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Transcript: Minisode Two: The one where we talk about solitary confinement.

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[intro music begins]

Ra  0:22  

Hi, and welcome to another minisode episode of Abolition is for Everybody. Minisodes are much shorter, and a little less polished, but still super friendly, and still all about abolition. My name is Ra. I was a co-host last season and I’m a co-host in season two. And today I’m joined by Lee, my co-host in season one. This minisode is the one where we talk about solitary confinement. Let’s get started.

Lee  0:49  

Hey, Ra, remember in season one, when we recorded the episode with Cat Brooks, and you mentioned jail jail?

Ra  0:54  

I do, that was “Abolition Decriminalizes Mental Health” and we were talking about how people go through mental crises and how they’re usually thrown into jail, jail, the hole, the box, adseg or solitary confinement by any other name.

Lee  1:11  

Right. You know, we’ve talked about it since and we thought it was important for us to come back and expand on that conversation. I think because we’re so used to talking about these things as people who both did time inside, it’s easier for us to move really quickly over things that are huge deals.

Ra  1:27  

Absolutely. I’m excited to slow down and dig into it a bit deeper.

Lee  1:31  

Me too. We actually have a special guest here to help us. Pamila is an attorney in the investigation unit at Disability Rights California, she started her legal career as a deputy public defender, and made the switch to DRC after finding that so many people impacted by the criminal legal system were disabled.  

Pamila  1:50  


Lee  1:50  

Pamila, do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off.

Pamila  1:54  

No, not at all. Thanks so much for inviting me to the show. Before I begin talking about solitary confinement, I’d like to give a little bit of history. That’s because abolition is something a lot of people, including myself, sometimes struggle to understand. But what helps me is remembering that none of these things that we have, nothing about our current criminal legal system is set in stone or inevitable. And I think solitary confinement is a perfect example of that. So solitary confinement has been called an American invention. The Quakers actually started it in 1792 when there were these single cells built at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, and these jail cells, the solitary cells were similar to what solitary confinement looks like today, very small cells with feeding slots for food and restricted movement outside of the cell. So the idea was that the person would reflect on what they’ve done and become penitent and that’s how we we have the origin of the term penitentiary. Today day it is disastrous from the very beginning. You know, the famous writer Charles Dickens, he wrote, “A Christmas Carol” and “Oliver Twist”, he actually did a visit of the United States, and saw solitary confinement and he was so shocked and appalled by what he saw that he wrote, “I believe that few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment…inflicts upon the sufferers…I denounce it as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” He actually wrote that almost 200 years ago. Solitary confinement ended as a widespread practice around the mid to late 19th century, but then it really came back in full force in the 1980s and 90s, when we had all those Tough on Crime policies and our government spent billions to build supermax prisons, which those are basically jails or prisons where almost the entire facility is composed of solitary cells, with people being confined for days on end, and a cell smaller than a parking space with no window to the outside world and with almost no human contact.

Ra  4:11  

Horrifying. I mean, and that’s the thing about solitary confinement, it’s how damaging it really is. Could you break that down for us a little bit more?

Pamila  4:19  

Sure. I think the greatest harm of solitary confinement I mean, there’s so many harms, but the the greatest damage is probably around the psychological harm. It causes depression, severe depression, anxiety, and even psychosis, because people can hallucinate and experience terrible panic attacks when they’re in solitary confinement. Some people have described the feeling as being buried alive. And so when you’re in that situation, you’re more likely to commit self harm. Something really as terrible as you know, taking off parts of your own body or self mutilation and some people actually commit suicide when they’re in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement also causes physical pain and neurological damage. And so really, there’s no other way to describe this practice other than saying it’s disabling to the person who’s put in solitary and it can be lifelong. Even after you leave solitary confinement. There’s well documented reports about people, even when they’re back in the community, even after they’ve been released from jail or prison, after they’ve been in solitary, where the effects are so lingering to them, and so devastating that they take their own lives. And one really highly publicized story is that of Kalief Browder, a young man in New York, who very tragically took his own life after being released from solitary confinement and after he was living back in the community.

Lee  5:45  

Yeah, I actually remember that story and Pamila could you actually also unpack and flesh out a little bit about the different names that solitary confinement is called?

Pamila  5:56  

Yeah, because that’s the thing. It’s never actually called solitary confinement. It’s kind of amazing how jails and prisons and other kinds of systems are good at coming up with different names and euphemisms for things. But there’s really two broad categories, and the way to look at it. One in which solitary is used as punishment, and then solitary used as supposedly to protect people, but the conditions and both are pretty much the same. You’re put in a small cell, usually, or you’re put in a cell with no access to other people, you’re stuck there with nothing to do, you have no access to programs, you’re not allowed out, you can’t exercise, you can’t really do anything. So the punishment category is called disciplinary segregation. Terms like the shu, the hole, that’s where people can be sent for breaking or allegedly breaking even the most minor rules. And there have been so many documented investigations, and monitorings, and lawsuits where, you know, people were put in the hole for things like using profanity. And really, it’s like, if you fail the attitude test with the guards, they can say you’ve broken a rule, and that can be the basis to put you in solitary confinement. And then the other kind is the protection category, you know, known as administrative segregation, segregated housing, protective custody. And that’s where people are placed in solitary confinement, supposedly, for their own safety and protection. Like if you identify as being part of the LGBTQ community, or if you have a serious mental illness, you can be put there supposedly, for your own protection. But the results are the same, you’re stuck there, you don’t get out, you don’t get to exercise. If there’s programs that would help with reentry or help you get out sooner, we can’t access those. And then actually, during COVID, we saw some really creative uses of solitary. I’m using creative in a like air quotes sense, because it really wasn’t done for the benefit of anyone. It wasn’t really done for safety. And what what happened was that people, again, are put in these medical isolation cells with nothing to do cut off from everybody and left there for days on end.

Lee  7:55  

One of the things about solitary confinement is related to like jails and prisons, but what about other settings.

Pamila  8:02  

So it’s also used in immigration detention facilities. So for listeners, those are several detention facilities where people are waiting for resolution about their legal status in the country. So if you have an asylum claim, or might have to be deported, but you might be able to fight your case, you’re kept in detention, nevertheless. And so in those settings, there have been so many documented uses and abuses of solitary, both in the disciplinary sense and the protective, you know, so called protective custody sense where people are put there for hundreds of days,

Ra  8:34  

I can’t imagine. I mean, I can, I did some some time in solitary. So I guess I should say, I can imagine, I just it’s a frustrating experience, I think to hear the legacy of it entirely. And I do have one more question, I promise it’s the last one, I feel like we’re inundating you. But as organizers, we know, there’s always a bit of hope and a lot of work being done. What are people doing to end solitary confinement?

Pamila  8:59  

Well, there’s a lot happening. And as always, so much of it is led by the most impacted people. They’ve really been the heroes and the leaders and all of these efforts, also joined by allies, doctors, former correctional experts, advocates, lawyers. So a lot of people are joining in this effort. From an international standpoint, the United Nations has have taken a strong stand on this. And a good starting point is the Mandela Rules that were established by the United Nations. And they actually set out a definition, which is really helpful, where they pretty much called it out, they call it torture. And they say that if a person’s held in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more a day, without meaningful human contact for more than 15 consecutive days, they absolutely say that should be prohibited and that anything more than that is torture. And it should be a measure of last resort to be used only in exceptional circumstances. And then you know, a growing number of states are beginning to adopt limits based on the Mandela Rule, and other standards. So New York and Colorado have actually passed legislation to limit its use there, the lawsuits all throughout the country and California, you know, just all over the place trying to limit it. Many medical and correctional experts agreed that there are groups of people who are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of solitary people with disabilities, young people, you know, people under the age of 26, or elderly people, pregnant  people, and those folks should not be placed in solitary at all. And like I mentioned before, there’s there’s a lot of growing concern about this. There are nationwide campaigns such as the Unlock the Box Campaign, and Solitary Watch, is probably the best online resource for all the up to date information about efforts across the country by impacted people and advocates to stop the practice. And as always, impacted people have been the leaders in this movement. For starters, for any listeners who are interested in learning more, I would definitely tell them to check out the hunger strike led by incarcerated people at Pelican Bay in 2013 and they led that to protest their conditions and then that led to some important changes as a result.

Lee  11:12  

As you’re talking about it, you know, it’s bringing up a lot of memories for me, for when I was inside, and I remember the age of 17, when I was first incarcerated, they actually placed me in solitary confinement for two weeks. And for 24 hours a day, I wasn’t allowed out at all, and they call it a supervisory period. And I was dealing with a lot at that time, like emotionally and mentally, and just trying to grapple with not only the decisions that I had made in my life, but feeling like really isolated and alone. And I just have a whole lot of, I guess assistance, in in transitioning from transitioning from being free on the street being incarcerated and not really understanding it. And even as I turned 18, and was transferred to county jail, they did the same thing. Right, they put me in solitary confinement, and they claimed it was for my, my own safety or for observation. And those moments again, I think they just retriggered the the feeling as if, you know, life was disposable. And that, that I didn’t matter. And I remember like, throughout that period, in inside adseg, people were like kicking on doors, nobody was sleeping, they were yelling out for help. And just those screams of agony and frustration, like comes back as we’re, as we’re talking about the subject right now. And it has long lasting effects. And I’m talking, this was over 27 years ago, that I experienced this and to this day, I can still just tap back into those emotions and those feelings, and visualize exactly what it was that I was going through at that time. And so it’s so important that we continue to address the punitive measures that our system has in place on on dealing with folks. And so I just really want to say that I appreciate you bringing more awareness to this and bring in your your wisdom and your experience to this such a an important subject. So personally, I want to thank you, Pamila.

Pamila  13:26  

Well, thanks to both of well, I learned so much in listening to your show. And Lee, that’s it’s it’s heartbreaking to me to think of you as a 17 year old having to go through that. Nobody should have to go through that at such a young age, at any age, but especially when you’re just you’re really developing and I can’t imagine anything worse or more misguided than to subject a young person to that.

Ra  13:51  

And I think this story shows and highlights how solitary confinement isn’t just something that happens inside. It’s something that we carry with us when we come home, you know, and, you know, like Lee said, he still thinks about it, it’s still something that can be brought up, you know, in our bodies, where where these things are stored. And all of it was just egregious. It really is and all of this is why it’s so important for us to get rid of solitary confinement.

Lee  14:16  

You know, let’s use this moment to think about the 1000s of people that are in solitary confinement now in prison, jails, immigration detention centers, health care facilities, those that are sitting in a cell by themselves with no human connection, just struggling to meet basic cares and needs. And remember that whatever the state decides to call it, whether it be the shu, adseg, the box, etc. solitary confinement is torture.

Ra  14:45  

We have one more thing for y’all. The following is a recording from an incarcerated organizer who works with Initiate Justice. We think it’s important that you hear it.

Incarcerated Member  14:56  

I’m a Juvenile LWOP currently housed at Corcoran State Prison, but in 2017, I went out to court for an evidentiary hearing and I was housed in the ASU, which is administrative segregation unit in a New Folsom, California State Prison Sacramento. And while I was there, I was held in solitary confinement. And it is literally like being in a hole. When you look out your window into the hallway, there’s a concrete wall, five to six feet away from you. So you have no view out there. And the only sunlight comes from a little tiny porthole in the ceiling, that’s like 30 feet above. So you have one window in your cell, and then another window, 30 feet above that no sunlight comes through there. And you literally see-

GTL Phone Monitoring System  15:43  

 This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded. 

Incarcerated Member  15:47  

And you literally feel like you’re underground in a hole buried. I don’t want to cuss, but it  messed me up. I was there for court, I was there for a positive thing. Like I still have good stuff going on, in my case in court, so I’m happy about that, but like being there for that reason, I was there for only three, four weeks, and it messed me up. I just I got super depressed. I, you don’t want to do anything, you just like and it’s cold, they turned the AC up. So it’s like constantly cold, so you’re constantly wanting to be in bed under your blanket. And it’s just like I was just super depressed. I was trying to go to court and like when you’re at court like you’re out of it because you’re just you’re stuck in a cell by yourself for hours and there’s no one to talk to there’s nothing to do you don’t get your your regular privileges that you have in the regular prison environment where you have your classes, you have your your education stuff, your your, you know, I have a lot of hobby equipment that I draw on a paint and I just I love my artwork. And being in that restrictive environment, like I had a pencil and a couple of pieces of paper to write my wife and she could even see it in my letters. She’s like, there’s something wrong with you. [outro music begins] You’re, you’re depressed and you’re sad and she’s like, I can just read it in your words. It was not easy and I wasn’t even there for disciplinary reasons like it just just being there for court for that short timeline. I went through it.

[outro music continues]