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Susan Crane, Prison Letters, May 10 & 12, 2011

On Solitary Confinement and Finding Humanity

by thelizabeth on flickrWhile at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) SeaTac, Sr. Anne and I were in cell 11 in one of the women’s units.  Cells 2 – 10 are filled with women wearing orange, held in solitary (Special Handling Unit as it is officially named).  These sisters eat all their meals alone in their cells.  They get out of their cell for a 15-minute shower three times a week (M, W & F).  They are offered no exercise or outside time.  They not allowed to communicate with other prisoners, and we were not allowed to motion or talk to them.  There is no yelling between cells.  They can’t participate in group prayer, or any group activity.  No one offers them Eucharist.

The best we could offer was a smile as we walked by the line that is ten feet out from their doors; Sr. Anne and I would walk around the SeaTac women’s unit (21 laps = 1 mile).

Some of the women in solitary are pre-trial, some have been sentenced.  They are probably here for some sort of write-up for an infraction of a prison rule: some have had a hearing with a BOP [Bureau of Prisons] officer and have been found guilty, and so continue to sit in the solitary cells.  The write-ups might be, for example, for fighting, making a three-way call, or the result of mental illness.

One woman who was eating meals with us had just been abruptly taken off anti-anxiety medication.  She was understandably having a hard time.  The “counselor” came over during lunch and was excoriating us for keeping items on the shelf and desk in our cells.  Our friend quietly walked up to the “counselor” and is reported to have said, “Why don’t you let the women eat in peace?” (or something to that effect).  She is now in orange, in solitary.

According to Bill Quigley, one of our lawyers at the Disarm Now Plowshares trial, and the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, medical testimony presented in the case of Syed Fahad Hashmi in New York “concluded that after 60 days in solitary people’s mental state begins to break down.  That means a person will start to experience panic, anxiety, confusion, headaches, heart palpitations, sleep problems, withdrawal, anger, depression, despair and over-sensitivity.  Over time this can lead to severe psychiatric trauma and harms like psychosis, distortion of reality, hallucinations, mass anxiety and acute confusion.  Essentially, the mind disintegrates” (Not Just Guantanamo: US Torturing Muslim Pre-Trial Detainee in NYC, Huffington Post, by Bill Quigley).

Of course the 9 solitary cells holding women at FDC SeaTac are a small part of the entire solitary population at SeaTac, or in the Federal prison system, or in the US.  The US has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners!  The US now has 25,000 prisoners in supermax prisons, and an addition 50-80 thousand in restrictive segregation units (Hell Hole: The US holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement.  Is this torture?  By Atul Gawande, in the New Yorker).  Although the argument for solitary confinement is that it prevents violence and rule breaking, studies have shown that there is no correlation between the use of solitary confinement and a decrease in prison violence.  In June 2006 the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons released its study and called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners.  The report concluded that “after 10 days, no benefits of solitary confinement were found, and the harms are clear.”

Sr. Anne was recently released from FDC SeaTac after serving her sentence.  I am now at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Dublin.  Things here are the way prisons are.

Yesterday there was a group of people who were given a tour of the prison.  I was on the rec. field walking on the track.  I try to see the facility through their eyes.  Women walking, running, talking, laughing; all dressed in khaki; no one rowdy; no one crying.  They see buildings, well cared for, floors clean and waxed, organized, no garbage or litter; sort of looks like a clean college campus.

But there is a lot that they don’t see.  They don’t see the pain of toothaches.  They don’t see the pain of mothers who can’t raise their children, or the pain of the children who want their moms.  They don’t see the pain that comes when a close relative or friend dies and you can’t celebrate their life or mourn with family.  They don’t see the pain of women who grew up in the US and face deportation to a country in which they have never lived.  They don’t see the day-by-day humiliations dealt out by some of the guards who are just doing their jobs.  They don’t hear the stories of an unjust legal system that grinds up so many women and spits them out into FCI Dublin.

I want to walk up and speak to these visitors, but I’m not ready to be rebuffed, yelled at, or see some sort of fear in their eyes if I come near them.

At FCI Dublin, walking on the track on the recreation field (3 laps = 1 mile), I pass the building holding the women in solitary.  Here, the windows have a metal shield around them, so we have no contact with them.  Is this acceptable punishment in the United States?  Does it serve any purpose?  Are there better solutions?

Talking to some of the women at FDC SeaTac, I heard that they thought short times (3 – 10 days) in the SHU gave them time to refocus, to think, to re-evaluate what they were doing.  My own experiences in isolation, first for 3 days and later for 30 days, were the beginning of a spiritual quest that I’ve been on for many years now.

I saw that many of the guards made a point of talking through the doors to the women in the SHU, using their unique humor, being human, showing compassion.  And I was thankful to see that!

But what about the structure, the actual rules that put women in solitary confinement?  Our willingness to allow this sort of punishment lets us imagine that it’s OK to hold prisoners and torture them at Bagram or Guantanamo.

Jesus once said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).  Is that not the measure of our humanity?  Is any other human being less than us?  How is it possible that the US has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners?

Does our disregard for the humanity of our brothers and sisters held in solitary make it easier to imagine killing millions in nuclear war?  Are not the warehoused, marginalized, throw-away people in prisons a symptom of devalued life, and a symptom of the kind of thinking that allows us to invade other countries, and spend trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons and consider their use?

Where in all this do we find our humanity?