(CNS photo/Erin Schaff, courtesy Perisphere Media)
The Rev. Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. Prisons Policy and Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is pictured in a replica solitary confinement cell during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days event in 2015.
Faith leaders push to reform ‘dehumanizing’ prison isolation
June 7th, 2016
By Dennis Sadowski
WASHINGTON – The “SHU” is not much larger than a good-size bathroom.
The SHU, or special housing unit, was where Johnny Perez spent a total of three years – the longest period being 10 months – in solitary confinement during the 13 years he was in New York prisons for armed robbery.
The tiny cells where inmates are sent for breaking prison rules or misbehavior are also known by nicknames such as the box, the bing, punk city, the hole, the pound and lockdown.
Perez was sent to solitary for fighting, testing positive for marijuana and having a frying pan in his cell.
In solitary he was alone with his thoughts 23 hours a day, with an hour outdoors in a small caged area for exercise. Corrections officers who brought meals and conducted security checks offered his only human contact.
“If they’re not sociable then you won’t be having a conversation with them,” Perez said of the guards. “One didn’t even look me in the face. It’s hard that the only person you come in contact with doesn’t validate you as a human being.
“It was dehumanizing.”
Perez, 37, made it through isolation with no debilitating psychological effects, unlike some others. He received “tons of magazine subscriptions” and two books a week – the maximum allowed – from his family and their church. He had writing materials so he could journal and also thought a lot about being elsewhere, far from the around-the-clock fluorescent-lit cell. He kept reminding himself, “I have to leave here the same as I came, that I don’t succumb to my environment.”
Advocates like Perez have joined their voices in a growing campaign to call attention to the wide use of solitary confinement nationwide. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were held in isolation in 2014, said a report from the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called attention to the importance of the criminal justice system to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes and that imprisonment “should be about more than punishment” in its 2000 statement “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.”
While the bishops did not address solitary confinement directly, they expressed a belief that prisons are places where human dignity must be respected.
Advocates for reform as well as psychologists say solitary confinement often destroys people rather than rehabilitates them.
The Washington-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture, of which the USCCB is a supporter, is one of numerous organizations calling for the end of solitary confinement.
The Rev. Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the religious campaign, compared inmate isolation to torture, citing a 2011 United Nations finding.
“There’s been a real acceptance that once someone is labeled a criminal that the standard of humanity and dignity would be removed from them,” she said. “The inherent God-given human dignity of the person doesn’t end at the prison doors.”
In 2011, Juan E. Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture with the Human Rights Council, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances and for no longer than 15 days. Mendez also said that in no case should the practice be used for juveniles and people with mental disabilities.
In January, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons. He said the practice is overused and can “worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.”
Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has researched the psychological effects of incarceration. He has found that segregated prisoners deprived of normal human interaction reportedly suffer from mental illnesses including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.
Catholic leadership on the issue, particularly by Catholic Mobilizing Network, the New York State Catholic Conference and the California Catholic Conference has helped obtain gradual shifts in inmate isolation practices, Downton said.
In New York, the bishops in 2000 called upon state officials to “avoid extreme forms of confinement and abusive punishment” in its statement “Restoring All the Fullness of Life: A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice.” In April, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany addressed the need for reform of solitary confinement in a column in the Times Union.
The New York Catholic conference also backs the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would limit the time anyone can spend in segregation, end solitary confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in isolation and create more humane and effective alternatives for inmates.
The California Catholic Conference has pursued avenues to reform the state’s use of solitary confinement. From meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown to backing legislation placing limits on inmate isolation, the conference has staked out a consistent position that, a staff member told CNS, the bishops view as a human rights issue.
“They just felt like this is wrong. That we need to find different ways to address this. There’s different ways than keeping people in isolation for so long,” said Debbie McDermott, associate director for restorative justice at the California Catholic Conference.
Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey, California, who chairs the conference’s Restorative Justice Committee, said he was troubled to see during visits to different isolation units that some inmates were held in cages. He said the men told him they feel lonely and neglected.
“It’s disconcerting that a lot of the people are left alone. Many threaten suicide. They can’t see their families for long, long times. So we have to reach out to them (state corrections officials) to say, ‘This isn’t the way to go. They’re not animals,’” the bishop said.
From June 9, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.