Last week, I drove to Hartford to observe a hearing of the Connecticut Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which focused on the issue of solitary confinement. At the meeting, a woman testified about her experience in “administrative segregation” during her 23-year sentence in Connecticut: “They’re not correctional officers. They don’t correct anything. They punish. That’s why I call them guards.”
Solitary confinement is a well-established practice in the United States. Although the intent of Quakers and Calvinists was to isolate convicts for spiritual reflection, the term quickly picked up a negative connotation. Today, correctional facilities maintain that practices like “administrative segregation” and “special housing units” are necessary for keeping order in prisons across America.
But all across the country, professors, activists, survivors and families are banding together to highlight the unusually extreme nature of this internal penalty — in other words, the cruel and unusual aspect of this punishment, as Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School, puts it. At last Tuesday’s hearing, Resnik emphasized the parallels between the inhumanity of solitary confinement and other historical practices which have been struck down as violations of the Eighth Amendment.
In preparation for the hearing, Yale undergraduates, law students and community members gathered the testimonies of survivors of solitary confinement. As one survivor spoke with me about his experiences, I was thrown off by how he described the small pockets of joy in the time he was incarcerated and the limited but powerful ways he sought out human contact. The mental and physical tribulations which he and so many other inmates across this country go through could not be recorded in a succinct two-page testimony, but it was a step in the right direction. It was incredibly difficult for this man to tell his story, but with the bits and pieces that came out, we crafted a narrative that he felt comfortable reading in front of a committee of state representatives and state senators — some of whom he knew would vote against him every time.
As I watched this brave individual testify, I was struck again by how much telling his story cost him. It made me upset. Here he was telling a devastating story that hadn’t been heard in a public setting — and only a handful of people were there to hear it. Survivors of solitary confinement rarely have access to a formal platform to speak about their experiences. Their stories, so important for understanding the inhumanity of this practice, often go unheard. Beyond the issue of access, there’s the even bigger obstacle of trauma. Resources for survivors to overcome anxiety and depression are minimal and underfunded; the rules around probation and halfway houses almost always set them up for failure. The majority of people in solitary confinement have few, if any, people advocating for them; their contact with the outside world is limited to correctional officers and lawyers.
As Americans, prisons and the conditions we sanction in them are a part of our reality, whether we choose to grapple with them or not. The American public often excuses itself from the conversation, framing the penal code as a longstanding social contract immune from change. But why should we rely on the bravery of survivors to alert us to the wrongdoings of a holdover system when they cannot rely on us to stand with them?
The time to act is now. Connecticut is more progressive than most states, but the hearing made it clear that this was a result of practice and not policy. Practice is easily revised, as we can see from the presidential election, and if steps are not taken to implement due process within the prison system, with independent oversight and reporting reforms, all the work local advocacy groups have been doing could be set back by decades. Who knows what the national political climate will look like next week, let alone by the time Connecticut’s next major election rolls around?
We are members of both New Haven and our home communities. The more we see ourselves as empowered at every level of government, the closer we come to the original constitutional ideal proposed and subsequently amended for all Americans. Conservative agendas have effectively mobilized local and state governments; now it is time for progressives to do the same. Ask your state senators about issues that don’t affect your district. Call your state senator and ask how the state budget is changing in prison investment vis-a-vis schools. Solitary confinement disproportionately affects people of color, often from urban districts. State senators and representatives must feel accountable to their whole state, no matter which district they come from. Yale students, as geographically diverse voters concentrated in one place, have a unique power to act when lawmakers target communities of color through practices like solitary confinement.
Siduri Beckman is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .