[Pnews] Crackdown on solitary confinement begins, but a culture of secrecy remains

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 28 10:17:21 EST 2016


  Crackdown on solitary confinement begins, but a culture of secrecy remains

David Smith  January 28, 2016

Barack Obama’s crackdown on solitary confinement 
in American prisons was welcomed by civil liberties campaigners, but it 
will make no difference to the man who has endured the punishment longer 
than anyone.

Albert Woodfox 
facing trial for the third time for the murder of a prison guard, has 
been in isolation almost without pause for more than 43 years. He is the 
last of the “Angola Three”, a trio of Black Panther inmates who spent 
long spells in solitary at the Louisiana state penitentiary, also known 
as“Angola” after the country of origin of slaves who worked at the 
former plantation.

Louisiana has been dubbed the “world’s prison capital”, 
incarcerating more people per capita than any other state or country. 
But how many of these are in solitary – isolated in a closed cell for 22 
to 24 hours a day with virtually no human contact – is not known. Nor 
will the state be forced to publish that statistic under the executive 
actions announced by the president Obama this week.

“Louisiana has a very punitive and very racially based criminal justice 
system,” said Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch, 
<http://solitarywatch.com/> a web-based project aimed at exposing the 
practice. “It is highly problematic. They don’t make records available 
to the public of how many people are in solitary confinement.”

Across America a culture of secrecy still surrounds the use of prolonged 
solitary, defined by the UN as torture, 
Casella added. “These ‘supermax’ prisons have been like black sites. 
Journalists have not been allowed in. No visitors have been allowed in. 
We don’t have independent inspectors like in Britain. The reason given 
is safety and security, but really it’s to keep people from seeing what 
goes on there: the number of mentally ill people, the number of who 
spend their days screaming and banging their heads against a wall.”

The concealed nature of the practice condemned by Obama as “an affront 
to our common humanity” illustrates the scale of the challenge that 
remains. The US stands virtually alone in the world in incarcerating 
thousands of prisoners in long-term or indefinite solitary, a report by 
Amnesty International found. The total on any given day is about 
100,000, according to a 2014 estimate 
by Yale Law School’s Arthur Liman Public Interest Programme and the 
Association of State Correctional Administrators. There is also an 
unknown number in dedicated detention facilities for immigrants, 
juveniles and people awaiting trial.

In an editorial column for the Washington Post on Monday, 
Obama said research shows solitary confinement has the potential to lead 
to “devastating, lasting psychological consequences” and announced that 
federal prisons would no longer use it for juveniles or inmates serving 
time for low-level infractions.

The president said the change would affect about 10,000 inmates in the 
federal system – and “hopefully” serve as a model for state and local 
corrections systems. That wish belied, not for the first time, the 
limits of presidential power. Obama’s ability to intervene at the state 
and local levels is limited, and cases such as Woodfox’s in Louisiana 
are beyond his control.

There is an uneven picture from state to state, and Casella warned that 
the road to reform is long. “We have 51 prison systems and they all 
operate independently. The federal government does have some power, 
particularly through the grants they offer for reforms. There are also 
things the supreme court could do.”

Last year, she noted, supreme court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote about 
the “human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation,” and called for 
change through more “public inquiry”, judicial discussion of the harms 
and, in an appropriate case, decisions by judges about “whether workable 
alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether 
a correctional system should be required to adopt them”.

Such remarks help set a tone, even if direct intervention is still some 
way off, and Obama might be making a similar calculation as he enters 
his final year in office. Announcing somewhat limited executive actions 
on gun control, the president pleaded for a long campaign against vested 
interests and, in his last State of the Union address, 
he set out a broad vision for active citizenship and restoring national 

Casella described the symbolic value of Obama’s words against solitary 
confinement as “pretty tremendous: five years ago it was hidden, the 
human rights issue that no one had heard of. To go from that to having a 
US president writing an impassioned article about it is a significant step.”

Momentum is building. Last week the American Correctional Association 
hearings on new standards for “restrictive” housing, in which people are 
kept 22 hours or more in their cells, potentially for months or years. 
The ACA is also considering bans on placements for juveniles and 
pregnant women and limits on the use for the seriously mentally ill.

A growing number of states – including California, Colorado, 
Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas 
and Washington – are introducing reforms, some after their hand was 
forced by lawsuits. Rick Raemisch, whose predecessor as executive 
director of corrections in Colorado was shot dead by a former inmate who 
had spent years in solitary, 
said: “I don’t know of any states not reexamining the issue. I believe 
this is a national movement now that won’t be stopped. It’s going to be 
taken as far as we can take it.”

Ultimately, Raemisch hopes, solitary will be used only in exceptional 
circumstances for the most violent prisoners, and even then for shorter 
periods than at present. “In most states 97% of inmates return to the 
community and we should be making them better, not worse. I don’t have a 
psychology background but it’s my belief the long-term use of 
restrictive housing is a multiplier of mental illness.”

Such examples have given heart to seasoned campaigners who watched 
solitary confinement soar, along with the prison population, in the late 
1970s and early 1980s. Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of US prisons 
policy at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, 
<http://www.nrcat.org/> said: “We want to see more of what we’re seeing 
in states like Colorado where individuals are moving out of isolation 
and the state commissioner has said it’s time to open the doors.

“It’s time to give prison staff additional tools to understand mental 
disabilities. Ultimately we want to see therapeutic interventions that 
involve treatment not punishment. That requires a paradigm shift in 
every state. We’re dealing with decades of ‘tough on crime’ political 
rhetoric from both sides of the aisle but we believe we’re increasingly 
seeing the political will is there and the time to act is now.”

The optimism was echoed by Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the 
American Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project. 
<https://www.aclu.org/aclu-national-prison-project> “There are still a 
lot of people in solitary but there’s also a national movement in the 
last five years to take a second look at this practice,” she said. “The 
question is, are we at a tipping point? We are very close. Having the 
president speak out against the practice is jaw-dropping and one of the 
clearest signs of what is considered decent in today’s society.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20160128/0dbc5604/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list