The horrors of solitary

Jean Casella is a journalist, editor and co-founder of the website Solitary Watch with James Ridgeway. Helen Redmond talked to her about the project's goal to expose the widespread use of solitary confinement--and the devastating consequences it has for prisoners.

A block of solitary confinement cells in a Mississippi state prisonA block of solitary confinement cells in a Mississippi state prison

HOW DID you get involved in work around solitary confinement?

MY BACKGROUND is in running independent, progressive media projects. I've always been extremely interested in prisoners' rights because, in this day and age, they are the most oppressed and dehumanized members of our population.

I was James Ridgeway's editor, and he had been assigned by Mother Jones to write a series of articles about the Angola Three in Louisiana--three former members of the Black Panthers. Two of them were convicted on pretty flimsy evidence of murdering a prison guard in 1972, and they've been in solitary confinement since that time. That means it's their 40th year in solitary confinement. The third member of the Angola Three was freed after 29 years in solitary confinement.

Jim and I became very interested in solitary confinement after working on those articles. We were shocked by this whole issue. We considered ourselves to be well-informed, progressive Americans, and we had no idea that this was going on--the magnitude of it, the numbers of people who are in solitary confinement, the length of time.

It was a time when there was a rise in consciousness about what was going on in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and a lot of concern for the rights of prisoners and the torture of prisoners. And yet most people knew nothing about the torture that was going on in our prisons.

WHY HAS the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. increased?

I THINK it coincides with the rise of the so-called "war on crime." And I want to make the point that there really are no red states or blue states or liberals or conservatives when it comes to the issue of solitary confinement. The biggest buildup of Supermax prisons happened during the Clinton years.

In New York, for example, it happened during the administration of Gov. Mario Cuomo. So Democrats and Republicans began supporting this idea--starting in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s--that there was a war on crime and a war on drugs to be fought. We see these huge increases in the incarceration rate in this country reaching a peak of well over 2 million in prisons and jails combined. The Supermax boom started in the early 1980s.

By the way, solitary confinement is an American invention. It was invented in the early 19th century and was used in a state penitentiary in Philadelphia. It was considered a humane alternative to beatings and pillory. Prisoners were put in solitary confinement so they could contemplate their crimes and become penitent.

Even back then, though, it was very clear that prisoners lost their minds, some died, some committed suicide. This was not an effective way to treat human beings or to produce reform in prisoners. It was quickly abandoned. By the early 20th century, it was very rare for people to be put in solitary confinement.

It was brought back in the early 1980s in a prison called Marion in Illinois after the prison was put on lockdown when a guard was killed. It remained on lockdown for something like 20 years. People weren't allowed out of their cells. Somehow, the idea became acceptable again to do this to people. Overcrowded prisons, the prison boom, federal incentives to build more prisons, the rolling back of parole, longer sentences--the rise in solitary confinement coincided with all that.

CAN YOU give some examples of how people end up in solitary confinement?

ONE OF the biggest myths around solitary confinement is that it's for the "worst of the worst"--that it's used sparingly and only in cases where there is violence against guards or other prisoners. That couldn't be farther from the truth. I'll give you some examples, and you'll notice they are from two supposedly liberal states.

In New York, most of the prisoners in solitary are in what is called disciplinary confinement, which means that they've broken prison rules. It's completely at the whim of the guards. They could be put in for cursing at a guard or for not promptly obeying an order.

Many inmates are put in for displaying symptoms of mental illness. Prisons have become a warehouse for the mentally ill. Some are found with contraband, which doesn't mean anything dangerous. It could be a joint of marijuana or a cell phone. One prisoner was placed in solitary confinement for five years because he was found with a cell phone. It was later reduced to three years. Prison guards smuggle the cell phones in.

We came across someone who was in solitary for having too many postage stamps, which is a form of prison currency. You can be put in solitary for testing positive for drugs, and this is in a state where there is a huge waiting list for drug treatment in prison. Instead of providing that treatment, people are put in solitary confinement sometimes for 90 days just for testing positive for marijuana.

We're talking about nonviolent misbehavior, not serious violations of prison rules. There really are no limits on how long prisoners can be put in solitary confinement. If you have multiple infractions for marijuana you could end up in there for several years. This is 23-hour lockdown. It's clear that the punishment is not fitting the crime.

In California, one of the primary uses of solitary confinement is to deal with gangs in prison. If anyone is validated as a gang member they can be placed in solitary indefinitely. Minimum terms are usually six years. You can be validated as a gang member if you have a tattoo, or if another prisoner says you are a gang member. People are rewarded for identifying prisoners as gang members.

You can also be validated by reading material, in particular, if you have Black nationalist reading material. So you can be sent to solitary confinement for many years based on what you read.

CAN YOU discuss some of the major findings of the New York Civil Liberties Union 2012 report on solitary confinement, Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation In New York's Prisons.

ONE OF the findings was that five out of six sentences for solitary confinement are for nonviolent misbehavior. That's 80 percent of the people who are given sentences in solitary are there on nonviolent offenses. The ACLU found that New York has one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country and the highest rate of disciplinary segregation, which means solitary based solely on nonviolent misbehavior.

The average amount of time is about five months, but some people do years or even decades. The situation in New York has to do with the power of the rank-and-file correction officers to place people in solitary with very little review or due process. There are very few instances--maybe no other instances--in society where people have so much power over human beings without any kind of review by a court. It's absolute power.

There's one man who served time in solitary who tried to organize prisoners into a grievance committee to improve conditions. He was given six weeks in solitary and told to drop this committee. He was told that if not, he was going to stay there a lot longer.

Solitary is used as a form of coercion. It's used against prisoners who are considered troublemakers or a threat to authority. It's used against people for "unsavory" political beliefs. Another finding of the report was that African Americans are placed in solitary confinement in numbers even more disproportionate than their numbers in prison.

WHAT ARE the recommendations of the report for improving the situation?

THERE ARE several recommendations. One is to immediately review all of the criteria for placing people in solitary confinement and to make them much, much stricter. Another is to eliminate solitary for all nonviolent offenses and to review the amount of time they are being used for violent offenses. This could potentially reduce the amount of solitary confinement by three-quarters.

One model that is often held up is the state of Mississippi--not a place where you would expect reform to happen. It was a reform that was forced on the prisons by the ACLU. They reduced the population in solitary confinement by 75 percent and closed their Supermax unit that had over 1,000 men in it.

Another recommendation is that solitary confinement be abolished in favor of some other way of separating prisoners for safety reasons. Our prisons have made a science out of isolation. It's not necessary to cut off all programming, all contact from all group activities when somebody is placed in some form of segregation.

CAN YOU comment on why correctional officers' unions oppose closing Supermax prisons? There's something incredibly sick about jobs that depend on torturing human beings.

THAT'S A good way to put it. I think what's happening in Tamms, Ill., is a good example. There's been an incredible grassroots struggle there, combined with litigation, to close Tamms. AFSCME, the union that represents the guards, went to court to stop the closure. It's strange because supposedly no one was going to lose his or her job. They were going to be given positions in other prisons. I guess they saw it as a threat to the power of the union. The response of activists to the union was that torture is not a career.

It's bad for the guards as well. James Ridgeway and I interviewed a former correctional officer in the article we wrote for the Nation, and he was very frank about the damage that had been done to him. He had been physically assaulted trying to subdue a prisoner with a mental illness and was seriously injured. The guard still has dreams about the inmates who committed suicide that he had to cut down after they hanged themselves. So this is seriously damaging to the people who work in these places.

HOW DIFFICULT is it to gain access to prisoners?

THERE ARE serious limitations on the access of media to these facilities. In New York, even when the media is allowed to tour a prison or visit prisoners, they're banned from seeing the Special Housing Units. This is really a hidden world. That's why we called the Nation article "New York's Black Sites."

These places are around the corner from where people are living, but they're invisible to the public. The banning of the press is a big part of that. Prison authorities justify it on the grounds of safety and security. The courts have shown a huge amount of deference to prison officials. All they have to say is this is "safety and security reasons," and the courts say okay, we'll have to reconsider the First Amendment.

The courts argue that as long as the prisoner can communicate by other means, by telephone or letter, that's sufficient to satisfy the First Amendment. You don't actually need to be able to go there. We always say the First Amendment stops at the prison gates.

DO YOU think the three-week hunger strike last year by Pelican Bay prisoners in California was effective?

I THINK it was tremendously effective in bringing this issue out of the shadows. I've seen a real change. We founded the website Solitary Watch three years ago, and the change between then and now is really quite remarkable.

One of the strongest factors was the hunger strike. People were exposed for the first time to the kind of conditions these guys live in and the desperation they feel about their inability to see any way out of it. As a public education strategy, it was very effective. It remains to be seen how effective it will be in changing policies. The hunger strikers' committees are not satisfied at this point.

There are 100,000 Americans in solitary confinement on any given day. The vast majority doesn't need to be in any kind of segregation. They need drug treatment and mental health treatment. They would be fine in the general population.

For the small number who perhaps are violent and dangerous, we need to institute standards that allow them to be separated without being placed in extreme isolation, extreme sensory deprivation and extreme idleness.