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 siduri.beckman@yale.edu .

  • Zoe Wyse

    I agree with you. It is upsetting to me too. The idea that isolating people from any human contact for long periods of time is going to help them makes no sense on a practical level. The evidence of the profound harms of isolation is very compelling. And the stories of survivors should be heeded and listened to with the respect and compassion that the survivors of this practice deserve.

    If a person is such an active danger that they need to be in their own room, I feel that people should make an extra effort to speak to them as they are likely in more need of help and support than others. If someone is not an active danger, I would hope that correctional institutions could find other ways to try to maintain a safe and peaceful atmosphere.

    On a personal level, it gives me hope that you and other students are writing about this issue and thinking about it. There is a lot you can do with the education you are getting both now and in the future. Education means little for the world unless it is accompanied by a good heart and so it gives me a lot of hope when people with good hearts are also receiving education that will open so many doors that will enable them to serve people who really need support. I hope no matter where your future takes you, you will trust what a good heart you have and use your knowledge and skills for good. There is an enormous amount of good you can do for the world and it is sorely needed.

    People in prison sometimes (although certainly not always) lack education in skills like math and reading even though they may be equally capable of learning. Reaching out to people in prisons or on probation/parole etc, to provide tutoring for those who are interested is another great way to be involved. It is amazing how through strange twists of fate some people end up in chaotic, underfunded school systems with little support and a rapid turnover of teachers and others have solid educational backgrounds that prepare them to succeed.

    Letting people know that they have the ability to master academic subjects that they have had little opportunity to learn–quite possibly through no fault of their own–can be a wonderful experience both for those who wish to learn and for those who have an opportunity to share knowledge. Education can open the doors to jobs that people would not otherwise be able to get, and through this opportunity, to a stable and happy life.

    I very much agree that we should all work hard to change inhumane practices so that everyone can be treated with dignity and respect. Thank you for writing this wonderful article.

    • ShadrachSmith

      They put people in solitary because they are a danger or a target.

  • ShadrachSmith

    They aren’t guests, they are criminals, that’s why we put them in prison.

  • yaleyeah

    Too much time in isolation makes a person psychotic. They learned this way back in the Australian penal colony days. That said, there is a certain percentage of our population that are psychotic Hannibal Lector types and not fully human in their thinking. Putting them in prison protects us from them, but putting them in isolation protects the other prisoners inside the prison walls. You talk to people who work in these places, and they describe feral humans who are almost uncontrollable. There is another side to the story on this issue.