Written by Rev. Laura Markle Downton, Director of U.S. Prisons Policy & Program National Religious Campaign Against Torture Breaking Down the Box from NRCAT
The Pope, legislators on both sides of the aisle, President Obama, and even prison officials all agree: the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons is a human rights crisis that must be addressed.
The United States is a global outlier in its use of mass incarceration and systemic use of solitary confinement, a practice long considered a form of torture. On any given day in the U.S., it is estimated that between 80,000 to 100,000 adults and youth –disproportionately people of color– are held in solitary. That number does not include people in local jails, juvenile facilities, or in military and immigration detention. That number does not tell you their names nor their stories, but it tells the story of a moral crisis.
In solitary, people spend 23 hours a day in a cell the size of an average parking space. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that solitary in excess of 15 days should "be subject to an absolute prohibition” based on scientific evidence of its psychological damage. He has called for a ban on its use for children, persons with mental illness, and pregnant women.
Our faith traditions teach us the importance of community, belonging, and connection. So it’s no surprise that isolation fundamentally alters the brain . It creates and exacerbates mental illness. Half of all prison suicides occur in conditions of solitary confinement. Such conditions are profoundly damaging for anyone, but for children, who are still developing, the experience is particularly devastating. In isolation, young people are denied access to treatment, programming and tools necessary for growth and development. Children in adult facilities across the country are subjected to solitary confinement for weeks or even months at a time.
Pope Francis has spoken out powerfully against the use of isolation, calling “confinement in high security prisons” a form of torture, and has said that torture is “a grave sin, but even more, it is a sin against humanity.” In September, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) released a statement acknowledging that “prolonged isolation of individuals in jails and prisons is a grave problem in the United States.” This summer, President Obama announced that the Department of Justice will conduct a nationwide review of the use of solitary, saying, “Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometimes for years at a time?”
To address the moral crisis of solitary, we need these words to lead to decisive action. So earlier this month, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture joined 126 organizations, including 39 religious organizations, in delivering an open letter to the White House calling on President Obama to ensure the nationwide review outlines a clear path toward ending the torture of solitary confinement. This call included the support of more than twenty national religious organizations – including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Union for Reform Judaism, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, and the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church.
To address the moral crisis of solitary, we must affirm that there are no throw away people, and no throw away children. Where cycles of trauma persist, we need interventions that lead to restoration and life. Children should never be placed in solitary confinement. And our young people should not be subjected to confinement in jails and prisons designed for adults. We owe their future, the future God dreams for each of them, an opportunity to flourish. To that end, a bipartisan coalition of United States Senators recently introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which includes provisions that would largely prohibit the solitary confinement of youth in federal prisons.
Despite widespread national momentum to confront the use of solitary, for children and adults, much work still remains to turn words into action. In California, despite calls from may including the faith community to act, legislators there have failed to pass critical legislation to prevent young people, disproportionately youth of color, from placement in solitary in the California juvenile justice system.
The time is now to face the moral crisis of solitary confinement and bring it to an end. The time is now to turn words into action, and work for a future of possibility for our communities, especially for our children.
This week, join the conversation on solitary confinement of youth by using the hashtag #YJAM. Below is sample language you can share on social media!
- Youth in adult facilities face a “lose-lose”situation, in order to segregate them from adults, they are often placed in isolation. #YJAM
- Solitary confinement is torture. Ask NRCAT https://vimeo.com/129764024 #YJAM
- Girls often get placed in solitary confinement for insubordination and not violent behavior #YJAM
- Many youth in solitary will do things they’d never do otherwise such as talk to themselves of self-harm. #YJAM
- Solitary confinement can lead to severe depression and has shows to correlate with suicide rates. #YJAM
- President Barack Obama has signed a proclamation declaring October 'National Youth Justice Awareness Month' and calls on Americans to "observe this month by getting involved in community efforts to support our youth, and by participating in appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs." http://sparkaction.org/content/president-proclamation-yjam #YJAM #youthjustice #JJDPAmatters