Last weekend, a group of formerly incarcerated people and their family members, social scientists, neuroscientists, medical researchers, reform-minded prison officials, litigators, activists, and UN officials gathered in Pittsburgh at an unprecedented conference on solitary confinement organized by CCR board president Jules Lobel. Titled International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Solitary Confinement, the conference explored three areas: the devastating harms that result from solitary confinement, alternatives to solitary that have emerged in the US and around the world, and the path towards ending this torturous practice. It was an extraordinary opportunity for people working on this issue from a multitude of vantage points to learn from one another and continue to build the movement against solitary confinement, equipped with powerful and cutting-edge research and evidence.
The first day of the gathering was devoted to the harms that solitary confinement inflicts on the mind, body, and soul. Neuroscientists like Huda Akil explained how prolonged isolation wreaks havoc on the brain, an organ that is wired for social connection. Medical researchers such as Brie Williams and Louise Hawkley presented research into how isolation causes physical symptoms such as hypertension, increased response to stress hormones, and vitamin D deficiency. Psychologist Craig Haney described the near-universal prevalence of severe stress and trauma experienced by those in prolonged solitary, a confluence of psychological effects that he harrowingly calls a form of “social death.” Survivors of prolonged solitary, such as Albert Woodfox and Robert King, both of whom were isolated for decades in crushing conditions at the notorious Angola prison, spoke movingly of their struggle to cope with the experience and their extraordinary resiliency, starkly describing what is at stake in this movement. The day was a powerful, emotional, and educational exploration of exactly why prolonged solitary is increasingly understood as a form of torture – a point made at the conference by both the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez and his predecessor Manfred Nowak.
The next day, the conference turned to alternatives to solitary. Are Hoidal, Governor of Norway’s maximum security Halden Prison, and Jamie Bennett, governor the high-security Grendon Prison in the United Kingdom, both described how their emphasis on rehabilitation, treatment, skills development, and reintegration – and their rejection of isolation – has not only left prison security uncompromised but has in fact significantly decreased violence in prisons and recidivism after release. And US prison officials described their efforts to reform the use of solitary in North Dakota, Washington, Mississippi, Ohio and in the federal system, agreeing that decreased use of solitary is not only more humane but makes prisons safer. I joined lawyers from the United States, Canada, and Brazil to describe how litigation can function as a tool to force change, drawing on CCR’s successful litigation challenging prolonged solitary confinement at the notorious Pelican Bay State prison and throughout California. The overall message on day two was that not only do safe alternatives to solitary confinement exist, they are in fact smarter and more effective.
We have seen a sea change in the discourse around solitary confinement over the past five years, as well as some extraordinary victories, such as ours in California. But there are still between 80,000 and 100,000 people in severe isolation in US jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers. Many of them have spent years and even decades in these crushing conditions. Last weekend’s conference left us all with a renewed understanding that the movement against solitary must foreground the experiences of those being subjected to this indefensible practice, and that we must become fluent in an inter-disciplinary and international language about solitary as this struggle moves forward. In our Pelican Bay litigation, CCR used experts from a wide variety of fields and perspectives, mirroring the breadth and depth of last weekend’s conference. These powerful tools form a devastating indictment of solitary confinement, and mobilizing them all will hasten an end to its rampant use in this country.