Jul 24, 2015
By Tatiana Walk-Morris
President Obama isn’t the only one calling attention to troubling living conditions in America’s prisons.
Uptown People’s Law Center, Illinois Coalition Against Torture, United Voices for Prisoners and Black & Pink Chicago gathered with community members, former prisoners and their families to host a rally at the Thompson Center July 23 to protest the opening of the Thompson Correctional Center, which has 1,500 solitary cells.
The Uptown People’s Law Center and Winston & Strawn LLP filed a class action lawsuit last month against the Illinois Department of Corrections for its misuse and overuse of solitary confinement. The suit seeks the department’s compliance with the American Bar Association’s standards, according to a press release.
Black people are incarcerated five times more than white people are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites, according to PrisonPolicy.org
“We wind up putting [people] in there for minor offenses. And once they’re there, they stay way too long,” said Allen Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. “We’ve used the criminal justice system to—instead of solving society’s problems—hide them behind brick walls.”
Please join us:
Thursday, July 23 at 5:00pm – 6:30pm
100 W Randolph St, Chicago, Illinois 60601
The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) estimates that 2,500 – 3,000 people are held in solitary confinement in Illinois on any given day. The Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to open Thomson Supermax Prison in Thomson, IL by the end of the year, bringing 1,500 new solitary cells to the state.
The United Nations considers solitary confinement beyond 15 days torture and has called for its absolute prohibition. Many people in Illinois and throughout the US have spent decades in solitary. We say NO MORE.
All those opposed to solitary confinement are invited to rally on July 23rd outside the Thompson Center, home of IDOC before marching to the Federal Building. We demand an end to the torturous practice in Illinois, by both the state and federal government. We demand that the Illinois legislature hold a hearing to investigate solitary confinement, or what they call “Segregation” or “Administrative Detention”. We demand Thomson close its doors, as Tamms did 2.5 years ago.
This action is in solidarity with anti-solitary activists in California who have been organizing actions, events, teach-ins, and more on the 23rd of every month as part of a statewide campaign to end solitary confinement. They’ve chosen the 23rd of the month because people held in solitary spend at least 23 hours/day in isolation.
RSVP via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/events/511219215692757/.
Fifteen years ago, Gerard G. Schultz, Jr., now 38, was convicted of murder in Phoenix, Arizona. He is serving a life sentence and has been in solitary since 2008, when he was transferred from Arizona to Illinois under the Interstate Corrections Compact. In Illinois, he was placed in Tamms Supermax Prison until it was closed by the governor in January 2013. Since that time, he has been held in the Pontiac Correctional Center, where he reports that he is still in isolation.
Read his essay at Solitary Watch.
We recommend viewing these two documentaries by PBS’ Frontline to find out about solitary confinement and incarceration in the United States. Here are PBS’ descriptions.
FRONTLINE: Locked Up in America: Solitary Nation and Prison State
Two films examine incarceration in the United States.
For decades, the United States has been fixated on incarceration, building prisons and locking up more and more people. But at what cost, and has it really made a difference? FRONTLINE goes to the epicenter of the raging debate about incarceration in America, focusing on the controversial practice of solitary confinement and on new efforts to reduce the prison population, as officials are rethinking what to do with criminals. Award-winning director and producer Dan Edge gives viewers these raw and unforgettable firsthand accounts from prisoners, prison staff, and people whose lives are forever altered by this troubled system.
Solitary Nation presents a visceral portrait of life in a solitary-confinement unit in Maine’s maximum-security prison, told through the inmates living in isolation, the officers watching over them, and the new warden who is desperately trying to reform the system.
Prison State takes an intimate look at the cycle of mass incarceration in America and a statewide effort to reverse the trend, following four residents of a housing project in Louisville, Ky., as they cycle in and out of the state’s jails and prisons.
We hit the streets on December 10, in commemoration of International Human Rights Day to show people what it’s like to be in solitary confinement! We brought our banner and leaflets to the James R. Thompson State of Illinois Building, where we held a brief demonstration and press conference, as well as continuing to get petitions signed in support of abolishing the use of solitary confinement in Illinois prisons.
The action concluded by presenting nearly 2,000 petition signatures collected over the last several months to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, asking the Attorney General to take action to ban the practice of solitary confinement in Illinois prisons. This was followed by a meeting with one of Attorney General Madigan’s staff, during which we were able to discuss our position in more detail and get an agreement from the staff member to follow up on our request.
Here’s the text from the most recent version of the petitions we presented:
Petition to End Solitary Confinement in Illinois Prisons
“After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but grey walls…..The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself,” said Prisoner Five in 2013 interview. For many prisoners this passage describes the descent into what they call the living death of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement may be one of the simplest and cruelest ways to destroy a human being.
The State of Illinois routinely locks up hundreds of prisoners in small, soundproof, cement cages for 23 hours a day. Can you imagine what it is like being locked alone in a cell with no human contact for up to 23 hours a day, without access to commissary, phone calls or exercise for weeks, months or years at a time? It is torture and it is happening in Illinois prisons.
The findings of studies about prisoners held in solitary confinement establish the toll of isolation results in numerous health problems. The toll on a prisoner’s mental health is most disturbing. Luis Esquivel, a prisoner who had spent 13 years in solitary confinement described his confinement in this way: “I feel dead. It’s been thirteen years since I have shaken someone’s hand and I fear I’ll forget the feel of human contact.” Solitary confinement can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; and diminished impulse control. Some inmates lose the ability to be alert, while others develop crippling obsessions. Some even bite into their own veins, hit their heads against walls, and cut off their fingers or testicles.
Illinois has approximately 2,200 prisoners in solitary confinement.
The average length of stay of a prisoner in solitary confinement is 2.8 years.
85% of prisoners are placed in solitary in Illinois as a disciplinary action for minor infractions
According to one Harvard study, “roughly a third of solitary inmates were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.”
This is not a humane way to treat anyone. It doesn’t help the prisoner and it doesn’t help society. The majority of these prisoners, many still suffering from the consequences of solitary confinement, will be released back into our communities. In 1990, the UN called for the abolition of solitary confinement. In January 2012, the Chicago City Council adopted a resolution condemning prolonged solitary confinement in Illinois prisons characterized it as torture.
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.