By Kenney Stancil, CommonDreams.org
A criminal justice coalition recently provided a roadmap detailing specific steps the United States government can take “to end the torture of solitary confinement in federal custody.”
Described by the Federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce (FAST) as the “first-ever” document of its kind, “A Blueprint for Ending Solitary Confinement by the Federal Government” outlines how the White House and Congress can use executive, administrative, and legislative action to fulfill President Joe Biden’s “promise to stop this tortuous practice,” as the American Civil Liberties Union, a member of FAST, put it.
“There are a growing number of states that have taken a stand against the torture of solitary confinement,” said Johnny Perez, a survivor of solitary confinement and director of the U.S. Prisons Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, another member of FAST.
In 2021, 70 pieces of legislation have been filed in 32 states “to end some aspect of solitary confinement in state prisons and jails,” according to FAST.
“It is time for the federal government to lead by ending the practice once and for all and incentivizing states to do so,” said Mr. Perez. “We are hopeful the Biden-Harris administration will follow through with their campaign promise to end solitary by any name and in all forms.”
In addition to the release of the FAST blueprint for ending solitary confinement, more than 130 civil rights, public health, and social justice groups signed a letter to the White House’s Office of Public Engagement made public June 7 urging Biden to “end the pain, torture, and trauma of tens of thousands of people languishing in harsh and harmful conditions.”
According to FAST:
Currently, over 10,000 people on any given day are in some form of solitary confinement in federal Bureau of Prison facilities, representing eight percent of the total federal prison population. This is a substantially higher percentage than the national average in state prison systems, and even higher than in the federal BOP a decade ago, before reductions were made under the Obama administration.
The coalition added that solitary confinement “causes immense suffering and devastating mental, physical, and emotional harm.”
Furthermore, “in federal custody, as in state and local jurisdictions across the country, solitary and other forms of restrictive housing and practices are disproportionately inflicted on Black people, Latinx people, Native people, and other people of color, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming people, people with mental health needs, and young people.”
FAST pointed out that “solitary has directly caused the deaths of far too many people, and it has increased violence and harm in prisons, detention facilities, and outside communities.” As the coalition noted, “Evidence shows that in fact the opposite of solitary confinement—providing people full days out-of-cell with pro-social engagement and programming—actually increases safety.”
To make the abolition of solitary confinement in federal custody—including in BOP facilities and U.S. Marshals Service Facilities as well as immigration detention facilities—a reality, the FAST blueprint calls for the U.S. government to:
End all forms of solitary confinement in federal custody, other than brief lock-ins measured at most in hours to de-escalate emergency situations, or true medical quarantine in units overseen by medical staff;
Ensure that all separation/alternatives to solitary, regardless of what they are called, involve access to full days out-of-cell (at least 14 hours per day) and meaningful programming and activities (at least 7 hours per day) without restraints and with at least several other people in group spaces conducive to meaningful human engagement;
Enhance due process protections, using neutral decision-makers and representation at hearings; and
Create oversight and enforcement mechanisms, including ensuring people wrongfully placed in solitary have legal recourse, as well as mandating data collection, independent oversight by an Ombudsperson, media, and community stakeholders, and incentives for states and localities to end solitary and create safer and more effective interventions.
Tammie Gregg, director of the ACLU’s Stop Solitary Campaign, emphasized that “medical and mental health experts, impacted people, and advocates agree that solitary confinement—like that which ultimately resulted in the deaths of Layleen Polanco and Kalief Browder—is torture.”
“The debilitating, dehumanizing, and even deadly effects on incarcerated people are an ongoing stain on the American legal system,” Gregg continued. “We strongly believe that the reforms outlined in this blueprint will go a long way towards eradicating much of the senseless and counterproductive harm that has been caused.”
“By taking bold action in the federal carceral and immigration systems, the [Biden] administration can demonstrate that we can keep staff and incarcerated people safe without isolation,” she added. “We look forward to the day when solitary confinement is a distant memory.”