Solitary Story Reminds Us Why We Advocate
By Mariny Nevitt
This summer, one of CJPC’s main initiatives is working with the Coalition for Effective Public Safety to raise awareness of solitary confinement practices in Massachusetts and work for reform. As part of this initiative, during the summer and beyond, we are taking part in the monthly Day of Action on the 23rd of each month. Why the 23rd, you may wonder? Each day, men and women in solitary confinement spend approximately 23 hours locked up in their cell. So, the 23rd is symbolic of those 23, or more, hours.
This month, I was able to partake in the Day of Action by chalking facts and information about solitary confinement in Massachusetts on the sidewalk outside our CJPC office to raise awareness among the public. Whenever you plant yourself in the middle of the sidewalk with boxes of chalk and a tape measure, you can expect some curious glances and questioning looks. So, you can imagine what I expected when I set out to raise awareness about solitary confinement in Massachusetts with my blue and orange chalk.
What I did NOT expect about ten minutes into the chalking endeavor was for a young man to tell me he had just been released and had been held in solitary confinement. This young man was most likely no more than 25, but he shared that less than two weeks ago he was released from a pretrial facility where he had been held in solitary confinement for 27 days.
As you might imagine, I had a multitude of questions for this young man, who was well-dressed, well-spoken, and more than polite; but you can only ask so many questions during your first interaction with someone on the sidewalk. According to the young man, the worst part of being in "the hole" was the food. Yes, he said, you get three trays a day, but your dinner comes at 4:30 in the afternoon. So, from 4:30 in the evening until 7 in the morning you're left alone and hungry. Not to mention that when you get your tray, you would be amazed how many foods they manage to make out of soy.
What I did not get to ask was why this young man was in the facility originally and why he was placed in solitary confinement. While I was focused on learning as much as possible, though, he thanked me for what I was doing because solitary confinement practices, speaking directly from experience, are "inhumane." Certainly, I told him, the least I could do was chalk some information on the sidewalk to raise awareness.
As the young man informed me he was pressed for time, I encouraged him to come back to our office sometime and to be in touch. I truly hope he will come share more of his story with us, and many others, as we work to reform, and eventually end, solitary confinement. This young man was luckily able to re-enter society without any serious mental health consequences from his solitary experience, as far as I could tell, but many others are not as fortunate. It is unfathomable to me that someone as friendly and genuine as this young man could have been potentially ruined by 27 days of total isolation for who knows what justification.
My sidewalk interaction this afternoon reminded me why we need to continue working against solitary confinement, but I only wish this young man did not have such an experience to share.
CJPC has had a very active summer. To get a sense of what we've been up to, our interns will periodically offer their thoughts on different events or projects that they have attended or worked on.
An Open Letter to Sheriff Koutoujian:
The following contains my thoughts on the First Unitarian Society of Newton (FUSN) speaker series where Sheriff Koutoujian discussed his role, progress, and ideas for the future as Sheriff of Middlesex County on July 13th, 2015:
To begin, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to engage with the people who have questions and concerns about the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. I would also like to thank Nancy Wrenn for putting it all together, and everyone who thoughtfully asked questions and shared opinions to you and the rest of the group. That said, I’d like to say something:
I am concerned.
The purpose of this forum was to allow community members ask questions, and understand the system and progress being made in Middlesex County. While I appreciate your candor and consideration of drug and alcohol treatment programs, post-release continuity of care, and the impracticality of cash bail, your attitude towards incarcerated people is disconcerting.
In describing many of the men and women in Middlesex County, your description of them as “heinous individuals” even though the majority of individuals--734 was the number you gave-- have yet to even be convicted of a crime. The 571 who have been convicted and sentenced will serve time in Middlesex for no more than two and a half years, leading me to believe that their crimes are, more likely than not, a far cry from “heinous.” In fact, I wonder how many of them are truly “predatory,” as you said, and how many are simply stuck in the revolving door of the Massachusetts criminal justice system that criminalizes and over-criminalizes individuals who have limited opportunities.
When asked how many people there are in the Middlesex jail, you were able to give exact numbers for the individuals who are, respectively, pretrial and already sentenced in your county, but the number you gave us for “protective custody” was simply “the remainder.”
To be clear, protective custody is a euphemism for segregation, and segregation is a euphemism for solitary confinement. Though you say that individuals are “only in there for a certain amount of time,” you never specified a maximum or minimum amount. To be sure, the UN special reporter on torture ruled that any time longer than 15 days “segregated,” as you put it, is torture.
Respectfully, Sheriff, we deserve more and you know it. When I asked why no public reports give any insight into segregation practices in Middlesex, you told me that there are “security issues” around conducting studies like this but that you are “transparent.” I’m left wondering why your transparency excludes an entire group of people in your county. We are asking for statistics on the races, age-groups, and crimes represented in segregation, not for names and addresses.
The day after you spoke to us, a man allegedly committed suicide at the Essex County Middleton jail. While I fully recognize that you have no control into what happens in other counties, I can’t help but fear that the consequences of Massachusetts’ criminal justice system don’t discriminate by county.
Sheriff Koutoujian, I write to you because I am concerned that the way you refer to the human beings you are responsible for negates the fact they still have rights and they still have consciences. We, the people, deserve to know what happens in the Middlesex County jail with the level of transparency you swear by.
I am concerned, and I only ask you to hear me.
Criminal Justice Policy Coalition
STOP Solitary Efforts in Massachusetts
As part of the Coalition for Public Safety (CEPS), we’ve partnered with The Prisoner Hunger Strike Coalition (PHSS) to bring awareness to and, ultimately, end solitary confinement in Massachusetts prisons.
Following the 2013 hunger strike initiated by people who are incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison in California, The Prisoner Hunger Strike Coalition (PHSS) began launching statewide coordinated actions in an effort to bring public awareness to end solitary confinement.
Actions began in California in March 2015. As of June 2015, CEPS has helped bring the fight to Massachusetts. The 23rd of each month was chosen to recognize the 23 or more hours every day that people are held in solitary confinement. We started with a chalk walk. You can find photos of the event here.
We invite you to join us and also think about creating your own actions. Below you will find a packet of ideas to get you started in thinking about how to take action. This packet is geared towards actions that could be taken by religious institutions to promote solitary confinement reform on Sunday, August 23rd, but the ideas inside can be applied by any and all people or groups that would like to get involved. This packet is intended to get the ball rolling, but we heartily encourage any and all other ideas you may have to raise public awareness to end solitary confinement.
If you have any ideas or would like to get involved, please email Rachel Corey at email@example.com or call 617-807-0111.
DOWNLOAD CEPS ACTION TOOLKIT HERE