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 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.
|Protestors demonstrate size of solitary cell.|
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.”
|LuQman, Hakeem, Shujaa, Robert|
|Shandre, Teresa, Patricia and Barbara.|
|LuQman, Hakeem, Ron Waters, Barbara, Robert, Pam Africa,||Theresa, Shujaa|
|Artwork by Todd Tarselli|
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