction of isolating juveniles.

What the ACLU of Nebraska found was the widespread use of solitary confinement, varying considerably from facility to facility. “Some facilities reported they use room restriction for periods, then permit the juvenile to attend classes before placing the juvenile back in room restriction,” the report explains. “In contrast, some facilities impose room restriction or solitary confinement without any periods out of isolation.”

Children placed in solitary confinement at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney spent an average of 20.8 hours in isolation, while those at the Geneva facility spend an average of 43.78 hours. In contrast, those isolated in the Northeast Nebraska Juvenile Services Center spent an average of 189.16 hours in solitary confinement. Those held under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska Department of Corrections in the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility (pictured above) have spent up to 90 days in solitary confinement.

The report features the stories of three individuals who have spent time in isolation in Nebraska. Jacob had three stints in the Douglas County Youth Facility between the ages of 15 and 17. First isolated “for his own good” because he had a broken ankle, his next two terms followed attacks by older detainees. Jacob reportedly received no regular visits by mental health staff.

Reflecting on his experiences, Jacob says: “These kids weren’t born tough or angry. These kids were dealing with abandonment and depression and abuse. Lockdown brings out all these demons. And if you don’t know how to deal with demons—you’re a kid, you don’t even know how to deal with normal emotions yet—then you’re sitting there by yourself, nowhere to go and every negative thing you’ve been told about yourself seems to be coming true. Every time I look at the news, someone I was in jail with or someone I mentored is going to prison for life. They go to the system for correction—they go in as sheep—and they come out as wolves. If a factory pumped out a bad product over and over again, you wouldn’t blame the product, you’d go back to the factory and try to fix that instead.”

The ACLU of Nebraska recommended the following reforms:

  • Joining the growing number of states banning solitary confinement for youth.
  • Limiting solitary confinement to a last-resort and for no more than 4 hours.
  • Providing due-process and an appeals process.
  • Requiring facility director permission for placement of a youth beyond four hours and mandatory mental health assessments of youth placed in solitary for this period.
  • Mandatory reporting for facilities use of solitary.
  • Mandatory staff training on alternatives to solitary.

In response to the report, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services said they were working with the Vera Institute of Justice and other stakeholders “to develop rules and regulations governing the use of restrictive housing for all populations.” Similarly, the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services, which operates the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, issued a statement saying their goal is to further reduce lengths of stay in isolation.

On Monday, the Omaha World-Herald published an editorial calling for lawmakers to review the use of isolation against juveniles. “Solitary confinement can be an effective tool for jailers to manage unruly prisoners and keep some at-risk prisoners safe,” the editorial argued. “But too many state, city and county jailers seem to be addicted to solitary confinement. They put too many prisoners in solitary too often.”

A growing number of states have moved away from the use of isolation of children, but the practice remains widespread.

In October 2015, the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest at Lowenstein Sandler released the findings of a nationwide survey on the use of solitary confinement. According to the report, 21 jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., prohibit punitive isolation in juvenile facilities by law or practice; 20 additional states impose time-limits ranging from 6 hours to 90 days; and 10 either place no limit or allow indefinite extensions via administrative approval. The report identified Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming as being in the latter category.

States like Illinois are among those that have most recently prohibited the punitive isolation of juveniles. The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice settled a lawsuit with the ACLU by agreeing to end punitive isolation and providing educational and mental health programming for juveniles separated from others.

Nebraska allows juveniles to be punitively isolated for much longer periods of time than most states. Whereas Delaware and Idaho respectively set a maximum period of isolation of 6 and 8 hours in a 24-hour period, Nebraska allows for up to seven days, and longer if violence was involved. Wisconsin and California respectively allow up to 60 and 90 days of isolation.

Based on the experience of the many states that ban punitive isolation, it is clear that isolation itself isn’t necessary, however convenient it may be. A focus on engagement with juvenile offenders by way of continued programming has been shown to yield beneficial outcomes.

For more information on the solitary confinement of juveniles, read our fact sheet on the issue.

Seven Days in Solitary [01/10/2016]

Sun, 2016-01-10 14:19

• An op-ed published in the New York Times by legal scholars Michele Deitch and Michael Mushlin called for independent oversight of New York’s prisons, which would be an addition to the two years of monitoring required in the recent settlement to reduce and restrict the use of solitary confinement. “If harm is to be prevented in these dark places,” they write, “we must know what is happening inside.” The editorial board at the Washington Post also covered and applauded changes to New York’s use of solitary.

• The Marshall Project interviewed Travis Dusenbury, who spent ten years in the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado. He explains, “I think most people take it for granted that they are human, but when you get to the ADX, you realize that being human isn’t a birthright.”

• An investigation produced by the Marshall Project examined reforms to solitary confinement instituted at Alger Correctional Facility, in Michigan’s upper peninsula, then applied in prisons across the state. The step-down program pioneered at Alger created “a system of six “stages” that the men could pass through on their way from solitary to a lower-security status.”

• A series of assaults on correctional officers at Rikers Island has prompted New York City’s Correction Department to request a delay in the plan to eliminate solitary confinement for people age 18-21, which was meant to go into effect on the first of this year. Corrections Commissioner Ponte said that after recent attacks on staff, “the confidence of the staff to move this project forward was a bit shaken,” and the Department is seeking to implement the plan in June.

• Hearings continue in the case of Isaiah McCoy, who spent years on death row and in solitary confinement before his conviction was overturned. In August, Judge Robert Young ordered McCoy released from isolation while he awaited retrial; the judge has since found that McCoy must have access to the prison library and face-to-face, private meetings with his attorneys.

• The family of Jimariya Davidson has filed a federal lawsuit, charging the teen endured cruel and unusual punishment before his April 2015 suicide at the Metro Regional Youth Detention Center in Atlanta. According to the lawsuit, Davidson “was kept in solitary confinement for days with no exercise, showers or even a functioning toilet,” and that “rather than address [Davidson’s] basic needs, the staff routinely locked him in solitary confinement and neglected to provide him with required exercise, education, and even showers.”

• The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has revised its one-page intake form, which one outlet has called “the only tangible policy change since Sandra Bland’s apparent suicide in the Waller County jail in July.” The new form is supposed to better identify people who may be suicidal, although advocates warn that placing people in isolation may actually increase their risk of self-harm.

California Expects to Save $28 Million By Reducing Solitary Confinement

Fri, 2016-01-08 12:16

Reduced reliance on solitary confinement is set to save California taxpayers millions of dollars, according to Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed 2016-17 budget. 

The state is moving to convert segregated housing units to non-segregated units pursuant to the Ashker v. Brown lawsuit settled in September 2015. The lawsuit, filed by numerous individuals held in long-term solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (shown above), argued that such prolonged isolation was a violation of prisoners’ Constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.

Among other things, the settlement ends the practice of indeterminate SHU sentences, which often exceeded 10 years, and establishes a streamlined process by which people can get out of the SHU.

“The final agreement moves the Department away from a system of indeterminate terms for segregated housing to a system that focuses on determinate terms for behavior?based violations,” explains the budget report. “In addition, the Department has made changes to its step?down program to allow inmates to transition from segregated housing into the general population more quickly than under previous policies. These changes are projected to reduce the need for several thousand segregated housing beds, which will be converted to the appropriate housing security level as the changes occur.”

“The Budget includes a reduction of $28 million to account for these housing conversions,” the report continues.

The cost reductions are unsurprising given the long-reported high cost of isolating individuals in California’s prisons. In 2010-11, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported it cost $70,641 annually to hold prisoners in the SHU, and $77,740 annually in the Administrative Segregation Unit, which, while not designed as a long-term housing unit, routinely held people for long periods of time. In contrast, CDCR reported spending an average of $58,324 on general population prisoners.

As our fact sheet on the issue of cost points out, solitary confinement routinely costs more. One estimate put the average difference at as much as $50,000 a year, per-individual. This, despite significant evidence that prolonged segregation may in fact be counterproductive, as indicated by the experience of states like Mississippi which have significantly curbed their use of solitary confinement.

With respect to California’s implementation of the Ashker v Brown settlement, CDCR still segregates thousands of individuals in its prisons. As of December 15, 2015, there were still 2,454 men and 51 women in the SHU statewide, plus 2,924 men and 148 women in ASUs. Meanwhile, CDCR is still processing prisoners for placement either the general population or the soon-to-be-created Restricted Custody General Population Unit, the latter of which is a creation of the Ashker lawsuit and involves restrictive, but much freer, housing for individuals who otherwise would have been sent to solitary confinement. Other reforms have especially helped reduce ASU populations.

As there are still concerns about prison gangs in California prisons, the Governor’s budget includes “$5.8 million for additional investigative staff to monitor gang activity in prisons as the new segregated housing policy changes are implemented.”

With Sons in Solitary, Mothers Fight for Their Freedom—and Their Lives

Wed, 2016-01-06 11:24

Jacob Spivey has bipolar two disorder. Before his incarceration, explained his mother Denise Harrelson, every six months he would become depressed and have suicidal thoughts. In 2014, he entered the North Carolina prison system, but spent most of that first year in the state’s Central Prison, which has a 216-bed mental health facility.

In 2015, he was transferred to the Johnston Correctional Institution in Smithfield, North Carolina. There, when he told guards he was deeply depressed, a precursor to becoming suicidal, they placed him in administrative segregation. When Harrelson arrived for her weekly visit the following day, she said that she was initially ushered into a room with prison officials, including the prison’s superintendent, who told her that her son had been placed in segregation and that his mental health was so fragile that he wasn’t sure a visit would be in his best interest. But she insisted that, if she were not allowed to visit, the administration provide the reason in writing. Prison officials relented and she was allowed to visit.

“When I entered segregation the heat took my breath away, although it was 100 degrees outside, the visitation room had no windows and no air conditioning, it felt like 140 to 150 degrees,” she described. “I asked the guard to open the door so I could get some air from the hall, at first he refused, I had to insist several more times.  I was being baked and my son could hardly hold his eyes open to look at me, he had already been beaten down by the heat and was barely functioning.” She was able to stay in the room for less than 15 minutes before the heat drove her out.

Although she cut her visit short that day, Harrelson wasn’t giving up on her son. Before walking out of the prison, she pleaded with the prison’s superintendent to remove her son from segregation. “I warned that these conditions would cause Jacob, who was already having problems, to spiral downward,” she recalled. The next day, she followed up with a phone call to the superintendent; that evening, when her son still had not been moved she called again. Later that night, he was moved out of segregation to general population, but remained at the prison.

The following Wednesday, Harrelson visited again. “I could see that he was mentally out of it,” she recounted. “He was agitated. He wasn’t acting right. I’d ask him something, [but] he didn’t want to talk. When I asked him again, he started hitting the table over and over. He couldn’t focus.” That night, Jacob tried to hang himself. He was immediately taken to the hospital.

“That’s when I started writing letters to everyone,” Harrelson said. She wrote to the prison system, but received no response. She wrote to the governor, begging him to intervene. Again, no response. She contacted the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who put her in touch with a disability rights attorney. The attorney gave her the fax number of the person to speak with at the prison. In the meantime, Jacob was taken to the hospital four times in four months. Twice, he was placed in the hospital’s protective custody, where he was locked in his cell 23 hours per day, when others either attacked him or threatened to attack him for the money that Harrelson had sent him to buy snacks. Each time he was taken to the hospital, he was returned to the prison after a few days.

“At this point I’m scared to death because he’s suicidal every month,” Harrelson said.  “And he’s got another year [in prison] to go.” When her son told her that hospital staff had accused him of being manipulative, she wrote letters to the hospital explaining his condition. “When my son is suicidal, he needs to go to the hospital, not to segregation,” she told Solitary Watch.

She also asked Jacob to document his treatment, including the medications and dosages he was being given, how many hours of sleep he got each night, and, on a scale of one to ten, how he was feeling. With these records, she realized that his medication had been cut in half, causing him to feel suicidal every month. She pressed the prison and medical staff. In November 2015, his dosage was restored. She also made sure that her son understood the importance of staying on his medications. “I believe Jacob was on course to commit suicide,” Harrelson stated. Since his medication has been restored, she reports that his mental health is better and that, during visits, she’s been able to have in-depth conversations. Now, she’s hopeful that he will survive the next year in prison.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .

Kevin Snodgrass has no history of mental illness or mental health concerns. Nonetheless, he has been in solitary confinement continually for over two years at Red Onion State Prison, where one in 20 people are held in some form of solitary confinement. There, he was involved in a fight. “It wasn’t a gang fight,” Kimberly Snodgrass, his mother and an army veteran, clarified. “It was a one-on-one fight.” Kevin should have had a disciplinary hearing about the charges against him. Instead, according to a suit he filed, on December 6, 2013, he was charged with possession of a weapon or sharpened instrument and placed in long-term segregation. But, his mother pointed out, given that he had been taken from isolation, where he had spent three months, to the holding cell where the knife was found, it would have been impossible for Kevin to have obtained such a weapon. (The court dismissed his suit.)

Since then, Kevin has spent over 730 days in different forms of isolation. “He goes back and forth—from short term to long-term solitary confinement,” Snodgrass told Solitary Watch. In long-term segregation, she explains, he is locked in a cell by himself 23 hours each day without access to a TV, radio or any electronics to help pass the time. In short-term segregation, he may be allowed to have a cellmate and access to electronics, but remains locked in his cell for 23 hours each day.

When she learned that her son had been placed in solitary, Snodgrass sprang into action, contacting the prison, the Virginia Department of Corrections and even state governor Terry McAuliffe. She also connected with Sister Beth Davies and Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR), a mid-Atlantic organization that mobilizes faith communities against U.S. human rights violations, including solitary confinement. At a recent meeting with officials from the Virginia Department of Corrections, including three from Red Onion State Prison, IAHR advocates inquired specifically about Kevin Snodgrass’s continued placement in segregation. “They were able to let the prison know that there was someone other than me looking at my son’s case,” Snodgrass told Solitary Watch.

Snodgrass used to make the six-hour drive from her home in northern Virginia every other month for a two-hour visit where plexiglass separates her from her son. Now, she’s increased her visits to every 15 to 22 days; whenever she does not hear from Kevin, she, her husband (a disabled army veteran), Kevin’s 24-year-old brother, and his 89-year-old grandmother pile into her gray Lexis and drive west for an impromptu visit to ensure that he is safe.

Kevin remains in isolation, but Snodgrass and her family refuse to give up. “We’re both disappointed and dissatisfied with the no-response from Governor Terry McAuliffe’s (D-VA) office,” she said, noting that she and her husband voted for him twice. “We’ve written him as constituents, veterans and concerned parents. His office passed our inquiries to Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) with no follow-up. VDOC will not police themselves. McAuliffe shook my hand for a vote…but has not designated someone to take a closer look at my claim.”

.  .  .  .  .  .  .

Tama Bell has had to advocate for her son since he was seven years old and diagnosed with PTSD from childhood abuse, bipolar disorder, bipolar disorder with psychotic features and ADHD. “I really had no difficulty advocating for him and getting him help,” she told Solitary Watch. But that changed when he turned eighteen. “Mental health basically wanted to reduce their roles.  You know they basically had a lot of cutbacks and you know basically once a person turns 18 if they’re not one hundred percent vested in getting help, mental health is very quick to encourage them to leave getting help, and so that’s what ended up happening,” she explained. “We were told over and over again that if I would just allow him to commit a crime then he would get the mental health help that he needs.  And that’s exactly what happened.” In 2014, Masai was convicted and sentenced to one to three years in a New York State prison after he punched and robbed a delivery person for food.

But imprisonment did not provide the mental health treatment that he so desperately needed. Bell began advocating on his behalf. She wrote letters to the superintendents and mental health staff of the prisons where her son had been sent. She contacted the director of the corrections-based operations at Central New York Psychiatric Center and requested that her son be evaluated. Masai was transferred to Midstate Correctional Facility for evaluation. During his second week there, Masai was beaten by several guards after he ignored a guard’s order to wipe down a table he had already cleaned. He was then charged with disobeying a guard, trying to forcibly touch a guard and attacking other guards.

The SHU Exclusion Law, enacted in 2008, requires that all people placed in segregation be assessed by a mental health clinician. Those diagnosed with serious mental illness must be placed in residential mental health treatment units (RMHU) rather than in the SHU. But, although it had been in effect for several years, Masai was nonetheless sent to Auburn Correctional Facility and placed in the SHU. He was facing 18 months in isolation.

“I looked up SHU,” Bell said. “I looked up special housing and that led me to solitary and I was terrified.” But, just as Bell had advocated for her son when he was a child, she fought for his well-being and release from the SHU. She was already a member of Community Voices Heard, a New York City-based advocacy organization. Other members worked with her to both identify individuals and organizations that could assist her son and to articulate what needed to be done.  She contacted Prisoners’ Legal Services, which helped fight the new charges against him. She contacted Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, the chair of the Assembly’s Correction Committee. His office, in turn, contacted the prison to demand why Masai had been placed in the SHU.

Bell joined the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) which works to end solitary confinement in New York. She began lobbying for the Humane Alternatives to Long-term Solitary Confinement Bill (HALT) and took part in CAIC’s demonstrations. (Bell is pictured, second from right, in the photo above.) Bell also began a public campaign, including a petition that garnered over 1300 signatures, demanding Masai’s release from solitary. “I kept very loudly saying, ‘You people know this kid is mentally ill. You know that he shouldn’t even be in prison really.”

Masai was released after serving three months in the SHU for disobeying a direct order. The other charges were dropped.

In September 2015, Masai was paroled. He recently moved into his own apartment in supportive housing, which includes on-site mental health staff.  But Bell recognizes that the problem is larger and more systematic than one group of prison guards or one prison. “I believe there’s too much mass incarceration,” she said. “People of color have borne the brunt of this. But if we are going to incarcerate our mentally ill loved ones, there has to be a mechanism to keep them out of the SHU.” Although her son is now out of prison and receiving mental health treatment, Bell submitted testimony about the family’s experiences to the New York State Assembly Committee on Correction for its December 2nd hearing on oversight for the state’s prison system.

For others fighting for their children, she advises, “Do exactly what I did—google the words ‘solitary confinement’ and then contact every agency. Get involved.  You can become immobilized with sadness and fear and sorrow or you can become empowered with other advocates and start going to Albany and fighting.  That’s basically what I’m doing and I plan to continue this because I know we have a lot of work to do. Get out there and connect. I connected with the Correctional Association of New York.  I connected with different media.  I contacted the Times, I contacted the Village Voice…[which] ran an article about my son. I didn’t just stay quiet. Probably when people got my e-mails they were like, Oh God her again, but you have to because you know nobody else is going to do that for your kid.”

Kimberly Snodgrass agrees. “Pick up the pen, make some calls and partner. There are many organizations out there. Show people that you’re invested in the freedom of your loved one and someone will come and help you.”

Seven Days in Solitary [01/03/2016]

Sun, 2016-01-03 11:01

• Coverage continues of the recent solitary confinement settlement in New York state, with articles appearing in the New York Times and Al Jazeera America, among other outlets.

• A Colorado State Senator wrote about the hunger strikes that occurred in Aurora and other immigration detention centers across the country. Two participants “reported to [him that] all of the asylum seekers on hunger strike are held in solitary confinement, and report their sleep is consistently interrupted.”

• Fusion listed reforms to solitary as #3 in their list of “Seven ways our criminal justice system got a little more just in 2015.” They note, “the most chilling punishment in the American incarceration system might be solitary confinement. This year, two states with two of the largest prison populations in the country announced major reforms of how many inmates are kept in solitary and how they’re treated there.”

• Governor Jerry Brown named a new head to California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, former state prison guard and warden Scott Kernan. Outgoing Secretary of Corrections Jeffrey Beard oversaw a substantial reduction in the prison population and reached a settlement allowing for reductions and limitations on the use of solitary.

• Colorado’s Department of Corrections released a report tracking recent reforms to the use of solitary in the state. The report release was covered by Westword and prompted an editorial from the team at the Denver Post.

Please Support “Lifelines to Solitary” This Year

Thu, 2015-12-31 10:00

Dear Readers:

We reach out to you just once a year to ask for your support. And even now, we seek your help not for our regular research and reporting work, which catalyzes change by documenting the hidden world of prison isolation. Instead, we ask you to donate to a special program that brings small ray of light into the lives of thousands of people languishing in the darkness of solitary confinement. It’s a program we call Lifelines to Solitary.

What began, several years ago, as an occasional newsletter for anyone in solitary confinement with whom we were lucky enough to connect, rapidly became a treasured stream of news from the free world–a reliable and, for far too many, the only lifeline available to remind them that they had not been forgotten by the world they once belonged to. We soon added holiday cards, and all the individual letters and cards we ourselves could find time to write.

As our list of people in solitary grew, we realized that quarterly newsletters and holiday cards were not enough. Knowing that a single letter can make a staggering difference in the life of someone suffering in solitary, we last year made a pledge to expand our Lifelines project to include the first pen pal program designed specifically for people living in isolation.

In the past year, we’ve helped connect groups like Princeton’s student-led Project Solidarity and New York’s Village Zendo with our readers in solitary, offering both sides an opportunity to forge a correspondence built on their common humanity. This coming year, we will be partnering with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to nurture Lifelines chapters in faith communities across the country, while continuing to work with student groups and community organizations as well.

Every day, now, we receive requests for newsletters and pen pals from men, women, and children living in solitary around the country. Because we know what an ounce of human contact can mean for these isolated souls, we struggle to keep up with the demand. But our funding for Lifelines comes almost entirely from individual donors like you.

Some of you have already given generously to Lifelines to Solitary, and for this we are deeply grateful. We are asking the rest of our readers to make a donation to Lifelines to Solitary today. Please take a look at our appeal by clicking on the link below, and consider lending your support. All donations to Solitary Watch are fully tax-deductible through out fiscal sponsor, Community Futures Collective.

With sincere thanks for your caring and generosity, and with best wishes for the new year,

Jean Casella and Jim Ridgeway, Co-Directors

Support Lifelines to Solitary

 

Seven Days in Solitary [12/27/2015]

Sun, 2015-12-27 16:13

• A Texas man is suing the state’s prison system, alleging that the two years he spent in solitary confinement constituted a violation of the 14th Amendment. Nelson Patterson maintains his time in isolation caused him physical and mental harm and aggravated a pre-existing medical condition.

• A survey by the national law firm Lowenstein Sandler found that that ten states permit children to be held in indefinite solitary confinement as a form of punishment. Twenty-one jurisdictions “prohibit the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities” and twenty states “impose time-limits on the use of solitary confinement, ranging from 6 hours to 90 days.”

• Under a class-action lawsuit settled in Illinois, 11,000 people with mental health issues will “see substantial improvements in their treatment, including major reductions in the time many spend in solitary confinement.” Under the agreement, people with mental illness who are in solitary confinement for more than 60 days will have their out-of-cell time increased from less than an hour per day to 20 hours per week.

• A Tennessee man who was held in a New Mexico jail for more than a year will receive $750,000 for the time he spent in solitary confinement while incarcerated. Michael Faziani, who is bipolar, alleged he was denied his medication while at the Sierra County Detention Center.

Santa Was in Prison and Jesus Got the Death Penalty

Tue, 2015-12-22 10:30

This post has become a Christmas tradition at Solitary Watch. To all our readers, warm wishes for the holidays. Special thanks to those who have helped (or plan to help) us bring a small ray of light into the darkness of solitary confinement by supporting our Lifelines to Solitary project. –Jean and Jim

= = = = = = = = = = =

As Christmas is celebrated in Incarceration Nation, it’s worth remembering certain things about the two figures who dominate this holiday.

As more than 3,000 Americans sit on death row, we revere the birth of a man who was arrested, “tried,” sentenced, and put to death by the state. The Passion is the story of an execution, and the Stations of the Cross trace the path of a Dead Man Walking.

Less well known is the fact that Saint Nicholas, the early Christian saint who inspired Santa Claus, was once a prisoner, like nearly one in every 100 American adults today. Though he was beloved for his kindness and generosity, Nicholas acquired sainthood not only by giving alms, but by performing a miracle that more or less amounted to a prison break.

Nicholas was the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, Nicholas spent some five years in prison–and according to some accounts, in solitary confinement.

Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Nicholas fared better until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. There, after having a serious theological argument with another powerful bishop, Nicholas became so enraged that he walked across the room and slapped the man.

It was illegal for one bishop to strike another. According to an account provided by the St. Nicholas Center: “The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.”

Nicholas spent the night praying for guidance, and was visited by Jesus and Mary. “When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures.” It was determined that no one could have visited or helped him during the night. Constantine ordered Nicholas freed and reinstated as the Bishop of Myra, and his feat would later be declared one of many miracles performed by the saint.

Saint Nicholas lived on to serve the poor during the devastating famine that hit his part of Turkey in 342 AD. He is reported to have anonymously visited starving families at night and distributed gold coins to help them buy scarce food.

Here in the United States nearly two thousand years later, Christians go to church to worship an executed savior and shop to commemorate an incarcerated saint. And most Americans give little thought to their 2 million countrymen who are spending this Christmas behind bars.

Seven Days in Solitary [12/20/2015]

Sun, 2015-12-20 20:19

• The Intercept published an in-depth look into the federal lawsuit recently filed against the Santa Clara County jails. “While there have been a number of legal challenges to the use of solitary confinement over the last few decades, this is the first to take on its use in jails.”

• Solitary Watch’s Victoria Law covered changes made by NYC’s Board of Correction with regards to the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails. “Under the new rule… if a person has committed a serious assault on jail staff, he or she can be stuck in segregation for up to 60 days without a seven-day waiver;” the seven-day waiver requires that after an individual spends 30 days in segregation, they must be placed in general population for at least seven consecutive days.

How the Landmark Settlement Will—and Will Not—Change Solitary Confinement in New York’s Prisons  

Fri, 2015-12-18 11:03

The settlement announced Wednesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union in the Peoples v Fischer case brings broad, deep, and meaningful change to the way New York utilizes solitary confinement in its state prisons. It is a significant and hard-won victory for the plaintiffs, their attorneys, and the hundreds of advocates who have long been battling the widespread use of solitary in the state.

Media hailed the changes as an “overhaul” of solitary confinement in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief counsel, Alphonso David, called the agreement “radical and groundbreaking,” and told the New York Times that the governor “saw the lawsuit as an opportunity to make New York prisons a model for the country.”

Everything in the settlement of the four-year lawsuit indeed represents major progress, and the limits and alternatives it prescribes will bring relief to perhaps thousands of individuals suffering in solitary in New York. If there is a downside, it is that the largely celebratory tone of the announcements and press coverage may lead all of the people in long-term solitary to mistakenly expect that their ordeals will soon be over, and the public to believe that the struggle to end prolonged prison isolation in New York has now been won.

In fact, even amidst the hard-won celebrations, there is acknowledgement that the changes the settlement brings are incremental changes. While the agreement begins to address the underlying paradigm of punishment and control through isolation that has been liberally practiced in New York for decades, it does not destroy or replace it. And even when all its provisions are implemented, thousands of people are likely to remain in solitary, some for years or decades.

The 79-page settlement details numerous, concrete ways in which the use and impact of solitary confinement will be limited. At the front end, the agreement will lower the number of people placed in solitary to begin with. As summarized by the NYCLU, the reforms in this area focus on reducing the types of disciplinary violations that are punishable by solitary.

[The settlement] restricts the circumstances that solitary can be imposed as punishment. Nearly half (42) of the 87 rule violations punishable by solitary–including drug use and drug possession–no longer allow solitary sentences for one-time violations. Petty violations–23 out of the 87 violations–are no longer eligible for solitary confinement sanctions at all.

[The settlement also] imposes a maximum sentence for solitary confinement of three months for all but a handful of first-time violations such as assault and escape, and a maximum sentence of 30 days for almost all first-time non-violent violations.

The precise disciplinary guidelines are yet to be released pending approval of the settlement by the court, but this is surely a significant change in a state known for throwing people in the hole for long periods for minor, nonviolent infractions.

At the back end, a portion of those currently in solitary will be removed and placed in alternative forms of housing. According to the NYCLU:

[The settlement] removes more than 1,100 people from traditional solitary conditions and either moves them into rehabilitative units with common spaces and group programming or moves them to into other less isolating disciplinary units. These changes are designed to impact people trapped in solitary with the longest sentences, people with developmental disabilities, people in need of drug therapy or more comprehensive behavioral therapy, juveniles, and people who would otherwise be released directly from solitary to the street.

The settlement agreement outlines the types of alternative housing planned, including units where people will be released from their cells for two hours a day for programming and treatment, and two hours a day of recreation, four day a week. The provisions are fairly typical of the “step-down” programs used in other states, and will meaningfully mitigate the isolation and sensory deprivation faced by those in solitary.

At present, however, there are more than 4,000 people in solitary in New York State prisons. This number comprises about 8 percent of the prison population—nearly double the national average of 4.4 percent in all state and federal prisons, and far above states that have instituted more sweeping reforms, such as Colorado and Washington.

Until more details and data are released and the changes are fully implemented (with some scheduled to take as long as two years), it is not possible to know how much the settlement provisions will lower the overall number of people in solitary. It seems safe to say, however, that thousands rather than hundreds will be left behind.

Among those who will not be released from solitary are individuals in Administrative Segregation, as opposed to Disciplinary Segregation. The 20-30 people in “Ad Seg” have been placed in solitary based on an assessment of risk, rather than any particular disciplinary infraction. They include a handful of men who have served the longest solitary sentences in New York State, some stretching two to three decades.

For individuals who remain in solitary, the settlement does have provisions for modest changes to conditions of confinement. It provides for “basic human needs for people in solitary, including access to telephone calls, reading materials and a shower curtain in shared cells, and abolishes the use of serving inedible food (the “loaf”) as a form of starvation punishment,” the NYCLU states.

Other provisions of the settlement address what promises to be the biggest uphill battle to effective implementation of even these incremental reforms: the culture of corrections staff in New York State, where disciplinary “tickets” carrying solitary confinement sentences have been handed out liberally by corrections officers who clearly value their unrestricted power to do so.

The day the settlement was announced, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA) issued a statement in which its president, Michael Powers, said, “Our state’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis.” Placing limits on solitary, the statement says, will likely lead to increased assaults on staff.

The settlement, to which the union was not a party, “requires de-escalation training of over 20,000 Department of Corrections and Community Supervision personnel on how to diffuse situations before solitary becomes a consideration.”

All of these provisions represent major concessions on the part of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the leadership of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which has to deal withwhat promises to be a largely hostile rank-and-file prison staff. So does the price tag on the changes: $62 million for implementing the terms of the settlement, “including the conversion of traditional solitary blocks into more rehabilitative spaces with group dayrooms and outdoor space.”

Significantly, the agreement also “establishes a robust monitoring regime to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement, including quarterly reporting to the public.” “Massive culture change is a challenge,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman told the press. “We need to be monitoring like a hawk, and we will be monitoring like a hawk to ensure that the reforms are actually carried out.”

While the NYCLU oversees the reforms, which must remain in place for the five-year span of the settlement, other advocates and lawmakers are working to bring a full and permanent end to the use of solitary in New York.

The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, introduced in January 2014 in both houses of the New York State Legislature, would all but eliminate the use of solitary beyond 15 days—the limit recommended by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez, and codified in the UN’s new “Mandela Rules,” which set minimum standards for the treatment of people in prison. The legislation would establish “Residential Rehabilitation Units” for individuals who need to be separated from the general population for longer periods of up to one year, with a minimum of seven hours out-of-cell time daily.

To date, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act is the most comprehensive and progressive piece of legislation yet to be introduced in the United States. With 55 co-sponsors in the Assembly and Senate, it is gaining momentum, but has a long road–and likely some revisions–ahead before it sees passage.

The NYCLU’s Taylor Pendergrass lead counsel in the Peoples case, told the New York Times that he hopes the new settlement is a “seismic shift” that will make way for further change. “This is the end hopefully of an era where people are just thrown into the box for an unlimited amount of time on the whim of a corrections officer,” he said. “This will not be the end of the road for solitary confinement reform, but we really think it’s a watershed moment.”

Seven Days in Solitary [12/13/2015]

Sun, 2015-12-13 09:45

• The Colorado Department of Corrections will spend more than $4.7 million to build an outdoor recreation area at the state’s highest security prison, Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP). The move is a result of a lawsuit settlement alleging that the conditions of confinement at CSP were unconstitutional.

• Those in attendance at a legislative hearing in Alaska heard testimony about the death of Davon Mosley, who passed away in 2014 in an Anchorage prison solitary confinement cell. Videos recently released by investigators “show a naked Mosley being pepper sprayed, having food thrown at him, staggering in his cell and leaning against the wall while taking his final breaths.”

• Warden Burl Cain, who has headed up Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since 1995, is stepping down. Cain has overseen the longtime solitary confinement of people held at the prison, including the last incarcerated member of the Angola 3 Albert Woodfox.

• Ten men filed a complaint against the Theo Lacey immigration detention center in California. One allegation included being placed in “modular housing units” that were used as “a form of solitary confinement because the individual is placed in physical and social isolation for 23 hours a day with little or no human contact.”

• Concerns about the use of extended solitary confinement continue within Maine’s Department of Corrections, despite the DOC’s claims that it has sharply reduced the use of segregation. One individual interviewed in the story, Douglas Burr, has been in isolation for a year and a half and says he does not know why.

• Arab and Muslims who were detained in allegedly harsh conditions following the attacks of September 11, can sue former top US officials, a court has ruled. The plaintiffs, who were held on minor immigration violations, maintain that they were held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours per day.

• Former Alabama Governonr Don Siegelman has allegedly been held in solitary confinement for the last two months. Siegelman’s attorneys maintain he was moved into isolation after being interviewed about criminal justice reform on a radio talk show.

• A Miami Herald investigation into sexual abuse at Lowell Correctional prison found that women who made complaints about their treatment were subsequently almost always placed in solitary confinement. “If you report you are raped, you sit in a 10-by-12 cell with nothing but your uniform, and they close the door. They put you under investigation, they say for your own safety, then they leave you there until you write up a witness statement that it never happened,” said one former prisoner.”

• Former Guantanamo detainee Shaker Aamer, who spent 14 years locked up without charge, told his story in an interview with BBC News. While at Guantanamo, he was placed in solitary confinement for nearly three years.

Support “Lifelines to Solitary”

Fri, 2015-12-11 12:44

Dear Readers:

We reach out to you just once a year to ask for your support. And even now, we seek your help not for our regular research and reporting work, which catalyzes change by documenting the hidden world of prison isolation. Instead, we ask you to donate to a special program that brings small ray of light into the lives of thousands of people languishing in the darkness of solitary confinement. It’s a program we call Lifelines to Solitary.

What began, several years ago, as an occasional newsletter for anyone in solitary confinement with whom we were lucky enough to connect, rapidly became a treasured stream of news from the free world–a reliable and, for far too many, the only lifeline available to remind them that they had not been forgotten by the world they once belonged to. We soon added holiday cards, and all the individual letters and cards we ourselves could find time to write.

As our list of people in solitary grew, we realized that quarterly newsletters and holiday cards were not enough. Knowing that a single letter can make a staggering difference in the life of someone suffering in solitary, we last year made a pledge to expand our Lifelines project to include the first pen pal program designed specifically for people living in isolation.

In the past year, we’ve helped connect groups like Princeton’s student-led Project Solidarity and New York’s Village Zendo with our readers in solitary, offering both sides an opportunity to forge a correspondence built on their common humanity. This coming year, we will be partnering with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to nurture Lifelines chapters in faith communities across the country, while continuing to work with student groups and community organizations as well.

Every day, now, we receive requests for newsletters and pen pals from men, women, and children living in solitary around the country. Because we know what an ounce of human contact can mean for these isolated souls, we struggle to keep up with the demand. But our funding for Lifelines comes almost entirely from individual donors like you.

That is why we are asking you today to make a donation to Lifelines to Solitary. Please take a look at our appeal by clicking on the link below, and consider lending your support.

With sincere thanks for your caring and generosity, and with best wishes for the new year,

Jean Casella and Jim Ridgeway, Co-Directors

Support Lifelines to Solitary