Eliminating the use of solitary is essential to transforming the modern culture of corrections, speakers at John Jay College said Wednesday. The college’s week-long examination of solitary confinement continues Thursday with a conference of leading researchers, legislators and advocates.
A member of the Correctional Association of New York says solitary confinement is equivalent to “21st century slavery.”
“Solitary confinement is the whipping post of mass incarceration,” Tyrrell Muhammad told a panel at John Jay College Wednesday. “We’re fighting an old fight.”
Muhammad, who works with the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association, a non-profit that advocates for criminal justice reform, said that the culture of corrections needs radical transformation, starting with how guards are trained.
“If solitary confinement is the only kind of response you have to [disciplinary issues], you need reform,” he said.
Muhammad was part of a panel that included formerly incarcerated individuals and practitioners in the criminal justice system.
Miyhosi Benton, another speaker on the panel and a formerly incarcerated woman, described the mental deterioration she experienced during the time she spent in solitary.
She was 19 and pregnant when guards told her she was being placed in solitary confinement for her own “protection.”
“It was complete deprivation,” said Benton, who is an associate of the Women and Justice Project.
“I was hearing voices. Having conversations with myself. I was experiencing so much harm I couldn’t understand what ‘protection’ I was receiving.”
With over two million people incarcerated in the United States, about 80,000 are sitting in solitary confinement or Special Housing Units (SHU), which survivors have described as “hell in a small place.”
Some prisoners can spend weeks, months and even years in solitary confinement for offenses such as helping another inmate with their legal affairs or talking back to guards, panelists said.
In solitary confinement, guards have full control over inmates’ meals, recreation time, mail, soap, toilet paper, etc—making the system susceptible to abuse.
More than 60 percent of people in solitary confinement are there for non-violent offenses, the panel was told.
“The goal is to break you,” said Johnny Perez, who spent nearly three years in solitary confinement at the Rikers Island facility in New York City. Perez is now director of U.S Prison Programs at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a strong advocate for abolishing solitary confinement.
Perez and other speakers observed that the most difficult battle was adjusting to normal life after leaving solitary confinement.
“You go from solitary to 42nd Street, but you [can’t forget] the demons you face in solitary,” Perez said. “I still have dreams about it —those demons always stay with you.”
The debate about whether or not solitary confinement is a necessary form of punishment comes at a time when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced plans to close Rikers, which is notorious for its violence and brutality.
De Blasio and other government officials say they will move individuals held for detention at Rikers to “community-based” facilities closer to where they live, and to the courts where they were scheduled to appear.
De Blasio’s announcement came after a report issued by a commission headed by Judge Jonathan Lippman last year recommended closing the facility.
But a timetable for the closure has still not been announced.
“It will take several years, no question,” Tyler Nimms, executive director of the commission told the panel. “There are a lot of challenges ahead.”
He added, “ You are never going to have a good jail or a perfect jail. All you can hope for is a better one.”
But will relocating the jail address the problems of mass incarceration?
Miyhosi Benton thinks it won’t.
“The criminal justice system is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing,” she said. “And you can’t change it because it’s a well-oiled machine.”
Muhammad argued, however, that some change can be achieved by changing the way correction officers are trained.
Correction officers “need to see themselves as therapists and counselors,” who can help turn the punitive approach to corrections into a “a rehabilitative model,” he said.
Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney and director of policy at Brooklyn (NY) Defender Services, said reform of solitary confinement has to begin with addressing the larger issues driving mass incarceration—including relations between police and the communities they work in.
Interactions between the “police and policed” should be reexamined, he told the panel, noting that the killings of unarmed civilians had eroded the legitimacy of police in many neighborhoods.
“For my clients it’s too dangerous for them to call the police,” he said. “There’s no trust.”
The Wednesday panel was one of the highlights of “Solitary Week” at John Jay—a multimedia exploration of solitary confinement practices, which included a model walk-through solitary cell installed as a temporary exhibit on campus.
On Thursday and Friday, 24 journalists from around the country will participate in a workshop entitled “Rethinking Solitary Confinement: Where Do We Go From Here?” organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report, and supported by the Langeloth Foundation.
Scheduled speakers Thursday include Homer Venters, programs director of Physicians for Human Rights; Johnny Perez of the Washington DC-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a former solitary detainee; Minnesota State Rep. Nick Zerwas; and Anthony Graves, a Texas death row exoneree.
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Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.