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Solitary Watch Throws Lifelines To Prisoners In Solitary Confinement

There are approximately 80,000 men, women and children living isolated in “supermax” prisons or solitary confinement units in the United States. Solitary Watch is a nonprofit organization committed to reporting on the use of solitary confinement in the United States, bringing this human rights issue out of the shadows and into the public eye. Razoo is always looking to spotlight unique and special projects on our platform, so I spoke with Solitary Watch’s co-directors, James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, about the work their nonprofit does and how their Lifelines to Solitary project and accompanying Razoo fundraiser came to exist.

Crime and Punishment author Fydor Dostoyevsy famously wrote, “The degree of civilization in society can be judged by entering its prisons.” According to Solitary Watch, the United States is not doing too well by that metric.

(AP Photo/Virginian-Pilot, Chris Tyree)

An Introduction To A Secret World

Solitary Watch’s Co-Director, James Ridgeway, first became interested in the issue of solitary confinement while working as a reporter. “I was working at a magazine and I was asked to go to Louisiana to do a story about the Angola Three, which were three men who had been kept in solitary for 40 years” at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Albert Woodfox, the last of the Angola Three to be released, was held in solitary confinement from 1972 to 2016. He has the unique distinction of being the prisoner held in solitary confinement for the longest period of time in United States history.

(Photograph: Doug MacCash/NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune)

In researching the story, Ridgeway learned that there were tens of thousands of people being held in solitary in American prisons — many for years or even decades. Yet the issue had received almost no attention from the media or policymakers. “I simply wanted to start a project to find out what was going on.”

He started Solitary Watch with co-director Jean Casella, who had experience managing nonprofit media projects. “We wanted to start opening up the subject so the press and the public has access to this secret world, that is totally shut off from most of the American population.”

A Prison Within A Prison

While researching solitary confinement in the U.S. prison system, Ridgeway and Casella learned how dire the effects of solitary confinement can be for prisoners. “Five percent of people in prison are in solitary confinement but fifty percent of prison suicides are committed by people in solitary,” says Casella.

What’s life like for prisoners in solitary confinement? “What it amounts to is that it’s 24 hours a day in a cell an average of 6 by 9 feet,” says Casella. “They have solid steel doors instead of bars, and the people inside are completely closed off and don’t even have much contact with prison staff. They exercise alone, they march to and from the showers alone, they get meals through a feeding slot. Any conversations with the guards are through the food slot.” Casella adds that sometimes mental health checks done on prisoners in solitary confinement are also done through the food slot.

(An Isolation Cell, By Ojore Lutalo)

Ridgeway draws an even finer picture: “There’s nothing much in it but a bunk and a blanket and combination toilet-sink and maybe a shelf on the wall,” he says. “Most of the people in solitary are allowed a certain number of books, but they may take away things like books as additional punishment.”

Boredom amplifies the effects of isolation, according to Ridgeway. “Most people just sit there, they don’t do anything — there is nothing to do.”

(Read William Blake’s full essay, “A Sentence Worse Than Death”.)

The psychological and neurological effects can be devastating, especially to those who already suffer from mental illness. “They could end up committing or attempting suicide in their first few weeks,” according to Casella. “People in solitary can experience anxiety, depression, extreme paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations. After awhile they also report the inability to communicate with others, overreaction to touch.” These effects usually just don’t stop when the person is released into back into the prison general population or their sentence is over. “Even when they get out and return to their communities, the effects are still there.”

Throwing Prisoners A Lifeline

Human beings are social animals, hardwired to connect with each other, but prisoners in solitary are cut off from others. They are rarely spoken to or touched — Casella says she learned of a diabetic man receiving insulin shots through his food slot to ensure that contact was kept to a minimum. “What people being kept in solitary crave most isn’t freedom but connections to other people.”

“One of the things we’ve discovered is that they are desperate for human contact, they’ll talk through air vents,” says Casella. Prisoners also engage in an activity called “fishing” — they unravel threads from the sheets and attach notes to them. They then cast the line with their notes under their cell doors, in the hope of connecting with another prisoner.

“That’s how we got the idea for the Lifelines to Solitary project,” said Casella. “Any kind of contact with the outside world would be a tremendous comfort to people in solitary. Our long-term goal is to open up this world to scrutiny and we would like to see the situation change. But in the short term, there are 80,000 people who are inside on a daily basis, and we thought that offering some kind of contact was the best thing we could do for them.”

Lifelines to Solitary began with Ridgeway and Casella writing letters, sending cards and newsletters to individuals in solitary to let them know they were not forgotten. That program expanded into a prison correspondence program that now has hundreds of participants. Student groups, community and faith organizations were given penpals in solitary, using a P.O. box to send and receive letters. Students from Princeton University and members of a Buddhist temple in New York are among the groups that have participated.

The Letters program recently opened up to individuals who would like to correspond with an person in solitary. These connections can be life-saving for prisoners cut off from human contact in solitary.

Solitary Watch’s current fundraiser on Razoo, Lifelines to Solitary, has raised over $13,000 to continue releasing information about the use of solitary confinement in the United States and to expand its Letters program. Lifelines to Solitary was chosen as one of Razoo’s “Curated Causes” in December 2016, featured on Razoo’s home page and social media channels.

How You Can Help

  • Donate to Solitary Watch: Solitary Watch’s fundraiser to continue their work making the voices of those in solitary confinement heard, keeping individuals in confinement connected through their letters program, and advocating for ending the use of solitary confinement in the United States is close to its goal of $20,000. You can make a contribution to help them continue their work.
  • Read up: Jean Casella, James Ridgeway and Sarah Shourd published a book with pieces written by prisoners in solitary confinement called Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. Read the book to hear why this issue is important from people who have spent time in “the hole.” You can also read pieces from prisoners in solitary confinement on Solitary Watch’s website and sign up for updates from Solitary Watch.
  • Correspond: You can start a Lifelines to Solitary chapter with a community, student, or faith group, or sign up as an individual for Solitary Watch’s Letters program. Find out more on Solitary Watch’s website.

About Linda Gerhardt

Linda spent most of her career in the nonprofit sector before joining Razoo. She has worked for animal welfare groups large and small, in nearly every position. She specializes in social media strategy, communications, and digital marketing.

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