If ever there was an institution exemplifying the adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” solitary confinement in our prisons would be it.
Quakers in England and in Pennsylvania played a large role in the introduction of isolation as an alternative to the mayhem that was prevalent in prisons. In the U.S. a group of reformers, including many Friends (Quakers), developed a vision of the penitentiary as an alternative to these squalid dungeons. The notion at the time was that providing a space for silent, solitary reflection and penitence would result in rehabilitation. Instead, the stark isolation caused people to deteriorate mentally and physically.
The first SuperMax prison designed to house prisoners exclusively in solitary confinement was the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (now a museum), which opened in 1829 and operated through 1971. Some Quakers, such as the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, pointed out early on that this experiment was a failure and an abomination, but by then it was too late. The Supermax model was emulated throughout this country and solitary cells were also built into almost all prisons and jails.
Solitary confinement is defined by the United Nations as the confinement of prisoners for more than 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact, typically in a tiny cell. Prolonged solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days is regarded as a form of torture, and this is torture of our own citizens at home, not in a remote place like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib (equally horrible but garnering more publicity).
Solitary confinement is commonly used as a punishment in lieu of mental health treatment for prisoners who exhibit symptoms, and extended confinement in solitary cells induces PTSD, whether or not a prisoner entered solitary with a mental health condition.
To give readers a sense of how solitary confinement is experienced by someone on the ‘inside, we will excerpt from a letter written by Leighton Johnson when he was detained in solitary at Northern Correctional Facility in Somers in 2010 (Johnson is now a leader in the campaign to end solitary confinement – StopSolitaryCT – in Connecticut).
“I am writing you regarding the deplorable and inhumane conditions that myself and my fellow inmates have to live with and be subjected to here at Northern Correctional Institution. The staff and administration operate on their own rules and principles, regardless if they violate the law, the Constitution or human rights.
The air is recycled throughout the building and disperses dust and dirt all over the place (not to mention in your lungs). Certain blocks in here never get properly cleaned. There are cells in here where the walls are smeared with feces and since the walls are concrete, feces are embedded in the holes all over. The smells are unbearable and usually induce vomiting which just adds to the mess.
Just about any complaint you have concerning your health, from headaches to heart pain to shortness of breath is remedied with Motrin. The world is oblivious to the goings-on in this hell of a place. I’m hoping [this letter] will open some eyes and cause some action to be taken.”
If mass incarceration is, as Michelle Alexander titled and explained in her book, The New Jim Crow, then solitary confinement is a direct descendant of slavery, with prisoners, overwhelmingly people of color, held in bondage, often shackled to the walls of their cells.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 2019 was a critical year in the movement to abolish solitary confinement, when “twenty-eight states introduced legislation to ban or restrict solitary confinement, and twelve states passed reform legislation, most representing significant changes to existing practices that promise to facilitate more humane and effective prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers.”
Following the lead of Colorado two years earlier, New Jersey passed the most comprehensive law in the nation, limiting the length of solitary confinement to 20 consecutive days for all prisoners and detainees, and protecting vulnerable populations (e.g. minors, persons with mental health conditions and developmental disabilities, pregnant women).
With regards to action at the federal level, after President Obama characterized solitary confinement as “an affront to our common humanity,” and instructed the Justice Department to implement reforms to the practice in Federal prisons, the U.S. House of Representatives passed The Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2019, a bipartisan bill to establish a commission to study the practice and recommend new standards.
As of this writing in March of 2021, the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly is considering the PROTECT ACT (SB – 1059), a comprehensive bill ending the practice of solitary confinement in the state. Provisions of the bill include the following:
1. No person will be kept in his or her cell involuntarily for more than 16 hours per day, and no more than 72 hours in the event of an emergency.
2. No person will be deprived of visits, phone calls or mail privileges.
3. All incarcerated people will be able to participate in therapeutic and educational programming.
4. Restraints are to be used in the least restrictive form and in the least possible time frame necessary, and not to be used as punishment.
5. Correction officers will be trained in recognizing and mitigating trauma experienced by staff.
6. An independent Corrections Advisory Council and Ombudsperson will oversee implementation of the above measures.
This bill is being championed by a team of people with lived experience on both sides of the prison bars (stopsolitaryct.org), including people who have served time in solitary, their families and friends, and those who have worked for the Department of Corrections. Thankfully, one of the provisions in the original bill has been made moot by the planned closing later this year of Northern, Connecticut’s only Supermax prison.
Almost two centuries after the Eastern State Penitentiary opened, Quakers and their organizations (e.g. local and regional Meetings, American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation) are working to end the practice that we had a hand in creating. We urge you to join us!
The Minute (statement) on Solitary Confinement recently approved by the Wilton (Connecticut) Friends Meeting, reads in part:
“As Quakers, we have a strong belief in the possibility of positive transformation within each person. Our long history of involvement in correctional facilities throughout the country with the Alternatives to Violence Project gives us direct experience of such transformation. We believe that the way we treat people affects their ability to connect with that of God within. Criminologists have demonstrated that solitary confinement is not an effective tool for rehabilitation. The use of solitary confinement creates permanent psychological injury to incarcerated people and could impact their capacity to make positive changes.”
To support the passage of the PROTECT ACT in Connecticut by writing letters, testifying and engaging in other actions, visit stopsolitary.org. To learn about and take action to support the passage of similar legislation in other states, visit https://www.aclu.org/issues/prisoners-rights/solitary-confinement.
Peggy Brennan, Anne Burns, Valentine Doyle, Paul Hammer, Laura Higgins, Eleta Jones, Diane Keefe, Susan O’Leary, Kimberly Stoner, Mary Lee Morrison, David S. Thompson and Joan Warren. The authors are members and attendees of Friends (Quaker) Meetings in Connecticut.