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New York Activists Launch Hunger Strike To End Long-Term Solitary Confinement

There is a hunger strike underway in New York.

Activists and survivors are trying to convince state lawmakers to vote on a bill to end long-term solitary confinement. The bill would also ban the practice for those younger than 21 years old and older than 55, and for people with physical and mental disabilities.

The demonstration comes as Paul Manafort, the 70-year-old former Trump campaign chairman, is reportedly headed for isolation at Rikers Island in New York.

According to the International Standards for Prisoner Treatment, also known as the Nelson Mandela rules, keeping someone in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days is considered torture.

Colorado ended the use of solitary confinement in 2017, and lawmakers in New York and New Jersey are working to overhaul its use in those states. A lawsuit in Virginia is also challenging the use of solitary confinement.

Judith Resnick, a professor of law and founding director of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale University, tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson that thanks to those efforts the number of people in long-term solitary confinement has decreased. But according to the latest estimates by the Liman Center and the Association of State Correctional Administrators, almost 2,000 people have been in isolation for six years or more.

“As you know from the uproar about Paul Manafort, or any individual that is spending all one’s time in a tiny cell, 7-by-9 [feet], very small and often with no natural light, with food through a slot in the door potentially indefinitely, can be terrifying for anyone and disabling for most people,” she says. “The idea that people need human contact with each other, we take for granted, because most of us live in contact and now, we’re taking away a human’s way of living.”

Interview Highlights

On the three major qualifiers for solitary confinement

“The first, which is the Manafort example, is that officials say that they need to protect individuals. So there’s something called protective custody. The second is disciplinary segregation. You were alleged to and found to have done something wrong. And the third is called administrative segregation. That often translates into, ‘We’re scared of you or are worried about you in some way,’ and the rules sometimes describe a person as being perceived to be a ‘threat’ to the security of the institution.”

On who gets to make the decision about putting someone into solitary confinement and how long they’re going to be there


“Historically, the people who run prisons have made this decision and made it basically unfettered. There have been debates for centuries about — whether what they call dungeons or dark cells. Now we might call them lit cells because sometimes the lights are on [24/7] — there have been debates within people called correction officials about what to do. Over the last decades, in part, as prisoners became people with rights, the prisoners have gone to court and said, ‘You can’t treat me, as a human being, like this.’ So courts have become involved. And legislatures are increasingly involved in asking and sometimes in regulating how long or if people can be kept in isolation and huge credit goes to prisoners.

“I just think it’s important to remember that in the 1960s and before, courts talked about prisoners as civilly dead, as people without rights at all. … Like Nelson Mandela, they imagined a world that took them as human beings rather than a world that totally subjugated them. And they pressed for and convinced federal judges who had for years said, ‘Hands-off, defer to corrections people,’ to say, ‘Yes, you too are a human being with dignity, rights and the Constitution doesn’t stop at the prison gates.’ ”

Oh why the use of solitary confinement has been increasing in recent decades

“The basic story is as prisoners’ populations grew — we’re talking 1980 war on crime, war on drugs, hard on crime — nothing works. We started seeing the rise and funding for things called ‘Supermax,’ which are prisons designed to isolate. And by the late 1990s, there were counts of at least 25,000 people in Supermax facilities. We started counting in 2014 and at that point we looked at about 1.5 million people in prison. Of the 1.5 million we found [80,000] to 100,000, a huge number, in these profound isolating circumstances. Since those numbers have come out, and this is a joint project with the people who run prisons who are concerned about this, we’re looking at efforts to have those numbers come down.

“The report the Liman Center and the Association of State Correctional Administrators put out last October talks about four jurisdictions working to make change — Colorado, Idaho, Ohio and North Dakota — with leaders saying, ‘How can we cut the population, limit it or stop it altogether?’ So you’re looking at a movement for abolition of solitary confinement. And you’re also looking at efforts to reduce it. Key, by the way, to this has to be responsible funding, because resources are needed to change the facilities and to staff the facilities. There are some places in the United States where people who work as staff in prisons are paid $30,000 a year. We need to increase the training, and we need to shift the work from grotesque, disabling activities to enabling people to be part of our social order and return as responsible citizens in it.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Maddie Mortell adapted it for the web with Samantha Raphelson.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.