Today marks the launch of a Solitary Watch video channel on YouTube. The channel will feature original video interviews with former prisoners, family members, and advocates, as well as a collection of other videos on solitary confinement. We begin with three short video interviews shot by Valeria Monfrini, a student at Corcoran College of Art + Design who is completing an internship as a reporter and videographer at Solitary Watch.
Bonnie Kerness, whose wealth of hands-on involvement with prisoners held in solitary has inspired and informed so much of the movement against prison isolation, comes out of the civil rights movement. As she describes it, “Since 1975, I have been a human rights advocate on behalf of prisoners throughout the country. Currently, I coordinate the Prison Watch Project for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).” Kerness works out of the AFSC office in Newark, and on a June day this year, she shared her own analysis before introducing us to two people who experienced solitary confinement firsthand.
Munirah El-Bomani spent time in New Jersey women’s prisons in the late 1990s. She landed in solitary, she says, because she stood up for herself and was branded a troublemaker. Today she fights for a living as a street vendor and civil rights activist in Newark. More than a decade after her release, she remains haunted by her prison experiences, and by the fear of going back.
Ojore Lutalo was imprisoned in 1982 on an armed robbery conviction, and released in 2009. He spent the majority of his 26 years behind bars in isolation because of his associations with the Anarchist Black Cross Federation and Black Liberation Army. For much of this time, he was in the Management Control Unit at Trenton State Prison. The MCU, one of the earliest units of its kind, was known for using solitary confinement to isolate prisoners who held unsavory political beliefs or sought to organize other inmates. Here Lutalo describes his time in solitary, including an incident in 2005, when he was summarily thrown into what the prisoners call the “boom-boom room”—formally referred to as mental health unit 1-C, where “I was not allowed to shower, change my clothing, have soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, washcloth or towel. I was not allowed to make telephone calls, send out or receive personal or legal mail. I was also not allowed to receive personal or legal visits or take part in any inside or outside recreational activities.” Lutalo also guides viewers through his artwork, which he says helped him remain sane and strong while inside.