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Seven Days in Solitary [1/26/14]

Mon, 01/27/2014 - 00:16

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• In early January, a South Carolina judge ruled that the treatment of individuals with mental illness in state prisons was unconstitutional – particularly the disproportionate use of solitary confinement. This week, the Columbia Free Times explored the stories of prisoners involved in the lawsuit.  In The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen critiques the recent decision by the state to challenge the court’s findings.

• Writer, activist, and Solitary Watch contributor Vikki Law is featured on TRGGR radio discussing “the prison crisis, solitary confinement and solidarity.”

• The Juvenile Law Center announced it negotiated a $400,000 settlement with the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission, in a civil rights lawsuit that challenged the placement of two teenage boys in solitary confinement.

• Ralph Nader writes about solitary confinement in Counterpunch, calling it “America’s invisible and costly human rights crisis.”

According to a new report released by the U.S. Department of Justice, about 35 percent of incarcerated people who report experiencing inmate-on-inmate sexual violence are subsequently placed in administrative segregation or protective custody (while about 73 percent of perpetrators are placed in segregation as punishment).

• Human Rights Watch released its 2014 World Report. Its chapter on the United States focuses primarily on the criminal justice system, including the use of solitary confinement against individuals in prison, jail, and immigration detention.

• In The Guardian, psychologist Jeffrey Kaye asserts that the U.S. military is still using “techniques that are abusive and can event amount to torture” against War on Terror detainees, including extended solitary confinement. This news comes almost five years to the day that President Obama signed an executive order calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay.

The Tampa Bay Times profiles “Florida’s longest-serving inmate in solitary,” 33-year-old Ian Manuel; he has spent nearly all his time in isolation since his conviction on robbery charges at age 13.  An upcoming ruling the Supreme Court may result in Manuel’s sentence being thrown out.

• BBC Newshour explores why children in the United States are placed in adult prisons. They interview Alisha Carrington, who spent 2.5 years in solitary confinement as an adolescent “for her own protection.” (Carrington was featured last month in a Solitary Watch article on DC children in solitary in District jails and federal prisons.)

• Youth Advocate Programs Policy & Advocacy Center Advisory Board member Paul DeMuro published a paper offering some “initial ideas for how and why the practice of using isolation as a disciplinary measures for youth in juvenile justice facilities may be abolished.”

The post Seven Days in Solitary [1/26/14] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Women in Solitary Confinement: Buried Inside the Federal Prison System

Fri, 01/24/2014 - 08:00

Women are held in solitary in every federal women’s prison, including FCI Danbury.

This past September, in response to continued criticism around its use of solitary confinement, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) began an internal audit of its “restricted housing operations.” As noted earlier by Solitary Watch, no women’s prisons are listed in the Scope of Work provided by the team hired to conduct the Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment. The BOP’s Public Information Office was unable to comment on this apparent omission. (See update at the end of this article.)

Although they are absent from the audit, each women’s prison has its own Special Housing Unit (SHU) where people are locked into their cell 23 ½ to 24 hours each day. In some cases, women are confined because of behavioral problems or rules violations. But the BOP also has a recent history of isolating people based solely on their political beliefs.

In 1986, the BOP opened a segregated unit specifically for women political prisoners. It was built in the basement of the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky. “I looked around and was overcome by the sheer whiteness of the space,” recalled former political prisoner Susan Rosenberg in her memoir An American Radical. ”It was a bright, gleaming artificial white, the kind of white that with any lengthy exposure could almost sear your eyeballs. It was the kind of white that can make you go mad.” Rosenberg and Alejandrina Torres, a member of the Puerto Rican independence movement who had been sentenced to 35 years for plotting the bombings of U.S. military bases, were the first two women transferred to the unit. They were later joined by political prisoner Silvia Baraldini and two women not convicted of political actions, Debra Brown and Sylvia Brown. They had no contact with the rest of the prison population.

Prison officials labeled this a High Security Unit. Rosenberg described conditions in the High Security Unit:

Every day was filled with confrontations between us and the COs [correctional officers] over every human need: getting hot water for a cup of instant coffee, taking a shower, going outside, getting medical attention, getting a book. We were allowed to come out of our cells and talk with each other but stayed locked on the tier, not allowed beyond the gates. There was a camera at each end of the tier and three gates between the end of the tier and a hall that led to the rest of the unit. Our cells had windows we could see out of only by standing on tiptoe on the bed; the view was of shrubs at ground level in the main inner courtyard of the prison.

Human rights advocates, attorneys, family members and outside supporters launched a campaign to shut the unit down while the women filed suit. In 1988, following Rosenberg’s testimony in court, a judge ordered the unit closed immediately. The women were transferred to other federal prisons.

While the High Security Unit was shut down, the practice of solitary confinement continues inside every women’s prison. The Federal Medical Center at Carswell, Texas, opened in July 1994 with an Administrative Maximum Unit for women who are labeled “special management concerns” because of escape attempts, violence or other behavioral problems. But, as in the High Security Unit, women imprisoned for their political actions, such as war resister Helen Woodson, eco-activist Chelsea Gerlach and Pakistani national Dr. Aafiyah Sidiqui, have also been confined there. Not much is known about the unit other than that the women are entirely separated from the larger prison population and are often subject to lockdowns.

Other federal women’s prisons have Special Housing Units where people cycle in and out. However, as the BOP’s Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment indicates, these units have garnered much less attention and outrage than SHUs in men’s prisons.

Lashonia Etheridge-Bey has had repeated experiences with the SHU at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut (the prison made famous by the Netflix series Orange is the New Black).  Etheridge-Bey recalls that the SHU was always overcrowded, forcing prison staff to place two people in each cell. “At some points, they were so overcrowded that we’d be triple bunked with one woman sleeping on the floor,” she recalled. The women stayed in their cells nearly twenty-four hours a day. Women did their best to get along under such cramped conditions. “You couldn’t just move to a different cell unless there was a physical fight,” Etheridge remembered. “You were just stuck.”

Staff shortages prevented the women from being taken outside to the yard during the scant hours they were allotted for out-of-cell recreation. Instead, they were taken from their cell to another cell. “It was just an empty cell. There was nothing in it,” she stated. Women were not allowed to bring any of their personal property with them. Women passed the time by talking to each other or by reading the books from the cart brought around by staff members on a weekly basis.

The overcrowding too led to longer stays in the SHU. Etheridge-Bey recalled being written up and sent to the SHU for smoking a cigarette. (The federal Bureau of Prisons banned smoking in 2004.) Although her sentence was twenty days, she spent another 22 days in the SHU waiting for a bed to open up in general population.

In Florida, Yraida Guanipa experienced being locked in two separate SHUs.  In 1996, shortly after her trial, she was sent to the SHU at the federal prison in Miami. Guanipa recalls that, even before her arrest, she had experienced years of problems with her menstrual periods. During her trial, her bleeding was so heavy that her trial had to be put on hold. Nevertheless, while incarcerated in Miami, she was told that the Bureau of Prisons would not provide medical services unless there was an emergency. “I told people I was bleeding too much, but no one listened,” she recalled.

At the time, Guanipa worked in the prison kitchen. “I spent ten to fourteen hours a day standing on my feet and doing dishes,” she said. One Sunday, she informed her supervisor that she had been heavily bleeding for a week and requested medical attention. He refused. Guanipa then told him that, if she could not receive medical care, she wanted to go to mass. “My supervisor told me that I could not go to mass and that I could not go to medical, so I refused to do the dishes,” she stated. Guanipa was sent to the SHU for “disobeying a direct order.”

The SHU in Miami took up one floor inside the prison building, Guanipa remembers. “There was a small window in the wall at the top so at least you could see the light. And you can hear noise.” Oftentimes, that noise was the sound of other people screaming. “Many had mental health issues. There would be someone screaming all day or pounding her head against the wall.” When the women screamed, the officer on duty would simply tell them to shut up. Only when medication was dispensed would the screaming stop—but only temporarily.

After being transferred to the Federal Correctional Camp in Coleman, Florida, Guanipa submitted requests for more programs for moms to be able to spend time with their children. She received no response.  “The Bureau of Prisons rules state that when a prisoner goes on hunger strike, she is supposed to be placed in a medical institution, not solitary confinement,” she recalled. “So, being the trusting person that I am, I believed them.”  Fed up with the lack of programs and lack of response, Guanipa went on hunger strike in 1999. In response, BOP officials transferred her to the federal prison in Tallahassee where she was placed in the SHU. “It was solitary confinement inside solitary confinement,” she remembered. “Those cells are just for one person. Other SHU cells [such as the ones in Miami] are for two people, so at least you can talk to someone. It was the worst inside the worst.”

Inside the one person cell was a sink and a toilet. Guanipa remembered that prison staff did not provide her with water. “The only water you could get is the water from the sink, which is next to the toilet. It smelled awful.”

After 16 days on hunger strike inside Tallahassee’s SHU, Guanipa passed out.  She was taken to the hospital inside the prison where a nurse told her that her kidneys were failing and administered an IV. Less than a week later, Guanipa was returned to the SHU where she remained for another two weeks.

“The SHU was separated from the rest of the prison in its own building. Within that building, there’s the ‘solitary confinement inside the solitary confinement,’” she described. Unlike the SHU in Miami there were no windows.  “You don’t hear anything, you don’t see anything. I was afraid I was going to lose my mind.”

Twice a day, the prison psychologist walked past the SHU cells. “But in the SHU, if you tell a doctor you’re feeling suicidal, they put you in a worse situation—in the hole without your clothes on, so you don’t say anything,” she said.

When she was finally released from the SHU, the experience had shaken her to the core. “I was so scared after that that I vowed never to do another hunger strike again,” she said.

As in state prisons, women who report sexual assault by staff are punished with solitary confinement. Guanipa recalled a woman whom she met at FCI Tallahassee who had been sexually abused by an officer.  After the officer ejaculated on her, she took the evidence to the investigative unit. The prison responded by placing her in the SHU, then transferring her to a different prison. Guanipa never saw her again, although she did see the officer regularly. Nothing happened to him.

When asked about the practice of solitary confinement, Guanipa, who has been out of prison since 2007, declared, “It doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s derogatory. It scars you for the rest of your life. You lose the capacity to communicate. I would not recommend this type of treatment for any human beings or for animals. It’s torture.”

UPDATE, January 27, 8 pm: Prior to the publication of this article, the Bureau of Prisons and National Institute of Corrections did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the inclusion of women’s prisons and the selection criteria for the assessment. In an email dated January 27, Edmond Ross of the BOP’s Office of Public Affairs wrote:

“In response to your questions, some of the assessment locations were prescribed as part of the Statement of Work, and others were left to the discretion of the contractor in consultation with the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). There will be a total of nine BOP locations assessed. I can tell you the plan includes assessing a female facility. However, we are not making the locations of these assessments public at present.”

The post Women in Solitary Confinement: Buried Inside the Federal Prison System appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [1/19/13]

Mon, 01/20/2014 - 00:41

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• An NPR report by Laura Sullivan discusses the treatment of people with mental illness in Chicago’s Cook County Jail–and in jails around the country–including the extensive use of solitary confinement. Sullivan’s piece includes disturbing accounts of visits to the psych wards at the jail, where one-third of those held are mentally ill.

• The annual report (in French) of L’Acat (Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture) includes an account of long-term solitary confinement (l’isolement prolongé) in the United States, calling it “la forme la plus répandue de torture psychologique.”

• As Courthouse News Service reports, “Public criticism may have led prison officials to suspend the visitation privileges of a woman married to a Georgia inmate, a federal judge ruled.” The woman was banned from visiting her husband after she spoke to the media about the 2012 hunger strike he and others had launched to protest conditions in solitary confinement.

• On Alternet, Alex Kane reports on the No Separate Justice campaign, which opposes “an abusive system that has wreaked havoc on the lives of hundreds of Muslims” accused of terrorism-related offenses. Solitary confinement–including coercive pretrial solitary–figures heavily in the treatment of these individuals.

• Matt Stroud reports for In These Times on the long-running Dallas 6 case, back in court in Pennsylvania this week. “In this case, six prisoners are charged with inciting a riot after covering their solitary confinement cell windows. The prisoners claim that they were mounting an act of protest in the wake of an advocacy group’s report about harsh conditions and treatment at the prison.”

• A new report (in Spanish) from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on pretrial detention highlights the excessive use of pretrial solitary confinement (aislamiento solitario) in the United States, including its use on children awaiting trial in the adult criminal justice system.

• According to Courthouse News Service, the federal 9th Circuit ruled that “prison officials in Washington must face claims that their refusal to turn off the lights in segregation cells amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.” The plaintiff in the case, which the state sought to have dismissed, “claimed that he developed insomnia, migraine headaches and confusion while being held for nearly two weeks in the Special Management Unit (SMU), in which at least one light stays on all day and night.”

• A bill to limit the use of solitary confinement was introduced in the New Hampshire state legislature.

• On Alternet, Solitary Watch contributor Aviva Stahl profiles Ojore Lutalo, who spent decades in solitary in New Jersey because, according to official documents, his “radical views and ability to influence others poses a threat to the orderly operation of this Institution.”

The post Seven Days in Solitary [1/19/13] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

As New York City Jails Amend Their Solitary Confinement Practices, Abuses on Rikers Island Continue

Fri, 01/17/2014 - 00:09

In early January the Wall Street Journal reported that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) had ceased using solitary confinement as a form of punishment for people with mental illness. The last of the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates (MHAUII) units was shuttered on December 31, replaced by a two-tiered system said to improve treatment. The step was hailed a significant achievement for outgoing DOC City Commissioner Dora Schriro, whose department came under fire this past fall after two reports lambasted the DOC for violating its own standards in its treatment of the mentally ill.

However, a meeting on Tuesday morning of the Board of Correction (BOC), an independent body that monitors the City’s jail system, presented a far different picture of conditions for individuals with mental illness on Rikers Island – as well as a different version of how changes in the DOC’s solitary confinement policies have come about.

Just after 8 am on Tuesday, in the chilly morning rain, activists from the advocacy group Jails Action Coalition (JAC) stood on the sidewalk outside the municipal office building on Worth Street where the BOC was scheduled to meet. They were holding a vigil for the four individuals who have died in City jails in the past three months, carrying tombstone-shaped posters reading “RIKERS=DEATH” beside a makeshift alter with four candles, and singing and chanting to the people passing by.

Leah, a longtime JAC activist, explained that she had braved the weather for the sake of her godson, who has a psychiatric disability and is currently incarcerated on Rikers Island. She was waiting to see whether the recent changes made by the DOC would actually have an impact on the people inside. As she explained, sometimes the DOC enacts new policies to appease the citizenry “but really, it’s the same old thing.”

At just past nine o’clock the vigil participants passed through security and joined the BOC meeting on the third floor. The bulk of time was dedicated to discussing the quality of care at the recently developed Restrictive Housing Units (RHU) and Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) program, the facilities meant to replace MHAUII. According to DOC protocol, individuals who violate prison rules will now be sent to one of the two units: the RHU for those who are deemed less severely ill, who will still spend time in solitary but have access to therapeutic services; and the CAPS unit, modeled after a psychiatric hospital, for those with more serious illnesses.

According to the WSJ article, prison advocates were somewhat critical of the proposed changes after they were announced, calling the RHU model “far too punitive” and expressing concerns that individuals with mental illness might be placed in CAPS regardless of whether they broke the rules. The Board’s initial discussion seemed to support many of their concerns.

BOC members shared the details of their first site visit, on December 5, to the newly opened RHU at Rose M Singer Center (RMSC), the main women’s jail on Rikers. According to the Honorable Bryanne Hamill, a former New York Family Court judge,  Board staff asked for assistance from a nearby corrections officer when one woman – who had smeared feces on the window of her cell – failed to respond to their knocks. The CO opened the food slot in the cell’s solid steel door and shined light inside, but was still unable to ascertain if the occupant was conscious.

At the prodding of BOC members, the CO summoned four captains – but it was not until the Board notified Commissioner Schriro that the door was eventually unlocked. The woman was found unresponsive on the floor under the bed with a ligature wrapped around her neck. By the time the woman was taken out of her cell by medical staff, nearly an hour had passed since the visitors had first arrived at her door. Judge Hamill added that she spoke to another prisoner who told her that the unresponsive woman had been threatening suicide; Hamill reassured her that the woman had been found alive.

BOC member Dr Robert L. Cohen, a key player in efforts to reform solitary on Rikers, also participated in site visits. Cohen stressed that neither the COs nor the leadership in NYC’s prisons seemed prepared for the task at hand.  Although the RHU program at Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) technically opened on December 19th, Cohen reported that the jail’s warden was “not aware that there was an RHU at OBCC” when Cohen spoke to her on January 3. Cohen also emphasized his concern that the DOC has no plan to identify and train officers and captain staff who are willing to work in the units on a regular basis.

Both Dr. Cohen and Judge Hamill expressed disappointment that access to therapeutic programming in the RHU had so far been almost non-existent. They did, however, have some praise for the new mental health programs established at the DOC, noting that they were greatly impressed with the ongoing quality of care in the CAPS units.

At the end of the meeting, Jennifer Parish, the director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project and a member of JAC, spoke about her own visit to the RHU at RMSC, which occurred just days after the BOC’s.  One woman held in the unit relayed to Parish what had happened after she told the BOC member (presumably Judge Hamill) that the woman found unconscious had been threatening suicide. After the Board members left the prison, she said, a CO approached her cell to tell her, “there won’t be any food for you.” Parish expressed frustration that this kind of retaliation of could go on even when BOC was involved.

Commissioner Schriro’s voice cracked with emotion as the meeting came to a close. Schriro, who is leaving the DOC to take a job in Connecticut, has been broadly praised for the recent changes in DOC policy, and commented to the press that her department was “proud to have met this significant milestone.”  In truth, however, solitary confinement increased significantly under Schriro’s tenure. In 2011 alone the number of punitive segregation cells at Rikers grew by 45 percent,  and by the time the  BOC-commissioned reports were released this past fall, New York City had one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) pressed particularly hard for the increase in punitive bed space, attributing a spike in attacks on COs to the backlog of prisoners waiting to serve time in “the Bing,” as solitary confinement on Rikers is called. At a November 2011 City Council meeting, Schriro was grilled by City Council member Elizabeth Crowley about the problem.  Schriro reassured her that capacity was being expanded as quickly as possible: ” Every bed that can be converted is being converted.”

Community groups maintain that the DOC only considered adopting new policies as a result of the press fall-out from the BOC-commissioned reports – and that the reports were, in turn, ordered as a result of the campaigning of JAC and other advocates. Those same factors, along with pressure from a few BOC members, led the Board in September to vote to commence “rule-making” to eventually set new policies limiting the use of solitary in City jails.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last for Commissioner Schriro, but her legacy is not the only thing in flux. Mayor Bill DeBlasio has yet announce to his appointment to the post of DOC commissioner, and there are mixed signals as to whether he will live up to the progressive image he cultivated during his campaign.

Last Friday at Brooklyn College, DeBlasio emceed the graduation for the DOC’s newest recruits, telling them: “You’re protecting all of us….You’re protecting each other. You have each other’s backs. And you’re also protecting some people who have made mistakes.” He continued, “We’re not happy with some of the choices those individuals made, but they’re still our fellow citizens, and we’re hopefully in the process of helping them back to a better path.”

Yet there are some red flags to suggest substantial prison reform isn’t on DeBlasio’s agenda. Bill Bratton, the mayor’s appointment for police commissioner, has pursued racially discriminatory policing policies in the past.  Moreover, during his campaign DeBlasio was endorsed by COBA – a worrying sign for advocates, given that the role the union played in increasing the use of solitary and their resistance to adopting alternative solutions.

For Sarah Kerr, a staff attorney in the Prisoners’ Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society, the BOC’s experiences on the tour reveal the deeply protracted nature of the problems within the DOC.  She wondered aloud what it means that it took an hour for the woman’s cell door to be opened, even when BOC members were present.  She added that challenging this institutional culture will be an “incredibly hard” task for the DOC, but that doing so is absolutely necessary if things are to change.

For Daisy Rodriguez, another member of JAC, these changes cannot come quickly enough. Her 21-year-old son has been in solitary confinement in New York’s jails for the past 18 months.  She told the audience at the meeting, “We want our families to obtain the services they need rather than be treated like animals.”

The post As New York City Jails Amend Their Solitary Confinement Practices, Abuses on Rikers Island Continue appeared first on Solitary Watch.

New Campaign Highlights Post-9/11 Civil and Human Rights Abuses on American Soil

Mon, 01/13/2014 - 15:04

Panelists at the No Separate Justice launch at Judson Memorial Church. Photo: Liliana Segura.

This past weekend, activists across the country and around the world marked the 12th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners to the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Detainees there have endured numerous forms of torture, including waterboarding, “stress positions,” prolonged solitary confinement, and force-feeding, as well as indefinite detention without trial, and many advocates have pressed for their immediate transfer to the United States and to the federal civilian justice system.

But not everyone believes that the torture and injustice will end if Guantanamo shuts its doors. Last Tuesday, members of a new campaign called No Separate Justice held a launch event in New York City. The campaign focuses exclusively on exposing the civil and human rights abuses in “War on Terror” cases prosecuted on American soil–abuses that are almost always directed against Muslims.

The campaign will center around four core areas: conditions of confinement (including extreme solitary confinement and deprivation); fair trial and due process concerns (like the classification of evidence held against detainees, even those being charged); First Amendment and material support charges (notably the use of “preemptive prosecution” based on individuals’ perceived political activities or beliefs); and surveillance and entrapment (through “sting” operations that actually persuade individuals to conspire to illegal acts).

On the night of the launch the auditorium at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village was packed despite the bitter cold. Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis opened and moderated the evening, stepping in for journalist Liliana Segura, who had lost her voice. Theoharis urged audience members to break the silence about what Muslims face when they are charged in U.S. courts. “We know that most of the greatest injustices in American history have been legal.”

Theoharis’s close involvement in the campaign was sparked by personal experience. In 2002 she taught a student named Fahad Hashmi; five years later he was arrested in London and extradited to the United States. Hashmi was charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, because an acquaintance who stayed in his apartment for two weeks had sent sock and rain ponchos to al Qaeda.

Held for nearly three years in pre-trial solitary confinement, Hashmi eventually entered a plea and was sentenced to 15-years, which he is serving at the notorious ADX supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. For about four years after his extradition, Theoharis explained, Hashmi also lived under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), which severely restricted his communication with the outside world. (For example, he was under 24-hour electronic monitoring, even when he was showering or relieving himself.)

Fahad Hashmi’s brother, Faisal, spoke next and reflected on the day his brother was extradited back home to the United States.  “This is the day our understanding of America changed.” Given the brutal circumstances of his pre-trial confinement, the plan to use an “anonymous” jury, and the fact that over 99 percent of Muslims charged with terrorism offenses are convicted, Fahad Hashmi had little choice but to ultimately plead guilty.

Pardiss Kebriaei, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), described how strange it was to visit Fahad Hashmi at ADX Florence after the years she’d spent seeing clients at Guantanamo Bay.  Even within the mainstream, Guantanamo has been marked as extraordinary, extreme, the zone of exception. Conversely the federal supermax has usually been ascribed a kind of normalcy, despite the fact that prisoners there spend 23 hours a day in small concrete cells and the remaining hour alone in a concrete exercise pen. Once inside ADX, Kebriaei saw the chaos hidden from public view: “If you could see through the walls you’d see 400 people in rooms the size of bathrooms beating their heads against the walls”.

Next, Tamer Mehanna moved the audience with a plea for empathy for the affected families. “Think of someone you love… Now imagine you will never kiss or hug them again. That’s what we all live with”.  His brother, Tarek Mehanna, is serving 17 ½ years for translating and posting what authorities said was al Qaeda propaganda. The ACLU, CCR, and others continue to maintain that Tarek’s alleged offenses were protected by free speech, but this past November, Mehanna’s conviction was upheld by a federal appeals court.

Sonali Sadequee’s brother, Shifa Sadequee, is also locked up. While he was in Bangladesh in 2005, just twelve days after his wedding, he was surrounded by men who whisked him away. “After he was arrested, that was it. We didn’t even know who took them away or why.” They learned on CNN that Sadequee was facing extradition to the United States to face conspiracy charges. He was in pre-trial solitary confinement for over 1,300 days and is now serving 17 years in the special Communication Management Unit, made up almost entirely of Muslims, in the federal prison in Terre Haute.

Sarah Khasawinah spoke on behalf of Ahmed Abu-Ali, who is currently serving a life sentence at ADX based on a confession coerced through torture by officials in Saudi Arabia, where he was studying at the time. Abu-Ali also endures 23-hour solitary confinement and still lives under the weight of SAMs, which even prevent his family from repeating anything he says – like how he’s been doing.  He is contained in a cage of steel and concrete where even his echoes – the words he tells his family through the glass partition – are proscribed and disappeared by the courts.  As Sarah said, “It’s up to us to be his voice.”

Finally, Tarek Ismail, a Counterterrorism and Human Rights Fellow at Columbia University, provided an overview of the way terrorism cases are pursued in the domestic criminal justice system – including pre-arrest due processes issue like surveillance, entrapment, and the recruitment of informants.  It is as though the tactics developed by the FBI and police forces during COINTELPRO have been perfected under the War on Terror: communities ripped apart by mistrust; political activists slandered and framed; and potential allies driven away by racist propaganda.

This launch is merely the first of many events for No Separate Justice.  The campaign will be holding monthly vigils on the first Monday of every month in front of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan. This is where Fahad Hashmi was held for nearly three years in pre-trial solitary confinement and others continue to endure extreme isolation. NSJ campaigners hope that such a “physical presence [at MCC] will help make visible what’s been made invisible and normal” to New Yorkers and Americans at large – and thus help expose the horrors of our “domestic black sites.” The first vigil is scheduled for February 3 at 6 pm at 150 Park Row.

The campaign has also launched a website, Twitter feed (@NSJCampaign), and Facebook page, and Educators for Civil Liberties is curating a related series of articles in an ongoing collaboration with The Nation magazine.

The post New Campaign Highlights Post-9/11 Civil and Human Rights Abuses on American Soil appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [1/12/13]

Mon, 01/13/2014 - 00:20

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• The National Catholic Reporter publishes a piece on the Photo Requests from Solitary project, noting that “[i]n 2009, every man in Tamms received an intriguing letter: ‘Tamms Year 
Ten Committee
 make a photograph
 you like 
request one?’”

Politico Magazine publishes a photo essay entitled “This Is What Solitary Confinement Does to Your Face,” a collaboration between the The Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED Public Radio with before and after photos of people who have been subjected to prolonged solitary.

The Washington Post reports on the ruling by a federal judge that Virginia’s practice of  automatically holding prisoners on death row in solitary confinement violates their constitutional right to due process.  According to the story, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema “said that the problem is exacerbated by the extended amount of time prisoners spend on death row. A prisoner could easily spend more than a decade on death row while the appeals process plays out, and never have an opportunity to join the general population.”

The Chicago Monitor reports on the detrimental effects of prolonged solitary on incarcerated youth, noting the findings of a study conducted by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. The story states, “From a psychological standpoint, many young interviewees spoke of coping with serious mental health problems during solitary confinement such as suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, depression, anxiety, disturbed sleep patterns and uncontrollable anger or rage.”

The Texas Tribune reports that, due to inadequate funding, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has yet to follow through on a bill passed four months ago calling for an independent party to examine the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. According to the story, “advocacy organizations are working to find dollars to pay for the study they say is critical to understanding how often solitary confinement is used, how it affects inmates and how much it costs the state.”

ABQ Journal reports on the use of solitary confinement in the state of New Mexico, where “officials have the goal of cutting their segregation statistics from near 10 percent of inmates to 5 percent.” The story notes that if corrections authorities and prison reform advocates “can work together to make one of the worst punishments prisons can mete out a rare exception rather than a rule, it could only be a good thing for New Mexico.”

• Amnesty International (AI) calls on authorities in Louisiana to immediately release former Black Panther Albert Woodfox, who has spent over four decades in solitary confinement, from prison. A press release issued by Amnesty states, “On the eve of a federal court of appeals hearing on the case of Albert Woodfox, Amnesty International USA is calling on authorities in Louisiana to immediately release Woodfox… ‘A remedy to the injustice inflicted on Albert Woodfox by the state is long overdue,’ said [AI campaigner Tessa] Murphy.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the New York City Department of Correction has curbed its use of solitary confinement of people with mental illness who break rules. According to the story, “The last of the prisoners being held in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates at Rikers Island jail were reassigned Dec. 31, and what is known as the punitive segregation program has been permanently closed, said Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro…”

BBC News Magazine publishes a piece describing how playing chess kept Russian human rights activist Natan Sharansky sane during his close to five years of being held in solitary confinement at a Siberian prison. “In his dark, empty, freezing punishment cell, with no-one to talk to, where he was forbidden to read or write, he played games in his head, obviously having to move for both sides, white and black: ‘Thousands of games – I won them all.’”

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Mentally Ill in South Carolina’s Prisons Suffer Decades of Abuse and Neglect

Sat, 01/11/2014 - 11:18

Photo: South Carolina Department of Corrections, Trial Exhibit

A court ruling out of South Carolina this week deserves the attention of anyone concerned with the use of solitary confinement and other brutal conditions and practices on the hundreds of thousands of people with mental illness who are held in our nation’s prisons. The best reporting on the ruling comes from The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, in a lengthy piece titled “When Good People Do Nothing: The Appalling Story of South Carolina’s Prisons.”

On Wednesday, in one of the most wrenching opinions you will ever read, a state judge in Columbia ruled that South Carolina prison officials were culpable of pervasive, systemic, unremitting violations of the state’s constitution by abusing and neglecting mentally ill inmates. The judge, Michael Baxley, a decorated former legislator, called it the “most troubling” case he ever had seen and I cannot disagree. Read the ruling. It’s heartbreaking.

The evidence is now sadly familiar to anyone who follows these cases: South Carolina today mistreats these ill people without any evident traces of remorse.  Even though there are few disputed material issues of law or fact in the case, even though the judge implored the state to take responsibility for its conduct, South Carolina declared before the sun had set Wednesday that it would appeal the ruling—and thus likely doom the inmates to years more abuse and neglect. That’s not just “deliberate indifference,” the applicable legal standard in these prison abuse cases. That is immoral.

But what makes this ruling different from all the rest—and why it deserves to become a topic of national conversation—is the emphasis Judge Baxley placed upon the failure of the good people of South Carolina to remedy what they have known was terribly wrong since at least 2000. Where was the state’s medical community while the reports piled up chronicling the mistreatment of these prisoners? Where was the state’s legal community as government lawyers walked into court year after year with frivolous defenses for prison policies? Where were the religious leaders, the ones who preach peace and goodwill?

No one in power came forward. Even as the evidence became more clear and compelling that something horrible was happening inside those prisons.

Cohen delves into the history of the problem, from the early 1990s, when “South Carolina did reasonably good job of caring for its mentally ill prisoners,” through decades of growing prison populations and decreasing budgets for prison health care. He traces more than a decade of scathing reports, lawsuits, and whistleblower efforts that clearly documented what was going on in South Carolina’s prisons.

Judge Baxley wrote in his opinion: “The evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.” Cohen provides more detail as to “what these words mean”:

They mean that one mentally ill inmate, James Wilson, was kept in solitary confinement for at least 2,491 consecutive days. It means that an intellectually disabled (and schizophrenic) man named Jerome Laudman was abused and neglected, and then left to rot in his own feces and vomit, until he died of a heart attack. It means that force was used 81 times on a severely mentally ill inmate named James Howard. It means that some mentally ill inmates were restrained at length in what they called a “crucifix position.”


It means some mentally ill prisoners were “routinely placed” naked “in shower stalls, ‘rec cages’, interview booths, and holding cells for hours and even days at a time.” It means that suicidal prisoners who were supposed to be receiving anti-psychotic medication were not receiving them. No surprise, the judge wrote, since SCDC’s “computer system cannot retrieve the names or numbers of all inmates referred” for mental health treatment, “the number of inmates who have made serious suicide attempts; or the number of inmates whose psychotropic medications have expired without being timely renewed.”

It means that mentally ill inmates are routinely caged for days in their own feces and urine, having to eat literally where they shit. It means, Judge Baxley wrote, that “the deposition testimony of some psychiatrists reveals an alarming lack of knowledge about the policies and procedures at SCDC.” One such psychiatrist did not know “what mental health counselors do, and had ‘no idea’ who drafted treatment plans” for inmates. And even if the mental health professionals knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t have been able to do much. The ratio of inmates needing treatment to professionals able to provide it was astronomically high.

The article, which combines solid facts with appropriate outrage, can be read in full here. Cohen concludes: “This epic ruling forces South Carolina, and the rest of us, to make a choice about what we want our prisons to say about who we are as a people and what we represent as a civilized society.”

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Seven Days in Solitary [1/5/14]

Mon, 01/06/2014 - 00:23

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

The Indo American News reports on the story of Akaash Dalal, an Indian American teen who was arrested for bombing four New Jersey synagogues. Dalal pleaded guilty, and Dalal’s father claims that Akaash had nothing to do with the bombing. While he awaits his trial, he’s been living in solitary, “holed up in a tiny, windowless cell.”

• According to NBC, after launching a nationwide investigation of detainees’ deaths in restraint chairs, the NBC Charlotte I-Team found that more than “more than three dozen men and women” have died in restraint chairs around the country. Even with these findings, there is no widespread ban on the use of chairs, aside from several human rights groups.

In These Times reports on the solitary confinement of Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a former member of the New African liberation movement convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1970. In 2005, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and although he merely pleads for human contact, he still experiences confinement.

• In Trenton, New Jersey, the Juvenile Justice Commission and Rutgers University “have agreed to pay $400,000 to settle a federal lawsuit over the solitary confinement” of two boys who suffered from mental illness and were put into isolation for long stretches of time. Advocates hope that the settlement will decrease and change the future use of solitary confinement in the Juvenile Justice Commission.

The Washington Post reports that in Louisville, Kentucky, a pair of hearing-impaired prisoners sued the state of Kentucky for not providing proper interpreter services. According to the men’s representation, Deborah Golden, being deaf or hearing-impaired in prison is “like being in solitary confinement even though you’re in the middle of people.”

Amnesty International reports on the fate of Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3, whose been held in solitary confinement for 40 years. On January 7th, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hold a hearing determining whether or not Albert will be removed from solitary, and perhaps whether or not he will be set free from prison entirely

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Voices from Solitary: “This Massive Mind-Fuck Machine”

Sun, 01/05/2014 - 13:04

Sean Swain is has served 22 years of a 20-to-life sentence for a murder he maintains was committed in self-defense. He has done many long stints in solitary confinement, and is currently being held at the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. A self-proclaimed anarchist, he has twice run for governor of Ohio from his prison cell. His writing appears at The following comes from a letter to Solitary Watch written in December. He welcomes mail at: Sean Swain 243205, OSP, 878 Coitsville-Hubbard Road, Youngstown, OH 44505.  –Jean Casella

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

I arrived here at Ohio’s super-duper-uber-meza-ultra-max on 29 August. I call it that because super-max sounds so ridiculous. If maximum is maximum, the most, what can be “super” or “beyond” the maximum? If it’s more secure than the already-existing maximum, then it supercedes it as being the new maximum, but it doesn’t become super-maximum. This is my deliberate, hyperbolic use of multiple prefixes to heckle the state’s grammatical euphemists.

They even have to abuse language.

Since August I note there are days I experience heightened anger. I call them rage days. They happen seemingly at random and I am self-aware enough to know that my emotional response is exagerrated. Sometimes pencil cups tip over. It’s not a cause for murderous rage. So I breathe deeply and recall that the situation I’m in creates those symptoms, and I self-talk through recognizing the relative insignificance of a spilled pencil cup compared to all the very serious disasters happening in the world. Re-centering. Re-grounding….

I fear losing my mind. I rear that on a long enough trajectory I’m doomed. I’m like a flood victim stacking sandbags, contemplating that I can hold out for six months, or a year, and if I am ambitious and scramble, I can hold off the inevitable for 18 months, but sooner or later the water will begin to trickle over the top of the barricades and then…

Smash. Pencil cup hits the wall.

Solitary confinement is waking every day already stacking the sandbags in your head to stave off the flood of irrationality that seeks to consume you…while operating within slow-motion mundanity of sensory deprivation. It’s almost comic, really, how those two realities, the internal and the external, are so oddly divergent. The internal feels like everything is emergent–bells and buzzers and sirens–and the external, that which triggers the internal madness, is less eventful the cows grazing or paint drying. But that’s just it. It’s the vacuum, the absence the gets the monkey of the mind scrambling for some kind of sensory toy to grab.

I smirk to myself when the shrink comes around once a week. He asks me if I’m OK. My response is always, “I think so.” It’s the best I can do when I know there are prisoners smeared in their own fecal matter and muttering to unseen demons and they tell the shrink, “Yes, I’m doing fantastic.”

I’m not smeared in fecal matter.


I don’t hear disembodied voices screaming at me to check my tire pressure.


Am I OK? I think so.

I don’t tell him that I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the day when a shit suit sounds like a grat idea, when Shabriri, the Demon of Blindness, screeches at me about unsafe driving conditions…

I also consider the irony that this massive mind-fuck machine works feverishly, day-in and day-out, prying out my psychological fingernails with a pair of rusty pliers, and then sends around this poor, well-intentioned, professor-ish clipboard dragger to inquire about my well being, prairie-dogging through the plexiglass bulletproof windown of the steel door on my tomb, seeking signs of my inevitable mental disorganization.

I think so. I think so. I think so. Yes…

A pencil-pusher was making rounds recently. Thru the bulletproof glass he asked me, “Do you know why you’re here?”

I responded, “Because there was an open cell available and the director doesn’t like my criticism of his policy?”

He looked side to side and saw the coast was clear. He shrugged. “Well, yeah,” was his reply.

Am I OK? I’m still stacking the sandbags. I haven’t given up.


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Dr. Radut