Guest Post by Jacob Alderdice, HLS ’14

Harvard PLAP Panel on Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement, a practice that has been under scrutiny for hundreds of years, continues to be widespread within United States prisons.  Despite abundant medical literature detailing the severe and disastrous effects such isolation can cause, correctional institutions continue to utilize this practice on thousands of incarcerated people.  Advocates have filed lawsuits and spoken out to try to bring this issue to the forefront of the public mind.

On Monday, February 25th, the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), along with several co-sponsors, hosted a panel on Solitary Confinement.  HLS students and PLAP Policy Coordinators Jeanne Segil ’14 and Sia Henry ’14 put the event together, assembling a panel of experts that encompassed several sides of the issue.

Over one hundred students, activists, and outside community members filled Austin West to capacity and then some to see the panel moderated by Matthew Segal, the Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts.  The panel included:

Professor Jules Lobel, the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who has been leading litigation challenging U.S. solitary confinement practices under the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process;

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has extensively researched the psychological effects of solitary confinement;

Bobby Dellelo, an activist working for the American Friends Service Committee’s Criminal Justice Program, who experienced solitary confinement in Massachusetts; and

Mikail DeVeaux, the Executive Director and Founder of Citizens Against Recidivism, a New York City community organization advocating for both incarcerated people and their families.

A powerful and moving conversation ensued among the five men.

“Just Describing the Situation Seems to Define Cruelty”

Professor Lobel introduced the topic of solitary confinement by describing one of his legal battles in the field.  An Ohio district court judge declared that the informal procedures for placing people into solitary confinement in a Youngstown, Ohio Supermax were a violation of their procedural due process.  The Supermax, a term for the highest security prison, had been placing people into solitary confinement without hearings, including many mentally ill people and “people that didn’t belong” in solitary confinement.  After the ruling, the institution conducted hearings and reduced the amount of people in solitary from 500 to 50, seemingly affirming that many of the people indeed did not belong there.  Yet the Supreme Court later overturned the district court’s decision, holding that the original informal procedures were sufficient.

Professor Lobel introduced a recurring motif for the night: the shocking nature of solitary confinement being met with judicial and institutional apathy.  80,000 people are in solitary confinement nationwide, 25,000 of them in Supermax prisons, and 1,000 of them in Pelican Bay State Prison alone, a California Supermax.  The Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit last year against the California Department of Corrections, alleging that the solitary confinement practices of Pelican Bay violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of due process.

The 1,000 people in solitary in Pelican Bay remain in windowless cells for twenty-three hours a day.  For the remaining hour, they are put into “recreation” cells, with twelve-foot walls and wire mesh covering the ceiling, blocking natural light.  The cells used to be empty of any items used for recreation.  After the inmates led a hunger strike, there is now a ball in the cells.  During their time in solitary, incarcerated individuals are unable to receive visitors and prohibited from engaging in programs, thus cutting off any meaningful activity or interaction with the outside world.  Some of the people put into this isolation were put there due to dangerous, violent behavior.  But many were put there solely out of a concern that they are gang-affiliated.  For example, some inmates were placed into solitary confinement after correctional officers found posters in their rooms of George Jackson, a renowned author and prison activist.

Of the 1,000 people in isolation at Pelican Bay, 500 have been there for ten years or more.  100 have been there for over twenty years.  A United Nations inquiry into solitary confinement established a limit at which the treatment becomes torture: 15 days.  Professor Lobel noted, “Just describing the situation seems to define cruelty.”  However, “courts are demanding more.”  Courts are not satisfied with “mere” mental anguish and suffering.  The 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act narrowly defines injury, requiring physical injury or serious mental illness for a prisoner to receive damages.  Professor Lobel ended by noting that if the torture conducted at Abu Ghraib, including sensory deprivation, humiliation, and waterboarding, had occurred in the United States, the prisoners would not have an 8th Amendment claim available to them due to the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

“The Prisons Refuse to Look”

After noting that the “torture” of solitary confinement is “far greater than physical pain,” Dr. Stuart Grassian explained how people in the prison system are well aware of these effects, but actively ignore them.  Dr. Grassian supported this by pointing at the extensive history of documentation of the severely harmful effects of solitary confinement.  As early as colonial America, the Puritans experimented with solitary confinement.  They believed this type of forced isolation would be a “monastic experience,” allowing people to repent (thus the name “penitentiaries”).  This experiment was a disaster, resulting in case after case of psychosis and suicide.

This experience remained in the collective American conscience, as late as an 1890 Supreme Court case.  Dr. Grassian described the case of James Medley, a Colorado man that was convicted of murdering his wife.  Instead of being hanged immediately, he was placed in solitary confinement for a term of zero to forty-five days, to be held before his hanging.  In the case of In Re Medley, the Supreme Court declared this additional sentence unconstitutional, stating that “experience demonstrated that there were serious objections” to solitary confinement.  Describing the sordid history of the practice, the Court was so struck by the punishment that they let Mr. Medley, a convicted murderer, go free.

Dr. Grassian also cited modern research into the severe effects of confinement.  Research conducted during the Korean War by Harvard psychologists and funded by the United States, demonstrated the extreme effects of sensory deprivation.  There is also an abundance of “common medical literature” describing the effects of similar phenomena, such as ICU (Intensive Care Unit) psychosis, and visual impairment.  While the American prison system has shown no concern about the effects of this treatment, the Navy and NASA, concerned for the effects of people in deep sea and space isolation, have commissioned many studies and taken many precautions.  Dr. Grassian emphasized the “readily accessible medical literature” that was available from all of these studies, but lamented that “prisons refuse to look.”

“Monster Factories”

Bobby Dellelo began by trying to help everyone picture themselves in a cell, alone.  He spent five years in solitary confinement in Walpole, Massachusetts, in what is called the Departmental Disciplinary Unit (DDU).  He described how the cells feel “huge”, and that “you become small” in them.  Although Professor Lobel said his clients are typically in the cells for 23 hours a day, Dellelo said it more often became 24 hours a day.  For many different reasons, people would not be taken out all day.  He went on to describe the “highly toxic environment” of solitary confinement that affects the individual, the guard, and the administration.

Once he had been removed from human interaction, Dellelo could no longer function the few times he was able to see people.  When his lawyer came to visit, he would look away for a moment, then look back and completely lose the conversation.  No longer able to maintain conversation, he would become paranoid and disturbed until he returned to his cell.

At night, Mr. Dellelo was jolted awake every forty-five minutes to an hour by the blaring buzzer that would go off every time the correctional officers entered on patrol.  The officers’ footsteps would echo through the halls, as other inmates began yelling.  As the effects of the isolation and sleep deprivation built up, smaller noises started to become words.  The soft buzzing of the radiator started as “eeeeehhhhhh” but turned into “whatareyoudoing whatareyoudoing killyourself.”  Dellelo noted, “There is no doubt I was crazy.”

Adding to these feelings of psychosis was the “unbearable rage” Mr. Dellelo felt towards the correctional officers.  “They would toss my cell every time I left,” he said.  When he returned to his cell, the legal materials that he spent all day organizing would be out of order.  The area outside the cells was considerably warmer than inside the cells, so the officers would turn the temperature down to stay comfortable.  This left the inmates freezing inside of the cells.  Near the cells, there was a gym intended for the inmates (“We couldn’t use it. The guards used it.”), and a dining room (“We couldn’t use it. The guards used it.”)  Dellelo was driven to fantasizing about attacking and brutally murdering the officers.  He reflected, “I didn’t know how much of me was going to be left inside.”

Mr. Dellelo acknowledged the rationale for separating some people.  He admitted he was an “escape artist.”  “You put me in minimum security, I’m gone,” he said, waving his hand goodbye.  “But why can’t you separate people in a humane way?”  He pointed to Maine, which removed 70 percent of its segregated population from solitary confinement and has not encountered any serious problems with violence.

Dellelo now has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he says is “happening to everyone” that has spent extensive time in solitary.  He remembered the people that were already seriously mentally ill that were placed in DDU, that would do things like put feces in their mouth and “spit feces at each other” when they were taken out.   Calling the solitary confinement units “monster factories”, he wondered, “Do you want people better or worse when they return to the community?”

“One of The People, Not One of Those People”

Mikail DeVeaux’s remarks contrasted with the other speakers’ description of the problems of solitary confinement. Rather than detailing the abuse and effects of the issue, he took an advocate’s perspective and focused on what we can do to facilitate change.  He set the tone of the night by reminding everyone that we must not just think of incarcerated individuals as “prisoners”, but rather as people, in order to avoid the “not like them mentality” that often surrounds incarcerated people.  If even advocates for incarcerated people think of prisoners as “others”, if they work in isolation from the community of incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people, then it becomes more difficult to convince the public that the suffering of “prisoners” is something that they should care about.

Mr. DeVeaux emphasized this point while mentioning that a flyer for the panel had originally noted that he had spent time in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York.  DeVeaux requested this part of the flyer to be removed.  He had indeed been in Sing Sing; he had also been in Green Haven, Comstock, Clinton, Auburn and other prisons in New York.  He spent time in solitary confinement.  But he strove while in prison to “not become institutionalized.”

Knowing that he “could not win physically” against the guards, he fought to stay alive mentally; reading and trying to maintain a connection to the outside world.  He said that talking to people on the outside and reading authors like George Jackson “helps you to see yourself in the larger context.”  He had come from an impoverished background, living in Harlem with underfunded public schools.  Once DeVeaux saw the bigger picture, it helped him lift himself up, acquire a college education and become a successful advocate both inside and outside of prison.

“Change How People Think, Then Organize, Then Mobilize”

When asked how we can achieve victories in the movement against solitary confinement, Professor Lobel pointed out that while courts have been “reasonably bad” in the area, there were some signs that “the tide has turned.”  While even some liberal judges have upheld solitary confinement practices in the past, the “perceptible abuse” of the practices is now “rankling courts.”  He referenced a Louisiana case, the “Angola Three”, in which three prison activists had been solitarily confined for an alleged murder, two of them for forty years.  Their civil lawsuit recently survived a motion to dismiss.  Lobel stated simply that courts must recognize that solitary confinement “deprives people of a fundamental need of human interaction.”

Dr. Grassian began speaking to the same point, suggesting that “courts need to embrace more fully the psychiatric pain” caused by solitary confinement.  Mr. DeVeaux then jumped in, saying it “can’t just be the courts or the lawyers” forcing the change.  “We need all the players at the table for these cases, including the community.”  He exhorted the large crowd of people in the room to “get involved.”  Change would come “if the general public were more aware.  They need to get it.”  This is why people cannot have the “they’re not us” reaction to incarcerated people.  “We have to change how people think.  Then organize them, then mobilize them.”

Professor Lobel pointed to the recent hunger strikes organized by Pelican Bay prisoners as a way of trying to get the public’s attention.  He ended by suggesting alternatives to the current system.  Correctional institutions can still have some segregation without it being an “exaggerated response to alleged gang affiliation” and while “doing it in a humane way.”  The CCR’s California lawsuit suggests that “if someone commits a serious crime in prison, they can get a sentence of a limited (not indeterminate) amount of time in solitary.”  He offered another alternative, but one that he acknowledged had not gotten much traction in court: “Studies show that if you just treat people with respect, they are less likely to react violently.”

Ways to Get Involved

In response to Mr. Deveaux’s challenge to the crowd to get involved, Matthew Segal turned to members of the crowd that are involved in prisoners’ rights and solitary confinement advocacy.  Links to their organizations are below.

Prisoners’ Legal Services:

Physicians for Human Rights:

American Friends Service Committee:

Between the Bars:

Related Links:

On Bobby Dellelo (and Solitary Confinement Generally):

On Pelican Bay Lawsuit:

On the “Angola 3”: