"The Truth About Solitary Confinement," Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.

“The Truth About Solitary Confinement,” Religion News Service graphic by Tiffany McCallen.


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

WASHINGTON (RNS) They’re small spaces — sometimes 7 feet wide, 12 feet long. And they’re where some inmates are held, sometimes for days, sometimes for decades.

Religious leaders across the country are speaking out against solitary confinement cells that they say should never be used by juveniles or the mentally ill and rarely by the general prison population.

The debate is taking on new resonance as a Boston jury weighs the death penalty — or a life sentence with 23 hours a day in solitary confinement — for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon bomber.

The view through the slot of a replica of a solitary confinement cell, through which an inmate would receive food on a tray, on March 22, 2015. The replica was placed at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., by the National Religious Campaign for Torture to build awareness about solitary confinement. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

The view through the slot of a replica of a solitary confinement cell, through which an inmate would receive food on a tray, on March 22, 2015. The replica was placed at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to build awareness about solitary confinement. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

From Wisconsin to Washington, activists have taken replicas of a solitary confinement cell to places where people on the outside can momentarily experience what life is like on the inside. A Buddhist chaplain, haunted by the sights and sounds of her visits to prisoners in solitary, brought one to the Wisconsin Capitol in the fall.

“Once you’ve stood inside the cell and heard the sounds of an actual solitary confinement unit echoing in your very being, it becomes very hard to forget or to ignore,” said the Rev. Kate Edwards, a Zen Buddhist in Madison, Wis. “The reality that solitary confinement is a loud and torturous living hell simply becomes undeniable.”

From the statehouse, the replica, which includes a recording of the banging and screaming from a real prison, has been featured in various churches and at Marquette University, a Catholic school in Milwaukee.

A person stands in the doorway of a replica SHU cell on April 19, 2015, during Ecumenical Advocacy Days. Photo by Erin Schaff, courtesy of Perisphere Media - www.PerisphereMedia.com

A person stands in the doorway of a replica of a solitary confinement cell on April 19, 2015 during Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C. Photo by Erin Schaff, courtesy of Perisphere Media – www.PerisphereMedia.com


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Other groups, such as the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, have taken their fight against solitary confinement to the United Nations and provided shadow reports to its Committee Against Torture. In the Quakers’ report, inmates who had been in solitary described suicide attempts, lost weight and dungeonlike circumstances.

In its concluding report, the U.N. committee said that despite statements from Washington that there is “no systematic use of solitary confinement” in the U.S., at a minimum the practice should be prohibited for juveniles and people with mental illness.

“Full isolation of 22 to 23 hours a day in super-maximum security prisons is unacceptable,” the committee said in its December report.

Experts say some 80,000 people are in solitary in U.S. prisons each day, with some spending years there.

As church members concluded their worship service, a replica of a solitary confinement cell stood in the sanctuary of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2015. The National Religious Campaign for Torture placed it there to build awareness about solitary confinement.  Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

As church members concluded their worship service, a replica of a solitary confinement cell stood in the sanctuary of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on March 22, 2015. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture placed it there to build awareness about solitary confinement. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, the director of programs for the rabbis group, has journeyed with interfaith groups for visits to Rikers Island and Sing Sing, two New York facilities that include solitary confinement for some prisoners.

“When you talk about ending the death penalty, so much hinges on the question of innocence. Solitary confinement forces us to ask other questions,” she said. “Whatever people may or may not have done, how do we treat them when we are trying to rehabilitate them? Why does our prison system focus on continuing to punish people rather than trying to figure out how to rehabilitate them?”

Halfway across the country from the Wisconsin cell replica, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture created a model of its own. It appeared at an Episcopal church in Washington in March and an ecumenical conference in April and is scheduled to be featured at the Baltimore convention of the Islamic Circle of North America over Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s not something that should be acceptable in society,” said Rameez Abid, spokesman for ICNA’s Council for Social Justice. “There’s just not much awareness in the community, so we wanted to bring it into the light.”

He and other faith leaders who visited the cell at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days conference in April spent three minutes inside, listening to recorded sounds of life in solitary.

“I already wanted out,” he said.

Rev. Laura Markle Downton describes solitary confinement to conference participants, on April 19, 2015, during Ecumenical Advocacy Days. Photo by Erin Schaff, courtesy of Perisphere Media - www.PerisphereMedia.com

The Rev. Laura Markle Downton describes solitary confinement to conference participants, on April 19, 2015, during Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C. Photo by Erin Schaff, courtesy of Perisphere Media – www.PerisphereMedia.com

The Rev. Laura Markle Downton, director of U.S. prisons policy and program for NRCAT, supplies context for visitors to the cell replica. It represents the place where inmates spend 22 to 24 hours a day, often getting an hour away for “recreation” in a space that “looks like a dog run.”

And the inmates who end up in solitary are often there for nonviolent infractions: “Something as simple as ‘reckless eyeballing,’ having one too many postage stamps, having one too many pencils,” she said.

An independent assessment released by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in December found that “general conditions of confinement in restricted housing units are consistent with national regulations and standards.” It noted a population decline of 31 percent in one of the bureau’s three restrictive housing programs, from 13,000 in 2011 to 8,939 in June 2014.

“Restricted housing is an important tool for corrections to accomplish our mission,” the Bureau of Prisons said in a February response to the assessment. “Offenders who pose a threat to the safety and security of prisons, or who require protection from other inmates, must be housed in more controlled environments.”

The Interfaith Delegation stand in front of the bus during a trip to Rikers Island Jail Complex on August 26, 2014. Photo courtesy of NRCAT

An interfaith delegation stands in front of a bus during a trip to the Rikers Island jail complex on August 26, 2014. Photo courtesy of NRCAT


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Activists hope visitors who experience a glimpse of life inside the cell will work with clergy to lobby state legislatures to change prison rules and reduce the use of solitary confinement.

Tim Head, executive director of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, said coalitions of faith leaders focused on the larger issue of mass incarceration also are beginning to discuss solitary confinement.

“It’s percolating, but not front and center,” said Head, whose organization, founded by political strategist Ralph Reed, recently joined forces with progressives to launch the Coalition for Public Safety.

Head, a former Texas evangelical minister and social worker, has counseled prisoners and agrees solitary confinement is used too frequently.  “I don’t necessarily advocate for the complete abolition of the practice, but it needs to severely be restricted,” he said. “It’s just a universal punishment bottom line for far too many.”

That’s the gist of what the retired Catholic archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Joseph Fiorenza, and Austin Rabbi Neil Blumofe said in a commentary in the Houston Chronicle last month, where they pointed out that, on average, individual Texas inmates spend close to four years in solitary.

Phoebe Jones of Crossroads Women Center, Philadelphia, center left, and Derrick Stanley, one of the Dallas 6, center right, hold a press conference on Nov. 10, 2014 at Luzerne County Courthouse. Photo courtesy of Lynne Iser

Phoebe Jones of Crossroads Women Center, Philadelphia, center left, and Derrick Stanley, one of the Dallas 6, center right, hold a press conference on Nov. 10, 2014 at Luzerne County Courthouse. Photo courtesy of Lynne Iser


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Many state departments of corrections, from Mississippi to Maine, have implemented humane alternatives to isolation,” they wrote. “It is time for Texas to reform its use of solitary confinement.”

Still other protesters of solitary confinement have taken a step into another part of the justice system: the courthouse. Lynne Iser, board member of a Reconstructionist synagogue in Philadelphia, has joined other members in attending four court hearings of the so-called Dallas 6, inmates who protested solitary confinement conditions in Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Dallas.

The activists became “supporters and allies” of the inmates after their study of mass incarceration led them to meet community members, including a woman whose father was in solitary for 30 years and the mother of one of the Dallas 6.

“It just doesn’t sit with my sense of justice,” Iser said. “The role of prison is not to rehabilitate but to imprison and be punitive, and that doesn’t serve our society.”

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23 Comments

  1. Rev. Kate Edwards

    I’m very grateful for this coverage of the nationwide efforts to reform the use of solitary confinement in state and federal prisons. Too many people have been suffering for far too long, and we have to make this torture more visible. To watch a short YouTube of the making of our cell here in Wisconsin, please click on the following link:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RE0dZ5yGL0c&feature=youtu.be
    Thank you again,
    Rev. Kate Edwards

    • I agree completely.

      Prisons desperately need reform. Unfortunately right wing Christian Republicans who control the purses in too many states have been well financed by Evangelicals to win campaigns based on “Christian morals”

      Democrats – who are rejected by Christian Evangelical money – are waging lonely, losing battles for the liberal reforms they have championed for decades. As the middle class dies off, and the rich get richer thanks to these divisive policies, I suspect prisons will only get worse.

      I don’t think religion has ever been a contributor to good American policies in prisons or in any other realm – religion and politics just add up to irrational and impractical solutions – religion gets in the way of reform.

      If religion could just stay out of politics we might be able to become a more humane country.

      • Atheist Max, as usual, you’re mistaken — and the reason is you are sloppy and careless.

        Christians of all stripes — from left to right to center — have long been at the forefront of prison reform movements, including the highlighting of the truly dangerous and often-deplorable conditions in our prisons.

        Anybody with a conscience is outraged over it….and those who are not outraged tend to know little or nothing about it.

        As for solitary confinement, did you even bother to read the article? The head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition is quoted as saying it is used far too much and should be drastically curtailed. He is of course correct.

        Your crude and bigoted stereotyping tells us more about you than the people you’re targeting.

        • @Jack,

          “Christians..have long been at the forefront of prison reform….”

          Nonsense.
          The Christian Right has been destroying every attempt at prison reform for 100 years. The fascist example of Father Josef Tiso is more common.

          “Anybody with a conscience is outraged …”

          Right. And Christianity does not have a monopoly on conscience – far from it.

          “As for solitary …the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition..”

          Like I said, a Christianity does not have a monopoly on outrage over injustice.

          “Your crude and bigoted stereotyping…”

          You defend your racist God and yet call me a bigot?
          Get over yourself. Religions are not one’s race, identity, skin color or nationality. They are just dumb ideas.
          Like Sasquatch.

          If it is not bigoted to preach Sasquatch – it cannot be bigoted to preach against Sasquatch.

          Don’t elevate religion to more than what it is.

        • @Jack,

          “your bigoted…”

          Criticizing a religion is not bigotry.
          Religions are not skin color, not race, eye color, nationality, sexuality, gender or other unchangeable human qualities.

          It is only bigoted (unfair) to prejudge a person for things they cannot control.

          But Religions are just ideas; philosophies and proposals about reality.
          PROOF: People change religion all the time! It happens every day.

          All ideas can be discussed without anyone being a bigot for discussing them. It cannot be bigoted to challenge UFOs, Sasquatch or Zeus – SAME FOR JESUS AND ALLAH!

          If someone proposes that you should worship ZEUS, you have every right to say no! – and you are NOT a bigot for doing so!

          Furthermore, if they *command you* to worship ZEUS it is not bigoted to laugh the absurdity of such a pathetic demand!
          Same for Jesus and Allah!

          Your God is the bigot. And you are bigoted for defending his bigotry!

          “They are pigs!” – JESUS

    • This is one area where most people agree, irrespective of ideology.

      Long bouts of solitary confinement should ideally be reserved for the likes of Charles Manson and other uniquely evil individuals — extreme sociopaths who have no remorse for the horrors they perpetrated on others.

      To have anyone else go through it is outrageous.

  2. Rev. Laura Markle Downton is without question the hottest reverend I’ve ever laid eyes on. I’ve never seen a minister who is as attractive as she is.

  3. I have little empathy for the imprisoned or our entire penal system. Bleeding hearts seem to want criminals interred in a 5 star Hilton, and those working in the prison system are often as corrupt as the inmates.
    Where is the true rehabilitation effort? What IS proper punishment? Why is the return rate so high?
    Why can’t prisons be run on the model of a military boot camp? How are gangs formed, feared, and accepted in prison??? If we have a death penalty, why not carry it out immediately rather than wait 75 years and billions of dollars to revisit the case endlessly? If the death penalty is ineffective, get rid of it.
    Criminals should not be fawned over, they have broken some law to get themselves in jail…..their comfort should not be a paramount concern of anyone.

    • JR, you’re right in one sense, but even chain gangs are preferable to solitary confinement, which should be restricted to the absolutely worse cases.

    • What a ridiculous idea!

      Military boot camps would not work because:
      1. People volunteer for the military or at the very least accept conscription prior to going there. Prison is a population of the unwilling

      2. Boot camps weed out the disciplinary problems. Prisons are nothing but them

      3. Most people in military boot camps aren’t trying to kill each other or their DI. They may joke about it, but it is usually not the norm.

      4. What is the point of a system which tries to form unit cohesion and unity when you are trying to break up gangs? Groups which already have unit cohesion and unity.

      Frankly it comes down to people want to spend money on building jails, of drafting laws which only serve to overcrowd prisons unnecessarily, and militarizing police forces. But they don’t want to make sure the penal systems work.

      • I agree, but the whole system needs to be gutted and rebuilt. Prison SHOULD be a most feared place to go….but I don’t know what that fear would be. I don’t believe in torture, unnecessary cruelty, or starvation, etc…..but something desperately needs to be done.
        Why conjugal visits?
        Why marriages in prison?
        Why cable TV?
        How do people continually get killed or raped in prison?
        How do mobsters run the mob from inside?
        How are “hits” arranged from inside?

        Maybe you’re right, it’s all financially better for some to keep the system as it is. And what does a sentence like 100 years plus 60 years with the possibility of parole mean exactly? Or three consecutive life sentences? I give up.

        • Making prisons fearsome doesn’t do squat to make prisoners docile. Far from it. It usually makes gang affiliation a more necessary means of survival. The gulag system gave birth to the Russian Mafia. The harsh prisons in Latin America are overrun with gangs. Harsh Chinese prisons don’t do anything to stem the Triad influence within their walls.

          The appalling conditions of those prisons make them fearsome, but the end result is one trades off unnecessary death at the hands of inmates with unnecessary death due to prison conditions and guards. The end result is minor offenders are lucky to make it out alive (mostly those who survive through gang affiliations) become well suited for organized crime if they get out.

          Now if we stopped overflowing our system with non-violent drug offenders, we can get prison populations back to manageable levels. Smaller populations mean better enforcement. Less inmate mayhem is possible. Less inmates relying on gangs for survival.

          • Drug offenses, short of the big distributors, should be delegated to halfway house sentences. Same for drunk drivers, minor white-collar crimes, perhaps even bank robbers who cause no deaths in a robbery. ???

          • If you want to find something to lay the blame on for appalling prison overcrowding in our country, look no further to the “War on Drugs”. 35 years of flushing public resources and people down the drain.

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