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6 Signs that Solitary Confinement Reform Is Coming

Much of the momentum in the movement to reform the use of solitary confinement in the United States comes from the work of prisoners themselves.

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The following was originally published on Yes! Magazine. 

On Tuesday, author and activist Sarah Shourd spoke to  Democracy Now! about the time she spent in an Iranian prison after crossing the border from Iraq while on a hike with two friends. Shourd was held for more than one year, and spent much of that time in solitary confinement. Here's how she described the experience:

I spent hours and hours crouched by the small food slot in my door, just listening for sounds, pacing compulsively, eating my food with my hands. And there were times that I screamed and beat at the walls of my cell.

Shourd went on to point out that solitary confinement—which involves keeping an inmate alone in a small cell from 22 to 24 hours a day—doesn't just happen in faraway places like Iran. Roughly 80,000 people are held in solitary in the United States on any given day, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in many cases for  minor violations of prison rules.

Juan E. Méndez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, has pressed the U.S. government to end its use of long-term solitary confinement. "Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time," he said in a  news release, "it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Meanwhile, psychologists have expressed concern over the link between solitary confinement and mental illness. Craig Haney, professor of psychology at University of California, Santa Cruz, interviewed hundreds of prison inmates as part of a research project with the National Academy of Sciences. At a hearing before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate in 2012, Haney  described the hallucinations and panic attacks experienced by many inmates held in solitary confinement.

"For some prisoners," he said, "solitary confinement precipitates a descent into madness."

Activists have been advocating this position for decades, and we're seeing a renewed attention to the issue. Vikki Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, credits the prisoners themselves: "It['s] the actions of the people in prison that pushed these issues into the spotlight and into media headlines," she told YES!

Here are a few recent signs of progress.

1. Hunger strikers at Pelican Bay put solitary on the map.

Last summer, more than 30,000 prison inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison and other California facilities went on hunger strike for 60 days to protest the conditions in which they were held. Representatives of the strikers issued five core demands, including  significant reforms to the prison's policies regarding solitary confinement .

Pelican Bay is known for its widespread use of solitary. As Méndez  wrote in his report, over 400 inmates there have spent more than a decade in isolation.

In February, California lawmakers held a hearing to assess the situation at Pelican Bay. Inmates were not allowed to speak at the hearing but published their  banned testimony, in which they called for a prison system that achieves "segregation from the general population, but not torture or dehumanization."

Although the inmates haven't yet gotten the policy changes they wanted, California State Senator Loni Hancock introduced new  legislation on March 17, which aims to increase independent oversight in the use of solitary confinement.

2. A plan to hold the designers of solitary confinement cells accountable.

Founded in 1981, the group Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) is committed to the creation and maintenance of peaceful, environmentally friendly spaces that encourage the development of social justice. The group became interested in prison design in 2004. After Méndez released his report, they decided to take on the issue of solitary confinement—in a way that only architecture-world insiders could do.

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