By David M. Shapiro
Pope Francis’ recent condemnation of supermax prisons as “a form of torture” added a powerful and persuasive voice to efforts to make U.S. prisons more humane. Although Illinois closed the Tamms supermax prison last year, solitary confinement continues to be used far too often throughout the prison system.
Illinois policymakers need to pay attention to the pope’s warning that solitary can cause “psychic and physical sufferings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and weight loss and a significantly increased chance of suicide.” He exhorted all people, regardless of their faith, “to struggle . . . to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty.”
Solitary confinement, a practice exemplified by supermax prisons, means locking a man or woman up in a small cell, generally alone and with no window, for 23 if not 24 hours a day. As the pontiff noted, it is well documented in the mental health literature that caging a human like this can cause crippling mental illness.
Sarah Shourd, a journalist who was held in solitary confinement in Iran and who recently spoke to my students at Northwestern, describes solitary like this: “In prolonged isolation, the human psyche slowly self-destructs. On my worst days, I screamed and beat at the walls. I experienced hallucinations — bright flashing lights and phantom footsteps — nightmares, insomnia, heart palpitations, lethargy, clinical depression, and passive suicidal thoughts. I would pace my cell incessantly, or crouch like an animal by the food slot at the bottom of my cell door, listening for any sound to distract me.”
Contrary to popular myth, solitary confinement is not reserved for the worst of the worst. A study of solitary confinement in Illinois by the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice revealed that most prisoners are isolated for minor disciplinary violations, like insolence, failure to report to a work assignment or skipping a class. And taxpayers are left to foot the bill — solitary is tens of thousands of dollars more expensive per prisoner than housing in general population.
Illinois should heed the pontiff’s message. Although the infamous Tamms supermax has been shuttered, solitary confinement abuses remain common. Prisoners living with mental illness in the solitary confinement units at Pontiac Correctional Center report that they receive “talking tickets” for talking to themselves — they are disciplined, and their period in solitary prolonged, due to the very symptoms of their illness. At Menard, prisoners are doubled up in cells so small that there is enough space for one prisoner to pace back and forth only if the other prisoner is lying in the double bunk. And the feds, who already operate the notorious Florence Supermax in Colorado, have plans to open a new one in Thomson, Illinois.
Yet for some, the cruelty of solitary confinement is difficult to recognize because it leaves marks on the psyche rather than the skin. This is the core of Francis’ message: solitary is “a form of torture.” It’s time for Illinois to listen.
David M. Shapiro is a clinical assistant professor of law at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law
This op-ed column originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on November 3, 2014 where it is available by clicking here.
On August 13, 2014 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) posted an blog post by Nzinga A. Harrison, MD that we thought was reposting. An excerpt follows and you can read by the entire piece by clicking here.
Every time they throw my brother into solitary, he loses contact visits. When we visit, he’s behind glass, or we can only see him via video. We can’t hug him. He can’t hold his new baby niece.
My brother, Kofi M. Ajabu, has been imprisoned by the Indiana Department of Correction for nearly 20 years. All told, we estimate that he’s spent nearly 10 of those years in a solitary cell, alone for 23 hours a day.
I am a psychiatrist. I know that I could prescribe a million medicines and give countless hours of psychotherapy, but none of it will be as effective if I do not help my patients connect to other human beings.
The effects of solitary confinement are well documented. High rates of suicide, anxiety, obsessive ruminations, violent thoughts, trouble sleeping, paranoia, and hallucinations are direct results of confinement. Because of these effects, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, has called for an absolute ban on the use of solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days.
Every day, I treat individuals with the same symptoms, albeit with biological and psychosocial causes other than solitary confinement. The unifying theme in each of my recommendations is reconnecting my patients to a social support system.
Our “correctional” system, whose original goal was rehabilitation, takes the opposite approach. At a time when many are at a point of greatest need, the system removes the one factor that is universally accepted as a basic psychological and physiological need: contact with other human beings. Without it, prisoners’ minds deteriorate.
The Chicago Coalition to Shut Down Guantánamo, of which ICAT is a member, will protest U.S. militarism and human rights violations at the 2014 Chicago Air and Water Show, Saturday and Sunday, August 16-17.
Year after year, hundreds of thousands of people from Chicago and the surrounding area gather on the lakeshore to watch aerial displays by an array of planes. Most don’t suspect that they are being subjected to an intense propaganda effort by multiple branches of the U.S. military.
The Coalition views this as a perfect opportunity to engage with the public and enlist them in the growing movement against U.S. war, torture, surveillance, and other crimes. We will join activists from many other peace and justice groups who have had a growing presence at this event in recent years.
The focus of Coalition activity at the Air and Water Show 2014 will be drone killing and surveillance, rendition torture flights, and Guantánamo. Find out more at the Chicago Coalition to Shut Down Guantánamo blog.
Please join the Facebook event page for the protest at the 2014 Chicago Air and Water Show and share widely! (The Coalition will be present during the show on Saturday, August 16,and tentatively also on Sunday, August 17.)
Rally – 4:30 PM – Water Tower Park – Procession down N. Michigan Avenue
On May 23rd of last year, President Obama again promised to close the detention facility at Guantánamo. His pledge came in response to the mass hunger strike by men protesting their indefinite detention and to the renewed, global condemnation of the prison.
One year later, far too little has changed: few detained men have left the prison, and hunger strikes and forced feeding continue. Demonstrations will be taking place across the United States and the world to demand that President Obama and the US Congress end indefinite detention and close the detention facility at Guantánamo.
Please join us in Chicago for a spirited demonstration and march, starting the Water Tower Park on Friday, May 23rd at 4:30pm. There will be a performance piece highlighting the poems of the men detained at Guantánamo and the speech that President Obama made one year ago. We will march to Tribune Plaza and perform a skit to give voice to the men at Guantánamo. Lastly, we will march to Millennium Park.
During his May 2013 speech, President Obama asked the American people: “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike . . . Is this who we are?” Sadly, as we face yet another broken promise, this is what the United States remains — a country that indefinitely detains and brutalizes the men at Guantánamo.
The May 23rd Day of Action in Chicago is being coordinated by the Chicago Coalition to Shut Down Guantánamo.
For information on actions in Chicago go to:
If you are on Facebook, please join our event there and invite friends!
The following is an excerpt from a Common Dreams column by Robert Koehler published on May 1. The column cites the Historians Against the War publication “Torture, American Style,” particularly the introduction by ICAT member Margaret Power.
Ten years ago, photos of the crucifixion — and worse — were released to the American public. The media still call it “the Abu Ghraib scandal,” as though, oops, the awkward repercussions for Team Bush were the torture photos’ primary horror.
No one talks about “the Auschwitz scandal.” The depth of our moral wrong has yet to be plumbed.
Ten years later . . . the hooded man with arms outstretched, electrodes attached to his fingers, revisits the national conscience. Iraq is in a shambles. The prison itself was closed in mid-April because Sunni insurgents are too much of a threat in the region. We wrecked and contaminated two countries in reckless pursuit of revenge and national interest.
Ten years later, a 6,300-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the U.S. detention and “enhanced interrogation” program is due to be released, or partially released, at some point in the near future — pending declassification, i.e., censorship, of its findings by the White House and even the CIA itself.
Read the entire column by clicking here.
The Illinois Coalition Against Torture (ICAT) is launching a campaign to end solitary confinement in Illinois prisons. We hope you will join us. In this message we will explain why we are working on this campaign, what some of the materials we have produced are, what the campaign entails, and ways you can support the campaign.
ICAT has always opposed solitary confinement in prison and viewed it as a form of torture. When the Chicago City Council passed the ICAT anti-torture resolution in January 2012, one of the provisions of the resolution was opposition to solitary confinement. In the last two years opposition to solitary confinement has grown, in Illinois and across the United States. We welcome this development and are glad to work with others to end this inhumane treatment of prisoners.
We have produced two materials for this campaign so far. The first is a petition. We hope that you will circulate this petition widely, both online and as a hard copy. We want to get as many signatures as possible, and we hope that you can help us get them. The petition as serves three goals. First, it alerts people to the fact that solitary confinement is wrong and should stop now. Second, it provides people with a means to act to end solitary confinement. Third, it sends a message to our elected officials that a large number of people oppose solitary confinement and want them to stop it. When you have obtained signatures, please send the completed petition to ICAT, 2502 W. Division St., Chicago, IL, 60622.
We also include a leaflet that we produced. Again, please feel free to distribute it far and wide. We have printed a number of leaflets in color, so if you would like some of them, please let us know. If you can make a small donation for them, so much the better! If not, we are happy to get them to you anyway.
Please join us. You can do so by distributing the petition, keeping in contact with us through our Facebook page or this blog, or attending our meetings. We look forward to working with you.
Chicago attorney and ICAT member Melinda Power sent the following letter to Illinois Senator Dick Durbin the day before a February 25 hearing called by Senator Durbin and held by the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. The title of the hearing was “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences.”
February 23, 2014
The Honorable Senator Dick Durbin
RE: Solitary Confinement
Dear Senator Durbin:
Sometimes I try to imagine how I would function in solitary confinement. I quickly conclude that I would deteriorate rapidly, both mentally and physically. I imagine you might also. The executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch’s, editorial in the N.Y. Times on 2/21/14 confirmed how devastating his twenty-four hour sojourn in solitary confinement was on his mental well-being. It further reaffirmed his opposition to the use of solitary confinement.
His editorial illuminated what I have come to believe is the effect solitary confinement has on the vast majority of people in solitary confinement. The Department of Correction’s confinement of people in small 6′ by 8′ cells for days, months and even years on end often drives people crazy. This is because when an intent is not able to control or determine when he or she is allowed out of solitary and speeds his or her day alone, there is a physical and mental health breakdown. Being forced to eat food shoved through the aptly named chuckhole; not being able to have any contact with loved ones, family or other inmates; not being allowed access to the law library or to the commissary and limited access to fresh air only further breaks down the prisoner’s mental and physical health.
How can we treat human beings this way and still proclaim we live in a humans society? Every day, states across the U.S. do this to thousands of human beings. This is not a kind of society I want to be part of.
I know this happens on a daily basis because as an attorney who has visited prisoners in Illinois and federal prisons around the U.S. for over thirty years, I have met prisoners who have suffered the effects of solitary confinement. It is sad and disheartening to see these prisoners. Often, they won’t even look at me. They certainly are not able to carry on a conversation without effort. No one should spend even 24 hours in solitary.
I believe solitary confinement is torture. It destroys prisoners and it dehumanizes the guards and prison administrations who enforce it.
I request that you introduce and make your your best effort to get passed legislation to end solitary confinement in the U.S.