Rights groups demand Biden end ‘torture’ of solitary confinement

ACLU and others say solitary is ‘torture’, ask Biden and Harris to fulfil campaign promises to end inmate isolation.

Demonstrators hold signs outside Manhattan criminal court during a march and rally to demand the end of solitary confinement on June 7, 2021 [Mary Altaffer/AP Photo]

A new proposal by the Federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce (FAST) calls on the US government to use legislative, executive and administrative methods to end the “torture” of solitary confinement on inmates in federal detention.

“The debilitating, dehumanizing, and even deadly effects on incarcerated people are an ongoing stain on the American legal system,” Tammie Gregg, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Stop Solitary Campaign, said in a statement.

“Medical and mental health experts, impacted people, and advocates agree that solitary confinement … is torture,” Gregg continued.

Solitary confinement in federal custody varies across different forms of “restricted housing” in “special housing units” according to the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

Inmates can be put in solitary for attacking others, for their own safety or even for arguing with guards. It can mean spending 22 to 24 hours in a small cell a day for extended periods.

A solitary confinement cell called ‘the bing’ is pictured on January 28, 2016, at New York’s Rikers Island jail [File: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo]

“Inmates who have been in [special housing units] longer than 90 days are reviewed at the applicable regional office level to determine why he or she is not appropriate for return to general population,” the BOP website says.

Extended stays in solitary can “severely” compromise mental health, according to the American Friends Service Committee.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as any measure “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person”.

The UN also said in 2011 that solitary confinement of more than 15 days should be banned in most cases.

But roughly 8 percent of 152,832 inmates in federal custody are in some form of solitary confinement in federal custody, according to Bureau of Prisons data. That is close to 12,226 inmates in similar conditions.

State and county push

The ACLU is one of the 130 advocacy organisations in FAST working to end solitary confinement. The movement to end this form of detention has seen more progress on the state and county levels.

Johnny Perez, a survivor of solitary confinement and director of the US Prisons Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a member of FAST, said in a statement there “are a growing number of states that have taken a stand against the torture of solitary confinement”.

A man walks past a banner prior to a rally at the Elihu Harris on September 1, 2015, in Oakland, California, after the state agreed to release hundreds of inmates confined for years in solitary confinement [File: Robert Galbraith/Reuters]

FAST noted in its recommendations that in “2021, 70 pieces of legislation were filed across 32 states to end some aspect of solitary confinement in state prisons and jails”.

In April, New York banned solitary confinement for longer than 15 days. The move was applauded by advocacy groups pushing for policy change.

They noted that Black and Latino comprise roughly 70 percent of New York’s imprisoned population and make up about 80 percent of inmates in solitary, The New York Times reported.

In March, officials unveiled Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for New York City to end solitary confinement on Rikers Island, the city’s notoriously violent jail.

Outrage over solitary confinement on Rikers erupted after transgender inmate Layleen Polanco’s 2019 death from an epileptic seizure in solitary confinement.

“I came to the conclusion that we could end the confinement entirely, something that has been done in few places in this country,” de Blasio said in March.

Connecticut is also considering legislation to end solitary’s use, backed by former NBA star Caron Butler, who spent two weeks in isolated custody as a minor in Wisconsin.

The toll of the coronavirus pandemic brought attention to the issue of solitary. Many states adopted varying forms of solitary or extended confinement to isolate inmates to slow the spread of the virus.

However, studies suggested solitary confinement may have worsened COVID transmission by discouraging imprisoned people from reporting their symptoms, according to Undark, an online magazine that explores “the intersection of science and society”.

Numerous prisons and jails experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, from California’s San Quentin to Rikers Island.

Advocates said prison release programmes appeared to be one of the few means of lessening the virus’s toll behind bars.

Federal moves

As states and cities move to end solitary confinement’s use, there has been little movement from the White House, though the heads of the administration previously promised to end its use.

President Joe Biden’s campaign website promised to “ensure humane prison conditions” and to “start by ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions such as protecting the life of an imprisoned person”.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is playing an increased role in the Biden administration when compared with her predecessors, called for the end of solitary confinement as a candidate in 2019.

“It is time for the federal government to lead by ending the practice once and for all and incentivizing states to do so. We are hopeful the Biden-Harris administration will follow through with their campaign promise to end solitary by any name and in all forms,” Perez said.

The FAST recommendations call on the US government to “end all forms” of solitary confinement, ensure any alternatives are the “opposite” of solitary, employ “neutral decision-makers” at hearings and create “independent oversight by an Ombudsperson, media, and community stakeholders” through legislative pushes and executive orders.

“We strongly believe that the reforms outlined in this Blueprint will go a long way towards eradicating much of the senseless and counterproductive harm that has been caused,” Gregg said.

Source: Al Jazeera