Well over one hundred people filled a conference suite at Temple University in Philadelphia on Tuesday, September 18, to hear testimony on the effects of solitary confinement. They included survivors of solitary, family members, community members, advocates, and lawmakers. The hearing was held by the Democratic Policy Committee of Pennsylvania at the request of Representative Ronald G. Waters (D-Delaware/Philadelphia), a member of the committee. It comes in the wake of the first ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, held by a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in June, and serves as yet another marker of how the widespread practice of solitary confinement in American prisons and jails is quickly becoming a mainstream human rights issue.
The hearing also followed a rally on Monday at Philadelphia’s Love Park, organized by the Human Rights Coalition. About 150 participants listened to speakers describe their experiences in solitary confinement, while holding signs and banners that read “Jobs Not Jails,” “Fund Schools Not Prisons,” and “End Torture in Pennsylvania.” One banner listed the names of a group of prisoner who have been held in extreme isolation for from ten to thirty years.
All twenty-seven Pennsylvania state prisons have solitary confinement units, called Restricted Housing Units, and collectively they hold around 2,500 of the country’s 80,000 solitary confinement prisoners–about 5 percent of Pennsylvania’s total prison population of approximately 50,000. Stays in these RHUs can last for months, years or even decades. In general solitary confinement units in Pennsylvania look much like those across the country: units of tiny cells, lit 24-hours a day, with only food tray slots as portals to the outside world, that are used as warehouses for the mentally ill and politically active. These units have seen three suicides in the last two years as well as the death of John Carter in April of this year, allegedly at the hands of guards who used pepper spray and stun guns on him during a violent ”cell extraction.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has a specific designation for those prisoners that are placed in solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time: the Restricted Release List, a program that grew out of what used to be known as the Long Term Isolation Unit. Those on the list can only be released from solitary confinement with the approval of the department secretary; they often have not committed any offense in years, and are given no notice of their grave designation.
The hearing consisted of four panels: mental health experts, legal experts, survivors of solitary confinement, and family members with loved ones in solitary confinement. The first panel consisted of Dr. Terry Kupers and Dr. Craig Haney. Both men are psychologists who have done extensive research on the topic of solitary confinement, and Haney testified at the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing in June.
Dr. Kupers began by telling the narrative of how solitary confinement and the idea of the supermax came into prevalence in the United States; a story told and lamented throughout the hearing. Kupers stated that the United States made what he called “a historic wrong turn” in the 1980s when prisons across the country cut funding to rehabilitative services, and began to see a rise in prison overcrowding and recidivism. Instead of reassessing the system itself, the nation’s response was to expand the prisons and propagate the idea that all of the problems of the system hinged on “the worst of the worst,” those prisoners who needed to be locked away in isolation.
Both psychologists emphasized the well documented proof that solitary confinement leads to, and greatly exacerbates mental illness. In response to the testimony Rep. Ron Waters asked, for the first of many times, how he could convince his fellow lawmakers that current policies and the use of solitary confinement is a policy of “tough on crime” rather than “smart on crime.” The representative also pointed out that Pennsylvania taxpayers pay $33,000 per year to imprison one person, and they deserve a “healthy, productive” citizen in return, not a mentally ill victim of torture. His remarks were in response to Terry Kuper’s explanation of someone maxing out of prison and being released straight from solitary confinement back to the community.
The second panel consisted of Jules Lobel of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Marc Bookman of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, Angus Love of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and Robert Meek of the Disability Rights Network. Lobel, the first to testify, via telecast, has represented prisoners in multiple cases challenging the conditions of solitary confinement, including his current representation of prisoners at Pelican Bay state prison in California. His testimony focused on how and why solitary confinement does not achieve its stated goals, using mainly examples of who it is that ends up in these units–certainly not the “worst of the worst.” “Instead, race, political affiliation, religion, association, vulnerability to sexual abuse, and challenging violations to one’s rights all too frequently play a role in which prisoners are sent to solitary confinement.”
The testimony of Angus Love and Robert Meek refocused the discussion towards the causal link between solitary confinement and mental illness. Statistics from research into Pennsylvania prisons, Meek explained, showed that 800 prisoners registered as having mental health issues are currently serving time in solitary confinement units in the state, while beds at the state’s mental health facility, State Correctional Institute Waymart, sit empty. Meek’s testimony called for what he referred to as “robust” psychosocial treatment for prisoners with known mental health issues and more oversight and consideration of mental illness in punishing a prisoner with solitary confinement. One of Pennsylvania’s prisons, SCI Cresson, is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice for their failure to provide adequate mental health treatment for prisoners. All four of the panelists urged that though programs for treatment and true rehabilitation may cost the state money in the short term, their cost-cutting effects in the long term would be great, and that in order to fix the issue of prisons in our state they must break the cycle of mental illness and incarceration.
The response from the delegates to the testimony presented by the panel of legal experts was thorough and indicated that several members were truly engaged in the subject of abolishing solitary confinement. Representative Vanessa Lowery Brown (D-Philadelphia), reflected on a recent visit to a Pennsylvania prison when she was told by staff that she “didn’t understand” why long term isolation was necessary. The testimony on Tuesday reinforced her belief that it was the staff at Pennsylvania’s state prisons that didn’t understand. Once again the representative implored the panelists to explain how they thought they should go about fixing the issue. The response from the three men present was unanimous: stop locking so many people up. Marc Bookman, whose testimony focused on the death row in Pennsylvania, pleaded that the lawmakers “stop feeding the Prison Industrial Complex” and “get smart on crime.”
As the hearing began nearing its scheduled end time, four solitary confinement survivors began the third panel. Robert King, a member of what is known as the Angola 3, who spent 29 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana, was the first to testify. A dedicated activist and public speaker, King simply talked about his experience in prison, and the effects that long term isolation can have on the mind. Most memorably he stated that he never once would have told you that he wasn’t crazy during his time in solitary confinement. “No one asked me; if they did I would have told them, of course I feel crazy.” The other two members of the Angola 3 are still in prison, convicted on questionable evidence of the 1972 murder of prison guard Brent Miller.
The second testimony was from Shujaa Graham, wrongfully accused of the murder of a prison guard in California which caused him to spend years in solitary confinement on death row. After a fourth trial his conviction was overturned in 1981, and he was freed after eleven years in prison. His voice shaky but sure, Graham’s testimony was some of the most emotional of the whole hearing. He stated that he felt he could never truly recover from the effects of isolation and that he only survives today “in spite of the system.” At the end of his testimony, with the applause of the audience, he told the representatives to stop nickel and diming the people they represent, to “do the right thing” and stop torturing people in Pennsylvania’s prisons.
The last two previously incarcerate people to speak were Hakeem Shaheed and LuQman Abdullah. Shaheed spent time in the federal prison system, including time at the infamous Marion prison, a federal supermax facility in Illinois. His testimony focused on the corruption within the federal prison system. Shaheed himself was placed at Marion, he said, as retaliation to his speaking at an inmate event and offering an indictment of the torture and abuse within federal prisons. Before his testimony Shaheed circulated his laptop, which displayed a still shot from a video in which guards brutalized him following the September 11th attacks because of his Muslim beliefs.
LuQman Abdullah spent eleven years in Pennsylvania prisons after being wrongfully accused of murder. He spent much of his time in prison in solitary confinement, given misconducts for his involvement with political groups and indictment of the planned execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His testimony was a series of stories of the torture he survived, like being strapped naked to a bed without a mattress and left for days, and also of triumph and lessons learned. When housed at SCI Green, Abdullah was housed next to Russell Maroon Shoatz, whose teachings and friendship he said “saved his life.” For the second time during the hearing Maroon’s long-term isolation was called into question and a plea was made to the lawmakers to release the 70-year-old with failing health into general population. Abdullah also brought up the name of Charles Graner for the first time during the hearing; Graner was a guard at SCI Green who was found guilty of the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu-Gharib prison.
The final panel of the day was four women, all with loved ones in solitary confinement. Shandre Delaney, whose son Carrington Keyes has been in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania for ten years, told how her son was placed in solitary confinement as retaliation for his political actions and beliefs. Ms. Delaney is an advocate with the Human Rights Coalition and corresponds regularly with prisoners who suffer similar fates to her son’s.ay and demanded that the representatives take the necessary steps to set up an outside organization that can monitor the Department of Corrections because from her experience “prisoners are not requesting special treatment but fair and humane treatment.”
Theresa Shoatz, the daughter of Russell Maroon Shoatz, was the second panelist to speak. Theresa told her story of growing up with a father being tortured in prison. Like Delaney, Shoatz is not solely an advocate for her father, but for all prisoners suffering a similar fate to his. Near the end of her testimony Shoatz pulled a five -allon bag of prescription pill bottles from her purse, telling the representatives that if they wanted to see the effects of her fight for her father they need to look no further than that bag, which was full of medications for stress-related illness. (A video interview with Theresa Shoatz can be viewed here.)
As representatives began to slowly leave the conference room the last two panelists spoke. Patricia Vickers, an advocate with the Human Rights Coalition, read testimony submitted by her son Kerry Marshall (Shakaboona), who has spent seventeen years in solitary confinement. The letter she read was a pointed and concise evaluation of the need for an outside organization to be formed in order to ensure oversight of the retaliatory and tortuous practices of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Vickers’ own testimony echoed this need for an un-biased monitorial group. The final panelist was Barbara Fair, the founder of My Brother’s Keeper. Pushed for time, the lawmakers asked that she be brief, so she gave a five-minute testimony in which she simply re-stated the message of the day: “Solitary confinement is meant to break the spirit and shatter the mind, and there is no use or need for it other than that.” Her remarks were followed by a burst of applause from attendees.
Representative Ronald Waters ended the hearing, reminding the audience once again how hard it will be to bring everything they had learned that day back to the rest of the lawmakers in Pennsylvania and gain any meaningful change. ”Its too easy to go along with the narrative of tough on crime, you see the stories that make the newspapers,” he said. Representatives who had stayed an hour and a half beyond the scheduled time greeted some of the panelists and filed out of the conference room, having received a clear message that the uphill battle to end solitary confinement in Pennsylvania is one worth fighting.