Newest Restrictions on Solitary Elevate Reformist Minds to Abolition

by Amani Sawari, JLS Spokesperson 2018 National Prison Strike, NLG Member, and SawariMedia Founder

“Solitary”—administrative segregation (ad-seg), suicide watch, the hole, or even quarantine are all forms of solitary confinement that cages a person to a single room cell with no access to personal belongings, nourishing meals or human contact for an undetermined period of time. Reasons for being put into solitary range from behavioral to psychological, to even medical concerns. The individual in this condition only has the ability to choose whether to go out for fresh air, make a phone call, or take a shower during a heavily regulated, one-hour window. How a society considers the validity of solitary confinement as a tool for control directly reflects its preparedness for abolition.

The existence of both prisons and solitary have inched into the position of a “necessary evil” from the perspective of the privileged masses. However, as advocates continue to challenge the use of solitary—criticizing the reasoning for punishment, the length of time confined, or the condition of one’s confinement (e.g. lack of sunlight, windows, reading or writing material)— continually exposes its monstrosity.

Promoting individual policy changes that restrict the use of solitary is a reformist approach, while the complete dismantlement of the conditions that maintain the practice is an abolitionist stance. While many reformists shudder at the thought of abolishing prisons entirely, many reformist positions are embraced by abolitionists as a step towards progress. An example of this can be seen in the recent passage of New York’s Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act.

HALT restricts the use of solitary confinement in New York to 15 days. Similarly, in 2019, New Jersey lawmakers were able to pass legislation that limits solitary confinement to 20 consecutive days. That same year, Minnesota cut that number in half, with a 10-day restriction on the use of solitary confinement in response to a prisoner’s refusal to provide labor. In Montana, laws completely bar the use of solitary for minors and pregnant woman. Finally, Massachusetts (the last state to eliminate the voting rights of people in prison) was the first of these states to pass legislation in 2018 to reform the use of the cruel forms of punishment by requiring a prisoner’s status in the hole to be reviewed every 90 days and limited restrictions on visitation and phone rights to 15 days. In all of these recent reforms, we see two questions being (haphazardly) answered: Who deserves solitary confinement? And how long is too long to spend in the hole?

The United Nations has determined that, “Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition”. The passage HALT suggests that the most reliable form of discipline used by corrections departments to deter and divide prison populations is grossly inhumane, but I beg reformists who feel settled in this political “win” to ask the more significant question: What else is inhumane (enough) about prison practices to fight against? Suggestions include: lack of familial connection, restrictions on outside communication, inedible foods, overcrowding, dilapidated living conditions and so much more.

If we critique the grossly inhumane practices that comprise prison operations in every state across this country and limit the solution to ones being introduced in the legislature, we’ll come to find an infinite pattern of criminal justice reform bills to promote for decades to come—but is that a realistic path of action? Even with the current policies in place, corrections facilities aren’t being held accountable. Although being pregnant or a minor elevates one’s rights substantially, being a person in prison leaves the interpretation of one’s rights under the authority of prison officials who prioritize cost-cutting and increased profit margins over any other concern of the people confined to their facilities.

Oftentimes the passage of bills like the HALT Solitary Confinement Act are glorified as huge victories, but it should be perceived within the confines of an enormous battle to transform the entire legal system. Our celebration in this moment, whether by reformists or abolitionists, unite us all as prisoner human rights advocates. However, the ongoing need for these types of band-aid reform bills will continue to push advocates along the spectrum towards abolition until that rewarding end goal is comes to fruition.

Jailhouse lawyers or incarcerated activists interested in learning more about SawariMedia’s work can write her at PO Box #760504 Lathrup Village, MI 48076