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Solitary confinement panel highlights inhumane prison practices

by Kari Ashworth - Copy Editor
Tue, Apr 23rd 2019 10:00 pm

 

 

Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC), an issues chapter of the Social Welfare Action Alliance (SWAA), held a panel discussion about the cruelty of solitary confinement on Thursday, April 18, at Brockport’s Downtown campus. “Cruel and Unusual: Solitary Confinement as Torture in the United States” consisted of a three person panel with each sharing their unique perspectives regarding solitary confinement.

Barbara Kasper, a social work professor at The College at Brockport, began the evening by providing background information on the issue and the problems she encountered when helping organize the event with Patricia Cole, a dual major in social work and sociology.

“I’ve found it very difficult to get a lot of people interested in this event because I think a lot of people believe that if someone is in prison, they must’ve done something wrong and they deserve to be punished,” Kasper said.

This is not the case, Kasper explained. About 113 million American adults have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. The rate of incarceration is disproportionately higher for communities of color and low income families. 

Director of Community Engagement of the Mental Health Association Melanie Funchess moderated the event. As a “black woman, wife, mother, daughter and niece,” this is a cause near and dear to her heart. She believes the United States is “abusing the human rights of people.”

Mary Buser spent many years as the Assistant Chief of Mental Health in the 500-cell Punitive Segregation Unit at Rikers Island in New York City. There she saw the reality of solitary confinement but attempted to rationalize it at the time. However, she grew to dislike her job, often taking it home with her mentally.

Buser explained prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in a cell the “size of a parking space.” Food trays are given to the prisoner through a small slot in the door. The cells at Rikers had little windows with a type of mesh over it, which made it difficult to see through. 

Reasons for being sent to solitary range from disobeying orders to assaulting a staff member. Buser, along with other mental health professionals, saw unspeakable things in the cells they visited. Buser explained that the tamer inmates would bang their heads against the walls or babble incoherently, but often it was much worse than this. The psychological issues these inmates faced often developed while they were in solitary. She would dole out antipsychotics, anti-anxiety and antidepressants to try and help people get through their time in solitary.

“The mental health department did have authority to issue a temporary reprieve, but only if we thought that someone might actually die,” Buser said. “That was the criteria. Anything short of that was considered to be ‘this is the punishment and you’re meant to endure it.’”

Buser also discussed the racial aspect of the prison system in the United States. There were 500 cells in Buser’s unit, and every time a cell door was opened, it was a person of color. 

In closing, Buser mentioned the late Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war (POW) and suffered severe torture at the hands of his captors, and his comments about being left in solitary. When asked what the worst experience was as a POW, McCain said it was solitary confinement.

“This from the late senator and we’re outraged by the treatment McCain suffered as a POW, but we don’t seem to connect it to the exact same treatment that’s made it out through our jails and prisons,” Buser said.

The next panelist was Victor Pate, who works for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and was incarcerated for 15 years, two of which were in solitary confinement. Pate now tirelessly advocates for the passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long Term Isolated Confinement (HALT), which would provide an alternative to people being placed in solitary confinement. Given his history with solitary confinement, Pate was able to give an inside account of what it is really like.

“Lights are on 24/7,” Pate said. “Lights never go out and you hear people banging and hollering and screaming out their cells for all types of reasons, just screaming for no reason at all, just screaming for attention.”

Furthermore, Pate described the conditions of the cell when it would snow.

“I remember when I was in solitary confinement, I had a cell in front of a window, and when it snowed, baby, it snowed,” Pate said. “And you know what they used to do? They used to open the window… I get that one uniform and that’s how you expect to stay warm.”

Sometimes the corrections officers would also throw cold water on people in the cells and cut off running water to the cells. The treatment was inhumane, according to Pate.

On one instance, Pate was placed in solitary confinement for 90 days after hoarding 20 sheets. Pate often was not given a new sheet on laundry day, so he decided to hoard sheets. One day, a guard came to do a cell check and claimed the extra sheets were contraband. He was locked up for two days pending trial, where he was charged with having contraband and attempting to escape. This was one year after the riots at Attica Correctional Facility, and race relations have still not gotten any better, according to Pate.

He also discussed how prisons do not enable people to come back into the real world after being imprisoned.

“They don’t prepare you for reentry,” Pate said. “You have to prepare yourself for reentry. I’ve been home for 23 years, and the only reason I’ve been home for 23 years is because of the work I’ve been doing.”

The third and final panelist was Sandra Bernabei, who is a social worker and an organizer with the Antiracist Alliance. In 1995, Bernabei attended an undoing racism workshop with some colleagues and was amazed to have such clarity surrounding the issue.

“I went through my years of practice and started thinking, ‘if I had this clarity, I might’ve been able to have done something differently,’” Bernabei said. 

Society, according to Bernabei, is designed “for white people by white people” and every single system is set up this way. 

“We’re well-intended people, but we’re missing something,” Bernabei said.

She discussed the way programs are continuously created to fix broken people, when society should really be fixing the way systems are designed. “Living while black” is a trauma, according to her, that never truly heals.

“The work of undoing racism is about restoring humanity,” Bernabei said.

In addition to the panel, a 9 ft by 6 ft replica of a solitary cell was available for attendees to view. Inside, only a small bed and a toilet occupied the space. Virtual reality goggles were also available for attendees to be immersed into solitary confinement. 

For more information regarding solitary confinement alternatives, you can visit nycaic.org/legislation.

 

kashw2@brockport.edu | @kariashworth