On March 13th, members of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) joined hundreds of people in Albany to demand the passage of the HALT Solitary Act and the end of torture through solitary confinement in New York State.
We were honored to bring with us the names of SRLP Prisoner Advisory Committee (PAC) members who are currently suffering in solitary today. Some of our members, like Synthia-China Blast, have been in protective custody for over 20 years, enduring the mental, physical, and emotional effects of that time. We carried signs with the names of some of our PAC members currently in isolation now:
Before heading to the lobby and rally, we asked our PAC members to share with us any words or thoughts they had around the practice of solitary in New York State. One of our members, Diamond, shared that for her, the lack of mental health care and increased suicide risk made solitary confinement a terrifying place. In 2014 and 2015, over 40% of the suicide attempts made in New York State prisons occurred while in isolation:
“[solitary] is a very stressful place – staff make [their] rounds just to see if the inmate is alive – but what they should do is engage in more conversation with inmates and a build a [rapport] with them.”
Dana Gibson, who still has more than a year left to serve in solitary, shared the usual explanation for solitary, that it “is seen as a means of punishment imposed on those that is seen to have violated prison regulation” and to “‘deter’ others that [may] think of violating prison regulations.” Dana went on to write of the horrible human cost of solitary and how it, ultimately, cannot be justified:
“what is lost in this justified means of punishment by solitary confinement is that such confinement takes a toll on the prisoner’s mental, physical, and emotional state. Solitary confinement is nothing more [than] a means to torture those in it, to cause long term mental harm if it is not stopped.”
As transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming people, our PAC members asked us to highlight how they are targeted for isolation. One member, Terrianna Witherspoon, who went to solitary after refusing to be placed in the same unit as her previous attacker, stated that she thought the use of solitary would go down if correctional staff learned to respect trans people.
“I’m looking forward to seeing correctional staff using the correct pronouns to acknowledge trans people,” she wrote to us, adding that when trans women don’t respond to the inaccurate use of male pronouns, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) staff will write them disciplinary tickets that can result in time in solitary.
Another member, Shaylanna Luvme, agreed, saying that “COs who don’t like you for whatever reason [can] target you with tickets.”
Some of our members shared poems and art they had created while spending time in isolation. We were proud to be able to share them with assembly members and senators to show the creativity, the humanity, the life, that is locked away 23 hours a day in rooms the size of elevators:
Diamond ended her letter to us by stating a belief that is at the core of the HALT Solitary bill, isolation is currently the only “tool” that correctional officers have. Individuals go into solitary confinement for a variety of reasons, from not obeying an order quickly enough to having too many hair ties. As Diamond said:
“SHU [special housing unit] should be used when there is no other method and should be used only for very violent acts – such as weapons, cuttings, assault on staff.”
Shaylanna echoed Diamond’s words:
“all the SHU [special housing units], RMHU [regional mental health units], IPC [involuntary protective custody], and PCs [protective custody] should be ended and guidelines for rule violations should be revised.”
SRLP wants to thank all of our PAC members for sharing their stories, their thoughts, and their recommendations for policy changes. It was our honor to carry your names on signs, share your art with assembly members and senators, and make sure that – when considering the HALT act – our elected officials know that they are deciding whether or not to continue the torture of real people.
If you want to take part in the efforts to end solitary in New York State, please join the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) email list.