Opinion: Obama’s action exposes the torture of solitary confinement

Imagine spending years trapped inside a six-by-nine-foot cage of solid gray steel walls.

Placed in solitary for being a jailhouse lawyer, you have run out of anything to read. For months, your headphones, which are your only link to the outside world, have been broken. Your most basic human needs are ignored by a rotating prison staff trained to not make eye contact with you nor the hundreds of others trapped alongside you. You are a daily witness to beatings and brutality.

Then, imagine being packed up, shipped across the state on a bus, and dropped off in New York City’s Times Square, where millions of commuters and tourists from around the world bombard your once personal space. Still wearing your prison uniform, you must find a way to sail across the sea of human bodies all fighting to pass each other, to make it to a shelter while there is still an open bed. Your mind is focused on surviving this moment: where will you find a shower, a bed, your next meal?

This is the reality of solitary and re-entry for thousands of people each day in the United States.

Last week, many headlines about President Obama’s call to rethink solitary confinement fell short of capturing the full significance of his actions, the barbarity of the torture of isolation, and the level of public accountability needed to abolish the practice.

So as an expert on solitary from firsthand experience, and as a reverend on the front lines, we offer our reactions — and a reality check on the necessity of stopping solitary and making “Black Lives Matter” a policy reality in the United States.

Solitary has become a central characteristic of the “tough on crime” era of mass incarceration. On any given day, an estimated 100,000 people, disproportionately adults and youth of color, are caged in isolation in U.S. prisons. Add to that number those in jail and juvenile and immigrant detention, and the number grows.

In conditions that violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture, they face an isolation that fundamentally alters the human brain and often leads to suicide. Placement in solitary is arbitrary, neglects due process, and has been left up to prison and jail staff, most often used in response to non-violent infractions.

For years, corrections and government officials have shrouded their widespread use of solitary through evasive wordplay while denying the media and human rights experts access to U.S. prisons. For the past few years, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has sought to enter U.S. prisons, including maximum-security facilities in which prolonged solitary confinement is the norm. Yet the U.S. State Department continues to deny Mr. Mendez full access to these facilities and the people confined within them.

Breaking the silence from corrections officials, last fall the Association of State Correctional Administrators released a statement calling prolonged isolation a “grave problem in the United States.” Building on this acknowledgment, the release of the Department of Justice report and recommendations and President Obama’s adoption of its solitary-confinement recommendations last week send a groundbreaking message: The days of keeping solitary in the shadows are over.

The new federal Bureau of Prisons policies adopted by the Obama administration protect those most vulnerable to the effects of solitary. These policies include a federal ban on placing youth in solitary confinement — a largely symbolic move given most children in solitary are in state systems — as well as alternatives for those with serious mental illness and diversion programs to keep incarcerated LGBTI people and pregnant women out of isolation.

Other new policies, largely missed by last week’s headlines, point to more fundamental shifts: a ban on solitary for low-level offenses; a requirement that the Bureau of Prisons post data monthly about the numbers of people in solitary; and significant cuts in the maximum length of time in solitary for more serious offenses. The Department of Justice now calls for a 15-day-isolation maximum for a second ‘moderate’ offense,’ which previously carried a punishment of 180 days in solitary.

Such shifts in policy and public discourse should send a clear message to state and federal lawmakers: now is the time to end the torture of prolonged isolation in every jurisdiction, without exception. Now is the time to commit to transparency and public accountability. Now is the time to embrace the United Nations’ recently adopted Mandela Rules, which call for a 15-day maximum for placement in solitary, and a ban on its use for the most vulnerable. Now is the time to leave this barbaric practice to the history books.

The United States must rethink responses to poverty, addiction and mental illness, and the failure of prisons and punishment as a response. It must reinvest in therapeutic interventions, and an end to youth of color being policed into the school-to-prison pipeline, so that the story of Kalief Browder does not happen again. We must honestly assess the human toll of torture for the thousands returning from prison to our communities each year, and we must act with urgency.

For those just released from solitary to the streets today — facing the struggle to find shelter, a shower, the next meal — President Obama’s words last week will mean very little. Yet the president’s actions last week make clear: There is no turning back. The time to stop the torture of solitary confinement is now.