No more solitary confinement?
April 1, 2009 6:05 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to work against long-term solitary confinement of prisoners in the US?

I recently read this New Yorker article (linked in this metafilter post), which makes a strong case that solitary confinement of prisoners for more than a few days is worse than physical torture and causes lasting brain damage. It horrifies me to realize how widespread this practice is in the US, and that most Americans support it.

What would be some effective ways to vocalize my opposition to solitary confinement and work to end it? I will probably not quit my job and become a full-time activist. I would welcome ideas for individuals/groups to whom I should write letters or give money, both on the national level and in specific states (I live in Colorado). Other suggestions for how to effect change on this issue are also welcome.
posted by medusa to Law & Government (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I think the most effective way to reach people, rather than picketing or writing letters, would be to make a documentary. Show people the horrors and you will make it real to them.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:12 PM on April 1, 2009

Join Amnesty International.
posted by mattoxic at 6:19 PM on April 1, 2009

I would contact the ACLU's National Prison Project. Amnesty International's interests are probably more diffuse, even if you focused on Amnesty International USA.

Making a documentary, unless you are already a skilled documentary filmmaker, strikes me as pretty inefficient.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:45 PM on April 1, 2009

Or get a job here:

looks like it is in your home state
posted by patnok at 6:57 PM on April 1, 2009

I think patnok is missing the point somehow.

medusa, you've helped already just by posting this question -- I read the New Yorker article you linked, and gone from neutral/uninformed on the issue to agreeing with you. It's a small step to simply change the minds of people who aren't really directly in charge, but every little bit helps. So definitely keep spreading this around.
posted by telegraph at 7:15 PM on April 1, 2009

Respectfully, patnok, I'm not sure your answer helps answer the question. If you're looking to debate solitary confinement, this thread, which the OP links to, is still open.

Democrats are nominally less pro-prisoner-abuse (or, if you prefer, they're nominally less tough-on-crime) than Republicans. Greens, among others, are even more so. Supporting these candidates, and letting them know why, is another worthwhile step.
posted by box at 7:22 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Talk to Sen Jim Webb's office.
posted by rhizome at 7:29 PM on April 1, 2009

Look, I don't agree with patnok, but at the same time, it pisses me off when people make up their minds on a subject based on a single article. Gawande is a smart guy who knows a lot about endocrine surgery and something about public health, traditionally defined; he has no particular expertise in psychology, corrections, prison reform, or torture. The article is based, as the most compelling New Yorker articles are, on a conflation of riveting personal anecdotes and research. A few studies are mentioned, but not discussed in depth. The explanation as to why wardens impose solitary confinement -- most don't want to, but they feel compelled to do so because of outside pressure, manifested when they try to release someone -- seems premised on a single example, one facially inapposite to those put in solitary for disciplinary infractions and the like.

So maybe I should have said: read up on the subject, and informed and passionate, pursue justice.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:30 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: After a long time as a lurker, was finally persuaded by this question to pay the $5 entry fee.

The American Friends Service Committee, an arm of the Religious Society of Friends, have a campaign to "promote and support a national movement to end the use of solitary confinement and related forms of torture in US prisons. Campaign work is realized through grassroots organizing, research, public education, resource sharing, human rights training and policy advocacy." Lots of information is available at their StopMax website, including documents like Buried Alive, Long-Term Isolation in California’s Youth and Adult Prisons, a StopMax mailing list called controlunitalk, a prisoner testimonies blog, volunteer opportunities, and links to many other sites and organizations working on the issue.
posted by QuakerMel at 8:27 PM on April 1, 2009 [15 favorites]

Best answer: There's on organization in Colorado called the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. They are led by a really kickass couple of women working to bring needed reforms to Colorado's state prisons. I don't know how much they are working on solitary confinement issues, but they would be happy to tell you what they know, and could connect you to anyone in Colorado who is working on the topic.

They are personal heroes of mine, and do really amazing work with very few resources, and could make good use of an impassioned volunteer and any resources you chose to give them.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:40 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I don't think I'd make much of a filmmaker, and becoming a prison warden is not going to happen.

QuakerMel: The information you provide sounds awesome, and is worth way more than $5 to me! Thanks. However, your links aren't working for me. I can go look them up myself, though.

gingerbeer: That's helpful.

Clyde Mnestra: The ACLU prison project suggestion is helpful. Also, I take your point that it's valuable to know more about the subject - no single article is enough.
posted by medusa at 8:57 PM on April 1, 2009

Response by poster: rhizome: I hadn't known about that aspect of Webb's work. I'm reading the article you linked now.
posted by medusa at 8:59 PM on April 1, 2009

Best answer: lunit posted a good list of national prison reform organizations in the Webb thread (with the caveat that I'm associated with one of them). I think all of them have good links and reports and info on their web sites, and would be a good place to learn more about the issues.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:30 PM on April 1, 2009

Making a documentary, unless you are already a skilled documentary filmmaker, strikes me as pretty inefficient.

I don't think I'd make much of a filmmaker

Most of the people on the credits of a film are not the directors and cinamatographers. There are a lot of people who make a given movie that are not "filmmakers". You could raise money for a film, raise interest for a film, work as a grip, pre-screen interviewees, do research for the film, the number of jobs involved in the making of a documentary are countless.

And then there are the amateur films that expose the issue...
posted by Pollomacho at 5:56 AM on April 2, 2009

Study this issue a LOT more before you decide to do something about it. The more you study, the more you'll learn about what can be done, if indeed you really do want to do something about it. Don't be a knee-jerker.
posted by _Skull_ at 7:11 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ask someone that works in a prison that has a confinement unit what the inmates are in there for prior to making up your mind. Confinement can be an effective tool to separate hostile groups, temporary purposes for investigations, etc. It also must be provided for inmate population that feel their life is threatened. (Rape, stabbings, gambling, gangs, assaults on officers, etc.)
posted by Mardigan at 7:32 AM on April 2, 2009

I just want to put in a plug for the American Friends Service Committee. I've worked with that organization on some immigrant worker issues and they are wonderful. If you're looking for an existing organization to join or contribute to, AFSC is a really good one.
posted by jennyb at 7:56 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Attempting to recreate some of QuakerMel's links:
posted by maggieb at 9:47 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Our prison system is ripe for reform on so many levels. Though it wouldn't be protesting against solitary confinement specifically, I think that one of the more valuable things we can do as individuals to have an effect on reforming the prison system is to volunteer our time with prisoners - teaching them living skills, job skills, being a mentor, whatever. Our society for the most part dehumanizes people behind bars and as a result prisons are overcrowded and underfunded, which means we release a lot of people with few skills to live a different life on the outside, often leading to a vicious cycle of re-offending. I've done a lot of volunteer work over the years and my time spent in prisons was amongst the most rewarding. You'll have to check to see what your state allows, but in my state, I just needed to fill out a short form and undergo a background check.

Have a look at the work of Bo & Sita Lozoff of the Human Kindness Foundation, who have been working with prisoners via the Prison-Ashram Project for decades. I hope you find something that works for you, it's a great cause.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:27 AM on April 2, 2009

Not sure where you live, but my father works in a supermax prison. MeMail me if you're interested in contacting him.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:39 PM on April 2, 2009

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