Five Mualimm-ak knows first hand the damage that solitary confinement can do to someone’s psyche. He spent over a decade in prison, five of those years in solitary.
“You’re in this cell, just losing your mind,” he says.
Now an activist, Mualimm-ak has made it his mission to bring awareness to the effects that punitive isolation can have on the human brain. He decided to show the public what it’s like to be in solitary by building a replica of a cell in front of New York City’s federal courthouse.
Until recently, there were virtually no limits in New York on the use of solitary confinement on prisoners. But revulsion at its psychological and criminal effects has led officials in many states to seek boundaries on its use, particularly on impressionable minors, as detailed in Fusion’s investigative documentary, Prison Kids.
“In solitary, I’ve seen kids deteriorate,” says Mualimm-ak. “They’re going through sensory deprivation, emotional distress, mood disorders. We know these facts but still persistently cage, and we’re addicted to confining our citizens.”
Currently, New York state holds up to 4,000 people in solitary confinement. Recent reforms limited the use of the punishment, but only for select groups, like pregnant women, people with developmental disabilities, and children.
The Human Alternative to Solitary Confinement, or HALT Act, introduced in the state Assembly last year, would limit the use of solitary confinement on a prisoner in New York to no more than 15 days at one time. The act would also seek humane alternatives for inmates. The bill is still pending in the Legislature.
“We want to end it. We don’t want to tweak it, we don’t want to reform it, we want to end it.” says Mualimm-ak. “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”