Last Friday, members of the SRLP Movement Building Team and Prison Advisory Committee shared their stories and personal concerns regarding rules pending before the Board of Correction. Staff and members testified before the Board and spoke out at a rally before.
SRLP staff is so honored to work with members who share their stories of survival against systems of abuse including the Prison industrial Complex and it’s reliance on white supremacy to torture and abuse those inside and the loved ones supporting on the outside. Below you can find testimonies from Ms. India Rodriguez, Ms. Natalia Spiegel, and Ms. Xena Grandichelli as well as comments submitted on behalf of SRLP.
Below you can see some of the media that features our amazing members:
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Testimony of SRLP Member Natalia
While our focus today is on what is happening at Riker’s Island, we should not forget that solitary confinement is a universal problem. Although there are nations that have abolished it and although Amnesty International has condemned it, A.I. notes that the US uses solitary confinement to an extent unequalled in any other democratic country. Over 80,000 people on any one day are held in isolation, with 25,000 held long-term in super-maximum security prisons. That’s 22-24 hours a day confined to a cell for months, years or decades in conditions of severe social and physical isolation. Individuals in solitary confinement are deprived of all but the most minimal amount of human contact, both within the prison and with those outside it. This practice violates international laws and standards, including the rights enshrined in the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
But I am not here just to condemn solitary confinement and to urge that it be terminated at Riker’s Island. As one who has spent time at Riker’s in solitary confinement, I would like to explain to all present here what solitary is and what it does
In the first place, the solitary cell is totally isolated from other prisoners and even guards. The prisoner in solitary is at the complete mercy of the guards. Short of banging on their cell doors, which inevitable brings retribution, the prisoner in solitary depends on the guards to turn on and off the cell light, to decide when to escort the prisoner to the showers, when to bring food or if to bring food, and medication as well. On more than one occasion I was deprived of medication by the official indifference of the guards and medical personnel at Riker’s. You are not provided with newspapers or reading material, there is no sunlight in the cell, the only window is small and high, virtually impossible to see out of. The cell is small and there is no communication from one to another
How does one end up in solitary? Well, in my case, I was 60 years old, not massive or husky, relatively short and not in my physical prime. In short, I was not a danger to other prisoners or staff. In return, they posed no danger to me. It was an arbitrary decision by a judge when I was sentenced that landed me in solitary. I had no way to appeal the decision. My only “offense” was that I am a transgender woman, a “crime” in the eyes of the DOC apparently.
What does solitary do? When you are cut off from all humanity, from all human contact, you begin to turn within. You begin to go through a process called “mental decompensation.” You gradually lose your faculties to think and reason. You sleep 18-20 hours a day only waking for food and meds. Your intellectual talents wither. And gradually you go mad. The percentage of prisoners in isolation who are mentally ill is astronomical. It takes a truly strong woman or man not to break. And that is what the system is designed to do: to break prisoners. But it is failing.
In California in the last five years, tens of thousands of prisoners have waged massive hunger strikes demanding the abolition of solitary confinement. They have managed to put into place a permanent end of hostilities between the different prison gangs, forging unity out of their common oppression. They have built a strong base of support on the streets by family members and by others as well. The prisoners in the most notorious of these places, Pelican Bay, have led the way in fighting to end segregation once and for all.
While any positive changes to the rules governing solitary confinement at Riker’s are to be welcomed, none will be enough. I am reminded by what Malcolm X once asked: does the slave thank the master for pulling the knife in his back half-way out? No, we want it all the way out. And in the case of Riker’s and every prison in the world that means nothing less than the complete and total abolition of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment. I hope this panel will hear the voices from inside and bring an end to the Guantanamo in New York City that we call Riker’s Island. Thank you.
Testimony of SRLP Member India
I am a transgender woman, a social justice activist, and a member of Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s Prisoner Justice Project (PJP) which seeks to address the immediate needs of our community members in confinement. Most of our members initiate contact with PJP in a state of crisis often reporting physical and sexual assaults, biased disciplinary actions, a lack of access to appropriate and necessary transgender health care, use of punitive segregation, and lack of access to programming during confinement.
I stand in solitary not only as a trans woman but also as a former detainee of Riker’s and the New York State Prison Industrial Complexes.
Solitary confinement was instituted initially as a punitive measure to redress behavior, but its very practice has fallen short of rendering anything other than causing long term irreparable damage. These practices don’t take into account prior mental health issues and the long-term effects of those conditions are barbaric. I’ll give you a personal account of practices often faced by trans women and men in confinement.
Upon finally going through the classification process I was often encouraged to voluntarily go into protective custody on the premise that it would ensure my safety. When prodding was not enough to have me choose protective custody, fear tactics were used to force me. Often while I was in solitary little to no oversight was available, aggravating and further deteriorating my mental health and the overall conditions of confinement I faced. In such a state I could not appropriately address or fight the unwanted advances of officers that preyed upon me. I was subjected repeatedly to being sodomized, forced inappropriate touch, and other salacious acts that deemed me as merely an object to satisfy perversity and suffer irreparable damage. While in solitary I was also denied appropriate and necessary transgender health care. When health care wasn’t outright denied unrealistic prerequisites and imposing barriers would be used to further strip me of my dignity and gender expression.
Today I am free. But I struggle daily with debilitating nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m HIV positive and struggle daily with insurmountable emotional hurdles and traumas that impact me in direct proportion to my experiences in solitary confinement. I fight daily to assimilate and be a productive member of society. Solitary confinement in our society must be abolished.