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Why Solitary Confinement in America Needs to Finally End

Now that solitary is on the national radar, systemic problems with "the hole" are being laid bare for all to see.

Marie Levin cannot wait to give her older brother a hug and a high-five for the first time in more than 31 years. Roughly three decades ago, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) deemed Ronnie Dewberry (who goes by the name Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa) to be a member of the Black Guerrilla Family gang and put him in solitary confinement in one of the state's security housing units, or SHUs. Since then, Levin has visited her brother in the Corcoran, Tehachapi, and Pelican Bay prisons, always speaking to him through a thick glass window.

"He's been behind the window for a long time," she says.

At the end of every visit, Levin watches her brother put in shackles to be led back to his cell, where he will spend at least 22 and a half hours alone each day. "I remember the first time I saw him behind the glass, when I saw him with chains around his waist, his legs, and his ankles," Levin recalls. "It was hard for me to watch."

So Levin and Jamaa went to work. The brother and sister have been at the forefront of the fight against solitary confinement that is gaining traction across the country. Levin is an activist with the group California Families Against Solitary Confinement, and Jamaa was one of the named plaintiffs in Ashker v Brown, the successful class-action lawsuit poised to reduce the use of solitary in the state.

Jamaa is slated to come out from "behind the window" soon, Levin says. She expects her brother to be transferred from the Tehachapi SHU to the general population at Salinas Valley State Prison, not far from her East Oakland home.

The profound changes taking place for Levin and Dewberry are not exceptional; times are changing when it comes to solitary confinement in America. Though some advocates have been working for decades to reduce the brutal practice, a series of events this past summer have brought the urgency of the matter into sharp relief.

In June, 22-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent three years without trial at New York City's Rikers Island jail—and about two of those years in solitary—committed suicide at his home in the Bronx. Later that month, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy lamented the " human toll" of solitary confinement, and referred specifically to Browder in an official opinion. In a July speech to the NAACP conference, President Obama announced that he had requested a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the overuse of solitary.

In August, the Association of State Correctional Administrators—not exactly a soft-on-crime organization—released a report in conjunction with Yale Law School acknowledging that "prolonged isolation of individuals in jails and prisons is a grave problem drawing national attention and concern." Even the administration at Rikers Island claims to be on board. A spokesperson there recently described the New York City jail as "leading the nation in safely reducing solitary confinement," pointing out that "punitive segregation" for 16- and 17-year-olds was ended in December of last year and that there are plans to further reduce the segregated population are on the horizon.

"I think we've reached a tipping point in the United States in our criminal justice system broadly, but also specifically around the practice of solitary confinement," says Amy Fettig, Senior Staff Counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project and director of its Stop Solitary campaign. "We have prisoners' rights advocates, ex-prisoners, families of prisoners, civil rights advocates, judges, lawyers, and corrections officials themselves saying we overuse and abuse solitary confinement and we have to do things differently. Rarely in American life do we see so many disparate actors coming together and reaching the same conclusion."

Now that solitary is on the national radar, systemic problems with "the hole" are being laid bare for all to see. Here's a breakdown of how it went completely off the rails in the first place.

Solitary confinement meets most definitions of torture

States don't use the term "solitary confinement" (the Rikers spokesperson quoted above is a surprising departure). The long list of official terms—"administrative segregation," "security housing," "close management," to name just a few—varies by state and situation. Semantics aside, this is what solitary typically looks like: For 22 to 24 hours a day, inmates are isolated in six-foot-by-nine-foot cells that may not have windows, where the lights often never turn off, and where the din of voices and TV rarely quiets. Many cells have solid doors with a small opening for meal trays rather than bars. For those fortunate enough to have family able to visit, contact is prohibited. Like Marie Levin's conversations with her brother, visits are generally conducted through thick plexiglass windows, often using a telephone.

Juan E. Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on torture, has stated that detention in solitary over 15 days should be strictly prohibited. As of 2014, Amnesty International USA reported that the average stay in solitary confinement is 8.2 years. "Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," Méndez told the UN General Assembly in 2011.

Among the many experts who have spoken out against solitary is social psychologist Craig Haney, who testified last year before the California State Senate that long-term isolation results in "social death."

"These are people consigned to living in suspended animation, not really part of this world, not really removed from it, and not really part of any other world that is tangibly and fully human," he told lawmakers.

Terry Kupers, a forensic psychiatrist and prison mental health expert, remarked in a report on solitary conditions at Eastern Mississippi Correctional Facility last year, "It has been known for as long as solitary confinement has been practiced that human beings suffer a great deal of pain and mental deterioration when they remain in solitary confinement for a significant length of time." He cited In re Medley, an 1890 US Supreme Court case finding that prisoners in prolonged isolation who did not commit suicide were generally unable to function in society upon release.

Are there 80,000 men and women in state and federal prison who pose such a risk to the safety of others that they must be segregated from the general population?

Solitary confinement is not reserved for the "worst of the worst"

Although data on solitary confinement is limited, current estimates put the number of US prisoners in official administrative segregation between 80,000 and 100,000. That includes only federal and state prisoners, and doesn't account use of solitary in local jails, immigration detention centers, or juvenile facilities.

Are there 80,000 men and women in state and federal prison who pose such a risk to the safety of others that they must be segregated from the general population? That depends how you define "risk." Tyrrell Muhammad, who served close to 27 years in the New York State prison system, claims that he received several months in "the box" at different times throughout his sentence for, among other offenses, possessing more than his allotted number of socks, an extra blanket, more than ten books, and refusing a haircut due to his Rastafarian religious beliefs. The New York State Department of Corrections disputes Muhammad's version of events, but the ACLU's Amy Fettig says that Muhammad's claims are consistent with those she's heard from other New York prisoners. As Fettig put it, "I have frequently heard from prisoners that the official version of events in prison paperwork is not actually what happens on the ground. And prisoners have virtually no control over what staff document or fail to document."

Other examples of sentences in solitary for behavior one would struggle to define as dangerous: A South Carolina inmate got 37.5 years for posting on Facebook. Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black and a former federal prison inmate, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that she saw inmates sent to solitary for having extra underwear, having "small amounts of cash," or simply because a bed wasn't available for them in the general population.

Illustrations by Valentine Gallardo

Solitary confinement actually makes us less safe

A 2014 paper by legal scholar Shira E. Gordon found that not only has solitary confinement not served its purpose in protecting guards and other inmates from violent prisoners, but there is evidence that solitary confinement may actually increase prison violence. And an increase in prison violence "comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day's shift. When people live and work in facilities that are unsafe, unhealthy, unproductive, or inhumane, they carry the effects home with them," according to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons.

What do those effects look like? In 2013, Tom Clements, executive director of Colorado prisons—and, in a bit of tragic irony, himself an advocate for reform of solitary confinement—was shot and killed in front of his home by a recent parolee who had spent years in solitary. That same year, a man named Nikko Jenkins, who spent two years in solitary in Nebraska prisons and was released directly from segregation without any "step-down" measures, murdered four people soon after his release.

Those events were spectacular and received plenty of media attention. Less visible is the toll on corrections officials' mental health taken by working day in and day out in a culture of physical and emotional violence. A Wayne State University study from 1997 found that the suicide rate for corrections officers is 39 percent higher than in any other profession. Recent numbers indicate that little has changed: a 2013 study from the US Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center found a greatly elevated risk of suicide for corrections officers, and noted their average life expectancy of less than 59 years old. A New Jersey State Police Task Force study in 2009 found that corrections officers' suicide rate was twice as high as that of the general population.


Watch the VICE HBO documentary on America's incarceration system, featuring President Barack Obama's first-ever visit to a federal prison:


Solitary confinement punishes inmates' family members and the mentally ill

About one-third of solitary inmates suffer from mental illness. In his Eastern Mississippi Correctional Facility report, Terry Kupers noted that "isolated confinement is likely to cause psychiatric symptoms such as severe anxiety, depression and aggression in relatively healthy prisoners, and cause psychotic breakdowns, severe affective disorders and suicide crises in prisoners who have histories of serious mental illness or are prone to mental illness."

Nikko Albanese is a 23-year-old inmate at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age ten, according to his mother, Heather Chapman. When he turned 18, Albanese's Social Security disability checks stopped coming, and he was unable to complete his own paperwork to apply as an adult (Chapman handled the paperwork when Albanese was a kid). The medications for his bipolar condition were expensive. Unable to afford them without his disability checks, Albanese began self-medicating with Oxycodone—an expensive habit in its own right. In 2011, when Albanese was 19, he held up a Pizza Hut in Boca Raton with a gun and got a sentence of ten years in prison.

Right away, Albanese began deteriorating. Chapman said he's been in various forms of solitary for nearly the entire duration of his time in prison, and "they removed the [family] visits immediately." After a while, Chapman stopped receiving letters from Albanese, and she "knew that things were not going well."

After enlisting the help of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Ron Honberg and making repeated calls and written pleas to politicians, Chapman received a call from Albanese's doctor: He was in a "catatonic state, laying in some prison crisis unit being fed medicine through an IV, and they wouldn't tell me anything until Ron called them," she recalled.

"The state of Florida is not just punishing Nikko," Chapman said. "They're killing my family. They're killing my son. They're killing me."

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections wouldn't comment on Albanese's medical state, citing federal and state privacy laws, but did say in an email that Albanese's current status is "Close Management II," the medium level of restrictive cell housing. The spokesman added, "All inmates, including those housed in confinement areas, have appropriate access to necessary mental health care. A comprehensive and systematic course of action for identifying inmates who are suffering from mental disorder is maintained."

In early 2015, Chapman was allowed to resume weekly visits to her son, and she says he has shown huge improvements since their visits began. Before he saw his mother, Albanese hadn't spoken in two years and had lost 40 pounds. Now, she says, he is functional enough to make eye contact with her and can converse with other men in cells near him. But she can't always afford the $250 in gas and tolls the seven-hour trip costs her. She has two younger children, both girls, who need her help getting to school, and leaving them to fend for themselves is sometimes untenable.

"The state of Florida is not just punishing Nikko," Chapman said. "They're killing my family. They're killing my son. They're killing me. And they're really hurting my daughters. And when he does get out of prison, then what? The damage is done. You can't undo this type of torture."

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