Missouri regulates the use of seclusion rooms and restraints … finally!

A “blue room” seclusion room in Missouri

American education remains haunted by inhumane treatment of children, especially those living with disabilities. Yesterday, Saturday, August 28, a new law went into effect in Missouri regulating and, in some instances, curtailing the use of seclusion rooms and physical restraints in all public, private and charter schools in the state. This is a welcome move, won by long hard struggle of children, parents, allies, advocates. Why is it so difficult to abandon practices that are clearly harmful and inhumane?

In May 2009, the Missouri state legislature passed a law giving school districts two years in which to devise written policies governing the use of seclusion rooms. Before that, there were no policies, only the practice of solitary confinement of school children without a single written guideline or rule. Nothing came of that. Nothing happened as a result of this non-compliance.

Eleven years later, in January 2020, 11-year-old Ryphath Knopp stood before a committee of the Missouri state legislature and described being put into solitary confinement in the Columbia, Missouri, school system. Knopp told the legislators he lives with autism, anxiety, and depression. He described beings placed in a small padded room “almost all day, every day” until his parents took him out of school and homeschooled him. Knopp called seclusion rooms “an adapted version of solitary confinement, which was a form of torture, may I remind you.”

Mothers of other children in the Columbia school district recounted similar experiences. Shawan Daniels described the room her fourth-grade child was locked into: “These rooms didn’t have vents in them, water, or anything.” Another mother said the isolation had caused her son emotional trauma, asthma attacks, and head injuries. Both used the same phrase to describe Columbia schools’ treatment of their children: being “thrown into a box.” At that point, Missouri had no rules and no oversight over the use of restraint or seclusion in its schools.

In March 2020, Missouri legislators passed House Bill (HB 1568) that would establish a ban on seclusion and restraint rooms “except in cases where there is imminent danger to the student or others”. Who decides the exception? No guidelines were provided, and besides, it didn’t really matter. Apart from completely discretionary guidelines, Missouri still had neither rules nor oversight concerning the use of restraint or seclusion in schools.

All that changed, for the better, yesterday. In its latest session, the Missouri legislature passed House Bill 432, which regulates and codifies the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. Missouri now has actual guidelines for the use, and not, of restraint and seclusion rooms. The guidelines include rules on documentation of any use of seclusion or restraint, annual uniform training of faculty and staff concerning the use of seclusion or restraint, and new protection for whistleblowers.

Ryphath Knopp attended school in Columbus, Missouri. Frankie Bono attended school in St. Charles, Missouri. According to his mother, “My son was locked in a closet. He didn’t have the skills and ability to appropriately communicate what was really happening at school. We were driving in the car recently and a song came on the radio, and he just started sobbing. That was a song that had been playing in the room, one of the times they had tackled him, held his face against the cold floor, grabbed him by the hair and dragged him into the seclusion room.” Frankie called it “the blue room”.

According to the most recent federal data, in school year 2017 – 2018, 50.9 million students were enrolled in public schools. 101,990 were subjected to physical or mechanical constraint or seclusion. 27,538 were subjected to seclusion. In that school year, 13% of the students enrolled were classified as living with disabilities. Of those subjected to physical restraint, 80% were living with disabilities. Of those subjected to mechanical constraint, 41% were living with disabilities. Of those subjected to seclusion, 77% were students living with disabilities.

This is a war against children, and exactly what crime have these children committed? Why do we routinely send children into solitary confinement? What are we teaching children, all the children in all the schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it “seclusion” and “restraint”? How many more children must suffer the “blue rooms” of torture? Perhaps Missouri will shed a light on that cold floor.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune / ProPublica)

In Cornton Vale, Scotland’s one women’s prison, women with complex mental health needs are routinely thrown into solitary for days on end

Today, Scotland’s Mental Welfare Commission released the findings of their investigation into the treatment of women with complex mental health needs who have the great misfortune of ending up in Scotland’s one all-women’s prison. The Commission reports that women with mental health needs were sent into solitary confinement, euphemistically called Separation and Reintegration Units, for anywhere from a day to 82 days. The cells are described as “sparse and lacking in comfort. The narratives in women’s notes suggested there was little in the way of positive sensory stimulation in the environment of the SRU. There was limited human contact and if other women in the SRU were distressed or unwell, their vocalisations were likely to be audible, disturbing and distressing. When women’s self-care deteriorated, they may also have experienced physical and sensory discomfort in this context.”

The report goes on to note, “Part of the ethos, and indeed the name of SRUs, is that offenders are reintegrated into the mainstream environment after a period of time. Reintegration did not appear to feature in the majority of cases we reviewed …. For women who were floridly unwell with acute psychosis or manic psychosis, the severity of their symptoms and level of disturbance significantly worsened in the SRU.”

None of this is surprising or new. That solitary confinement, for anyone, is torture is not new. That solitary confinement as a response to women’s health needs is torture is not new. That solitary confinement as a response to women in need is, nevertheless, altogether ordinary also is not new. That solitary confinement worsens everything is also not new. That Cornton Vale is a toxic hot mess, with high levels of suicide and self-harm is also not new. Due to its high rates of suicide and self-harm, Cornton Vale has been called the “vale of death”. None of this is new or surprising.

In 2018, the European Commission on the Prevention of Torture visited Cornton Vale: “The CPT raises serious concerns about the treatment of women prisoners held in segregation at Cornton Vale Prison …. The CPT found women who clearly were in need of urgent care and treatment in a psychiatric facility, and should not have been in a prison environment, let alone segregated for extended periods in solitary confinement under Rules 95 and 41 (accommodation in specified conditions for health or welfare reasons). Prison staff were not trained to manage the highly disturbed women.” When they returned, in 2019, they found that the situation was somewhat improved, in some senses, but that the use of segregation, and in particular long-term isolation, persisted. None of this is new or surprising.

What is new is that this is not new. On July 10, 2017, Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, wrote, “Tomorrow sees a major milestone in the transformation of our justice system. We will begin the demolition of Cornton Vale women’s prison, a move that marks the next stage in our plans to ensure Scotland’s penal policy doesn’t just punish people who’ve committed crimes – important though that is – but helps deliver safer communities in the long term.” What happened? Why, four years later, is Cornton Vale still standing? What happened to the alternatives — an 80-bed prison, five regional 20-bed facilities, community sentencing and service, and much greater funding for mental health, drug abuse, counseling? What is the investment in Cornton Vale’s catastrophic failure, such that, four years later, the vale of death, the vale of women’s slow and painful death and deaths? Haven’t there been enough inquiries and enough `discoveries’, enough corpses and enough ruined lives?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

American school seclusion rooms continue to form a landscape of atrocity

Just another seclusion room somewhere in the United States

On Wednesday, June 2, Senators Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, and Patty Murray, of Washington State, will introduce, or more precisely re-introduce, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, “To prohibit and prevent seclusion, mechanical restraint, chemical restraint, and dangerous restraints that restrict breathing, and to prevent and reduce the use of physical restraint in schools, and for other purposes.” In 2009, the Government Accounting Office released a major study documenting the severe harm rendered by seclusion rooms in schools, especially for students living with disabilities. In the same year, National Disability Rights Network released a major studySchool is not supposed to hurt: Investigative Report on Abusive Restraint and Seclusion in Schools. Since 2009, versions of the Keeping All Students Safe Act have been introduced, all to no avail.  And so here we are: “There are no federal laws governing how seclusion and restraints can be used in schools, and there are no sweeping federal laws with specific guidelines for police use of force on children in general.” Loaded with evidence and good intention … and completely stalled in place for twelve years and counting. What is the U.S. investment in torturing and damaging children, and in particular children living with disability? Why is the United States so committed to an endless war on children living with disabilities?

Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Education released data that showed that students living with disabilities constituted 12% of all students enrolled. 12 percent. That very small sector of students living with disabilities constituted 71% of all students restrained and 66% of all students “secluded.” This year, the most update study shows that students living with disabilities make up 13% of all students enrolled and constitute 80% of those physically restrained, 41% of those `mechanically’ restrained, and 77% of students subjected to seclusion: “Physical restraint is a personal restriction that immobilizes or reduces the ability of a student to move his or her torso, arms, legs, or head freely. Mechanical restraint is the use of any device or equipment to restrict a student’s freedom of movement. Seclusion is the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving.” These are the numbers and key words of education for children in the United States. 

While restraint and seclusion directly assault children living with disabilities, it impairs all those children who are forced to stand as helpless, and themselves restrained, witnesses. Why is there no federal law, why is there no national will to end this torture of the innocents? Why is this left to the discretion of individual states, counties and cities? Three years ago, almost to the day, we asked, “What crime have these children committed? What is their terrible sin? Why do we continue to send these children into solitary confinement? Why do we continue to torture those who are most vulnerable? When will we stop this practice? What do you think we’re teaching children, all the children in all the schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it `seclusion’ and `restraint’?” Why has there been no answer? American school seclusion rooms continue to form a landscape of atrocity. Where is the outrage? Where is the action?

An eleven-year-old describes how it feels to be in class (left) and how it feels to be in seclusion (right)

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo, Image Credit: ProPublica)

What happened to Lisa Adams? Just another 16-day torture ordeal in Canada’s Nova Institution for Women

Lisa Adams

Canada routinely tortures women in prison by throwing them into so-called “dry cells”. Today, Lisa Adams, 33 years old and about to end a two-year sentence in the hellhole that is Nova Institution for Women, and advocates from the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, are challenging that practice in court. Some will ask, “What happened to Lisa Adams?” The real question is, “What happened to Canada?”

Lisa Adams lives with an addiction to methamphetamines and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. In March, Lisa Adams was released on day parole. In May, she was picked up on for methamphetamine usage and was taken back to Nova Institution for Women, where she was strip searched and passed through a body scanner. Authorities found nothing in Lisa Adams’ body. A few days later, authorities reconsidered the scan and felt they could perhaps see something, small and round, somewhere in her vagina. Authorities then did a scan of Lisa Adams’ cell and found traces of methamphetamine. They then gave Lisa Adams a urine test, which came back positive. Lisa Adams protested her innocence, explaining that the meth was from her earlier pre-arrest usage and that she did not have any methamphetamine with her. Authorities did not believe her.

At that point, Lisa Adams was dumped into a dry cell, where she stayed for 16 days, from May 6 to May 22. A dry cell is a cell without running water or toilets. The thinking is that by placing someone in a dry cell, authorities can sift through their waste – feces, urine, vomit – and locate the concealed drugs. The prisoner is kept in segregation in that cell, without any water, under 24-hour-a-day surveillance. Lisa Adams stayed in a dry cell for 16 days. She started to tremble, became incoherent, threatened self- harm and suicide. Remember Nova Institution, the hellhole prison where, in 2015, Camille Strickland-Murphy and Veronica Park were effectively executed by the state? That’s where Lisa Adams spent 16 days of hell, and for what?

Lisa Adams only got out of the dry cell when she finally persuaded the authorities to let an actual doctor examine her. The doctor found nothing in her vagina or anywhere else. What the doctor did find was a severely injured woman, who had been battered and abused by the state.

Lisa Adams and her allies went to court today to argue that dry celling is a form of torture. Last year, Canada effectively outlawed solitary confinement, after the court declared keeping anyone in solitary for more than 15 days was cruel, unusual, and torture. Somehow, dry celling does not count as solitary confinement. The segregation is total and absolute, the conditions are nothing short of evil. In fact, the actual material facility of the dry cell is worse than that of solitary confinement. Lisa Adams spent 16 days in dry cell and, again, was only released when she begged for a doctor to perform a real examination.

Lisa Adams explains, “”For me, on a base level, I’d like to have the idea of dry celling removed from female institutions. Because I’m not naive to the fact that drugs are an issue, and there has to be a means to prevent that, I’m hoping that potentially there could be an overhaul throughout all of CSC to find a new way to prevent this from happening. A way that’s less invasive, that’s more trauma-informed and that takes into account the value of the individual as well as the security of the institution … I want the public to see that we are individuals. What happens to us in here is important. People wouldn’t want it to happen to their mother, daughter, sister, wife. They need to keep an eye on that.”  

I want the public to see that we are all humans, that what happens in prisons and jails and immigrant detention centers and juvenile detention centers, that what happens “in here”, not only in `correctional institutions’ but in here in our hearts, matters. What happened to Lisa Adams? She was tortured, traumatized.. What happened to Canada, and by extension to all of us? 

(Photo Credit: CBC/ Elizabeth Fry Society)

Seclusion rooms, prisons, jails: The empire strikes back

In schools across the United States, seclusion rooms exist as a “last resort” practice for educators to restrain and lock “misbehaving” children in isolated rooms. This practice criminalizes behavior at an early age and normalizes the use of solitary confinement. Data on the use of seclusion rooms is often underreported or nonexistent, making them hard to regulate. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, there were over 930 reported instances of seclusion reported in Hanover County in 2019. The school district failed to include protocols for these seclusion rooms as well as a crisis management plan on how to meet the needs of children in their yearly handbook. A lack of accountability accompanies these failures. How often does absence of data excuse action? 

With seclusion rooms currently under the spotlight, there have been efforts across the United States to control their use through legislation. On March 4th, Missouri legislature made strides in a House Bill (HB 1568) that would establish a ban on seclusion and restraint rooms “except in cases where there is imminent danger to the student or others”. Who decides the exception?

Recently, it was reported that high schools in Leeds, England place students in isolation rooms for doing as little as forgetting books or wearing earrings. How does punishment for actions as minor as this in the education system set a precedent for how individuals are treated by the state as adults? 

While legislation to address the use of seclusion rooms is a step in the right direction in terms of initiating conversations and setting precedent, it does not ensure they won’t continue to be used and abused. This exception is seen in cases facing the courts in the United States right now that impact women, such as the recent prosecution of Harvey Weinstein. His sentencing may have shed light on the issues of sexual harassment and misconduct, but it isn’t a cure-all for the deep rooted problem of why it exists and persists. Loopholes and justifications of abuse will continue, especially against women and people of color. How can we make sense of that and move forward knowing that most women behind bars have been victims of physical and sexual violence or other trauma? 

How much persistence does it take to dismantle structures and systems? 

The Atlanta City Detention Center, a Georgia jail for minor violations such as walking in the roadways or shoplifting, was shut down in May 2019 following years of organizing efforts by Women on the Rise. Led by women impacted by the criminal justice system, Women on the Rise spent years organizing to prevent and repeal legislation that funneled many into the jail. Built in 1996, the jail was intended to hide undesirable residents including the homeless during the Olympics, a testament to how individuals in the city were/are grouped and deemed disposable. 

Across the country, 75% of people housed in jails aren’t convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. If women are the fastest growing populations behind bars, and women of color make up approximately two-thirds of that population, what impact does that have?

The prison system doesn’t function like a recycling center, but a garbage dump. Actions and behaviors of individuals are not assessed for mitigation but deemed unworthy of salvaging. Even short jail time puts individuals, particularly women of color, at risk of losing the security of their jobs and their homes both in the present and the future. It’s a branding that lingers through the presence of the checkbox on job applications and federal documents that accompanies the question: “Do you have a criminal record?”

Why is it okay to uproot someone from their community without justifiable means, assuming their life is expendable? So many individuals with low income jobs worked their way to be where they are. They can’t afford to spend time in jail, and they can’t afford to miss work. 

Now in a sudden global health crisis with the novel coronavirus outbreak, it is predicted that the lack of paid sick leave in the United States will make the epidemic even worse. What happens to single moms with multiple jobs and lower incomes that can’t work remotely or afford to take off work? These systemic issues are manifesting into health concerns, but it isn’t anything new. Roughly 25 percent of workers in the United States do not have paid sick leave. On top of that, no federal legislation has ever been passed for paid family leave. What impact does that have on women? Job security in the hands of the employer leaves workers with little or no choice.

It’s almost as if these issues are being brought to light not out of concern for those impacted by them, but out of concern for the well-being of the rest of the population. They are a threat. It’s as if the argument is being raised that in a wealthy democracy, there should be a mandate for paid leave…but not because it’s the right thing to do, but for the public safety of everyone else. It’s a protection of the empire. 

(Photo Credit: Workers World / Women on the Rise) (Image Credit: Communities Over Cages: Close the Jail Atlanta)

England’s school seclusion rooms still form a landscape of atrocity and shame

A primary school seclusion room

England learned this week that, across England, schools are converting toilet stalls into “isolation booths”. Other English schools use portable isolation booths. That means a cardboard box is brought to the classroom and placed over the child. Educators like to point out that there are isolation rooms and there are confined booths, and they’re not the same. Isolation rooms are solitary confinement. Confined booths are stalls where children face the wall in perfect silence, often for hours on end, often for days and even weeks at a time. These are the distinctions that are meant to prove the humanity and educative function of time spent in school. At least your six- or eight- or ten-year-old child is not spending hours in a cardboard box. A salient problem in this narrative is that England learned this lesson last year, and the year before, and the year before thatMeanwhile, sales of isolation booths to schools are booming.  

Last week, another report alerted the nation to the widespread use of seclusion rooms. The Centre for Mental Health published Trauma, challenging behaviour and restrictive interventions in schools. Though disturbing the findings are not surprising, are in fact altogether familiar: “Exposure to trauma is relatively common among young people … Challenging behaviour and trauma are associated. Young people who show challenging behaviour are more likely than average to have been exposed to trauma … Thousands of young people are subject to some form of restrictive intervention in schools in England every year for challenging behaviour. There is reason to believe that these interventions have a negative impact on mental health, irrespective of previous trauma exposure. Young people who have experienced trauma in the past are especially at risk of experiencing psychological harm from restrictive interventions. For example, exclusion and seclusion can echo relational trauma and systemic trauma …As a result, these interventions may cause harm and potentially drive even more challenging behaviour.”

Solitary confinement harms children. Solitary confinement is infinitely and measurably worse for vulnerable children. Solitary confinement creates a cycle that begins in trauma and then cycles, repeatedly, through trauma, each time more deeply felt and each time more damaging. Isolation booth sales are booming.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, says she has heard “horror stories” of children in isolation for days, weeks, months on end. What qualifies as “challenging” behavior. One school website boasts, “Students with inappropriate hairstyles will be placed in isolation.” In another instance, a child was placed in isolation because she forgot to bring her planner. Her father was told either bring the planner or bring £5: “The school said bring in £5 for a new planner and she can come out. It’s ridiculous, having to pay a ransom to get your daughter out of ‘prison’ just because she forgot her planner for the first time ever.”

These isolation rooms and booths and boxes are not some underground, hidden, clandestine practice. They’re widespread, on websites, in official policy. They are and they have been, and they form today as they have formed a landscape of atrocity and shame. While research reports are important, the last five years of reports demonstrates that that is not enough. How many more times must we “discover” that throwing children into seclusion rooms, no matter what they’re called, is wrong? Why do we need to discuss whether the rooms “work” or are too “costly”? What about the cost to children’s lives? What about the cost, as well, to the very concept of education? What does a child learn when exclusion is called inclusion, terror is called calm, and a war on children is called education? But there is a flickering light. Later this month, advocates are holding a Lose the Booth conference. Another school is possible.

(Photo Credit: BBC) (Image Credit: Centre for Mental Health)

Being a trans woman in a men’s prison means solitary confinement

At least 61,000 people on any given day are in solitary confinement in the United States. Every day, they spend 22-23 hours in a cell the size of an elevator. Most prisoners in solitary confinement spend months in solitary, with some spending years. This torturous practice leaves long-lasting damage and increases the likelihood of re-offending. The practice also disproportionately affects Latinx and African American populations.  

There are few studies about this, as prisoners are constantly left out of research; they are a population that remains invisible to the eyes of the public. There are serious problems with lack of data transparency and the fact that many prisons are closed off to observers. Many researchers are denied access to data and prisons, which allows for the extent of the use of solitary confinement and its impact on prisoners to remain understudied. 

The few studies that have been conducted show that solitary confinement doesn’t make prisoners more dangerous to other prisoners or guards, but it is more likely to make them a danger to themselves. A study conducted by the American Public Health Association reports that suicide is a major concern. The population studied includes 4,699 incarcerations between January 1, 2010, through January 31, 2013. The study found evidence of self-harm associated with solitary confinement even when put in confinement only once. 

Trans women in men’s prisons are continuously abused and face humiliation. Being sent to an all-male-detention center as a female often means automatic solitary confinement. They are dumped, alone, into tiny cells because they can’t be sent to women’s prisons. Prison systems are unsuitable for women and for trans women and men. 

Sonya Calico, a Latinx trans woman, was put in solitary confinement “for her protection.” She spent 9 months, 23 hours a day, in solitary. She began questioning her life, doubting herself, doubting everything, doubting her identity, doubting her sanity, doubting whether she would survive. Why was Sonya Calico in solitary? For the crime of being a trans woman.

A trans person should be able to enter the prison that most accurately represents their gender identity. While trans identity is increasingly recognized as a human right, in prisons it is still a managing tool. When prisoners are intentionally degraded and stripped of their humanity, the prison is only a site of punishment without any pretense of rehabilitation. 

By punishing trans women for being trans women, prisons further enforce discrimination and persecution. By keeping prison seclusion practices hidden, activists and scholars find it more than difficult to design evidence-based policies. Advocacy groups who want to address the enormity of this abuse find little to no evidence and data. The issue demands attention. Since it goes understudied, the public doesn’t know what’s going on in prisons, and especially in segregation units. Using a petition, reaching out to local politicians or even just using social medias to bring attention to the abuse is a step we can take, as an initial response. Data matters. Transparency matters. Trans women matter. 

(Image Credit: Buzzfeed)

Restraint and seclusion in Maine schools is an atrocity

Yesterday, May 13, 2019, Disability Rights Maine, DRM, released a report on the use of restraints and seclusion rooms in schools in Maine, an update on its 2017 report. Conditions in Maine have worsened: “DRM found: 1) the use of restraint and seclusion has increased every year since 2014 – from 12,000 to more than 20,000 in 2018; 2) data remains incomplete because multiple covered entities fail to report every year; and 3) students with disabilities continue to be disproportionately subjected to restraint and seclusion, as a majority of the restraints and seclusions in Maine take place in special purpose private schools for children with disabilities.” The report concludes, “Restraint and seclusion are dangerous and ineffective practices. They are supposed to be reserved for emergency situations, but as the data shows, they are being used at alarming rates and it continues to rise every year. Just last school year, there were an estimated 20,000 restraints and seclusions in Maine schools and likely more. This translates to a restraint or seclusion every 5 minutes that school is in session. Something has to change … Maine students are restrained and secluded at rates over four to eleven times the national average, and students with disabilities are subjected to these practices at significantly disproportionate rates.” Every 5 minutes, a child in Maine is tortured and they call it education.

In 2017, New Zealand banned seclusion rooms, calling them unreasonable and oppressive. Last year, Alberta, Canada, was forced acknowledge and begin to address its use of seclusion and restraint as a form of torture of children living with disabilities. Last year, England was forced to begin to acknowledge its use of seclusion and restraint of schoolchildren as a form of torture. In the United States, Georgia has `struggled’ with its seclusion rooms for the last decade. In 2004, Jonathan King, 13, hanged himself in a Georgia seclusion room, an 8-foot-by-8-foot cell called a “timeout room.” In 2009, the National Disability Rights Network published School is not supposed to hurt: Investigative Report on Abusive Restraint and Seclusion in Schools. It’s 2019, and schools across the United States today hurt more children more intensely.

Why have we declared war on children living with disabilities? Why have we chosen to do something worse than criminalizing children living with disabilities? In the name of education, we have chosen to torture children until they seek their own death. What terrible sinhave these children committed? Why do we continue to send children into solitary confinement? Why do we continue to torture those who are most vulnerable? When will we stop this practice? What are we teaching children, all children in all schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it “seclusion” and “restraint”? Why does it take so much time and energy to stop torturing children? Solitary confinement in prisons is torture. Seclusion rooms in schools is torture. This is us: children dying in seclusion rooms across the country

Now it’s Maine’s turn to suffer the children. Maine legislators will sit through heartrending testimony of parents of children who have been `secluded’: “She was a different kid when she came back. It was months before she genuinely smiled or laughed again. And this happened in Maine, to my daughter, to my girl. And it’s not OK.” It’s not OK. It never was.

(Infographic Credit: Kennebec Journal)

Ending solitary confinement, the problem that doesn’t “exist” in New Jersey

Nafeesah Goldsmith

Nafeesah Goldsmith is a community organizer with the nonprofit organization Jersey City Together. She graduated Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree and is working towards a Master’s in Criminal Justice at Monmouth University. She has been working to curtail the practice of solitary confinement in New Jersey, as she has had first hand experience of its abuse. For nearly 13 years, Nafeesah Goldsmith was incarcerated for at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and was forced to spend nearly 60 days in solitary confinement—in the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, a male inmate facility since Edna Mahan did not have its own isolation ward (now, it does).

There Goldsmith spent two months of isolation, “with the exception of 45 minutes of recreation time, most days, in the prison yard. She said she sometimes went without showering, depending on the mood of the guards. To pass the time she spoke with isolated prisoners through the vents and the toilet, sometimes playing a makeshift version of hangman.” 

For inmates in segregation, the most traumatizing aspect is the dehumanizing treatment they face while in solitary confinement. Goldsmith is still reminded of the anguished cries from the other solitary cells: “You hear nothing but screams and it’s loud and there’s banging. You have people having mental episodes and people having medical emergencies. You have people with seizures and you have people attempting suicide.” That is only some of the horror that people suffer in solitary, or as New Jersey calls it, administrative segregation.

Seizing on the nomenclature of the term for solitary confinement, in 2016 former Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill to restrict the practice to 15 or 20 consecutive days over a two-month period. The bill would have also sought to exempt mentally ill or pregnant inmates and require daily medical evaluations for those in isolation. His excuse? The piece of legislation, “seeks to resolve a problem that does not exist in New Jersey.”

But the problem very much does exist in the Garden State. Of the roughly 80,000 inmates in the United States currently in isolation, New Jersey holds 1,500. New Jersey ranks fourth in the country in the amount of time it places people in isolation. As far back as 2011 the United Nations claimed such punishment amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Today, however, there is a turn of opinion in the Garden State, and another bill is back on the table. A-314/S-3261 would have similar exemptions as the bill Christie vetoed, and expand it to include people over 21 and young and 65 and older, and people with developmental disabilities and serious mental conditions. Survivors are telling their stories and forcing others who would not have interacted with the criminal justice system to examine the uses and abuses of solitary confinement. It is forcing the citizens of New Jersey to recognize that we are not treating other people with respect and dignity the moment that they are labeled “prisoner.” 

Nafeesah Goldsmith’s bravery and willingness to come forward with her story, along with those of others, is helping to make significant and positive changes in New Jersey as regards our treatment of incarcerated human beings. She is willing to tell her story at schools, at coalition events, and to anyone who will listen. It’s time we started to listen. 

(Photo Credit: Asbury Park Press / Doug Ford)

In Maryland’s women’s prison last year, Emily Butler didn’t die. She was executed.

Maryland has one women’s prison, the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, MCIW. On November 12, 2017, 28-year-old Emily Butler was “found dead in her cell from an apparent suicide.” Emily Butler wasn’t “in her cell”; she was in solitary confinement, which Maryland claims does not exist in its prisons. On Friday, Disability Rights Maryland and a community fellow from the Open Society Institute of Baltimore released their findings concerning Emily Butler’s death. The report’s findings are both grim and all too familiar. Emily Butler was not “found dead”. She was executed, by the State of Maryland.

Starting in 2008, Emily Butler had been receiving community-based mental health services for depressive, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress disorders. MCIW knew of her conditions. Remember that the staff knew all about Emily Butler’s psychiatric history. On Friday, November 10, 2017, Emily Butler and a friend argued. Butler threw coffee at her friend. Her friend was not injured, but Emily Butler was thrown into solitary confinement. There she stayed until her death. She was only allowed outside of her cell to bathe. According to the Disability Rights Maryland report, “Ms. Butler was not a danger to herself or others in MCIW because she acted impulsively and threw coffee on her friend during a dispute. Her friend was not injured and did not want to see Ms. Butler placed in segregation. Her segregation sentence was about punishment, not safety. Ms. Butler only became a danger to herself after she was placed in segregation.”

Emily Butler took the isolation hard. First, solitary confinement is torture. Second, Emily Butler had reason to expect that she was going to be paroled in April 2018, and a stay in segregation would delay that. She was distraught and said so. She knew she needed help and asked for it. None came.

The report finds that a mere six weeks prior to Emily Butler’s death, another woman, “Elaine”, had attempted suicide under similar circumstances. While Elaine was in the inpatient mental health treatment unit, IMHTU, she threw urine at a staff member. Elaine lives with “with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder -traumatic stress disorder.” The staff knew that. The staff also knew that Elaine has a long record of self-injury and aggression and can’t stand stress. Despite all that, Elaine was thrown into solitary: “After Elaine was transferred …  to disciplinary segregation, she was observed in her cell standing on the sink and tying a sheet to the vent in the ceiling and around her neck. An officer intervened and stopped Elaine’s actions … She wanted to harm herself because she was scared about pending criminal assault charges for throwing the urine and that she had other stresses related to her family … She was upset that staff on the segregation unit did not take her seriously when she said that she was suicidal and wanted to speak with mental health staff … She said she attempted to hang herself after getting no response to her request for help. Elaine spent a few days on the IMHTU after this incident, and was then returned to the disciplinary segregation unit despite her evidenced need for mental health services …. Less than six weeks after Elaine was discovered with a sheet tied to the vent and around her neck, Emily Butler was discovered, also in the segregation unit, hanging from a sheet tied to a vent in her cell.

Three days after Emily Butler “was found dead,” The Baltimore Sun editorial board wrote, “It’s tempting to dismiss Emily Butler’s death as an unfortunate accident in an otherwise well-run corrections system where such mistakes are rare. But the reality is this is the fourth reported case of an inmate committing suicide this year, and it appears to be part of a pattern linking such deaths to the kinds of physical confinement inmates experience behind prison walls. There’s a difference between firm disciplinary measures that help ensure the safety of inmates and staff and cruel or unusual punishments that in effect amount to human rights abuses. Maryland needs to constantly rethink where that line should be drawn — and then make sure it stays on the right side of it. Emily Butler and others like her shouldn’t have to die by their own hands in order to teach the state that lesson.”

The State of Maryland executed Emily Butler for the crime of needing and asking for help. How many more such women must suffer such torture? Do more than say Emily Butler’s name. In her name, shut down all forms of solitary confinement, in prison and beyond. 

(Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)