Because we are free we have an obligation to represent those who are not.
As I write this, as you read this, an estimated 80,000 people are sitting in solitary confinement in the United States. Many researchers consider this a low estimate. Please see Solitary Watch
The fact that solitary is counterproductive as either a deterrent or rehabilitation was soon discovered by those who first created and implemented the practice; Quakers.
Quakers believed that criminals had gone astray because they lost their connection with God. They reasoned that if all other stimulus were removed, they could re-connect with God and be rehabilitated.
Their cells were designed for total sensory deprivation, with the exception of the narrow portal to the sky, or ‘heavens’ to facilitate their recovery. The picture here is from inside one of those cells.
The world’s first penitentiary was built in Philidelphia. Eastern State Penitentiary is now a museum, it’s pamphlet reads in part that it was “a building designed to inspire penitence, or true regret in the hearts of prisoners”.
At the time the facility was considered to be progressive, a step up from housing people in one open space where men, women and children were held together in open pens. It was soon revealed this facility was no improvement but deprivation in another form. Charles Dickens, touring the States in 1846 upon observing people in solitary confinement at Eastern State, wrote, " I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature."
Prisoners ate meals alone delivered by guards with cloth wrapped around their shoes to muffle any sound. One of the first discoveries was that those in solitary were less productive. Prisons have always been a source of free labor, and those held in solitary didn’t produce as much as those who worked together.
We know we are social creatures. Aristotle knew it before we had the science to prove it.
“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. ... Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ” Aristotle
Today there is overwhelming evidence, written, studied, personal testimonies and video footage of the sadistic and barbaric practice that is solitary confinement.
Adding to the social deprivation in today’s solitary cells, there is plenty for the senses to take in; the wicked odors, the filthy cells, the screaming of prisoners and guards, beatings, suicides.
I will note that while solitary is not a fit punishment for anyone; we should remember it is not unusual for innocent people to fall into that void. Is this type of human suffering acceptable collateral damage?
80,000 people right now are suffering and We the People are funding this state sanctioned torture.
Because we are free we must act. A week ago I participated in a Lobby Day in Albany to meet with legislators to get the Humane Alternatives to Long-term Solitary Confinement Act passed. Almost 300 people participated in this day-long action. Teams of us met with legislators, rallied at the capital and outside Cuomo’s office. Those who have suffered solitary confinement themselves personally as well as family members shared their experiences with us.
Here’s some things you can do, follow the links to:
Join the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement
Correspond with an incarcerated individual by joining the Prison Solidarity Project
send an email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with PS in the subject line
Join the campaign to #CloseRikers