‘Survivors of solitary confinement’
Introduction by Johnny Perez
There were significantly fewer mouths to feed in my apartment that Thanksgiving Day, as my family followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation not to travel or to gather in groups. I will do the same for Christmas. And yet, after a total of three years in solitary confinement, I am more grateful for the family I can be with than ever before.
I know that I am not alone
One of the hardest things about spending the vacation in solitary confinement was watching the correctional officers clock out early to be with their families. Hearing their plans with their sons and daughters only reminded me of how I was arrested for robbery and eventually jailed for 13 years just two days after my firstborn was born.
As I read reports of people imprisoned dying from COVID-19, I remembered catching the flu once while in solitary confinement and struggling for days with a high fever, sweats, and chills. Every day the correction officers made sure that my request to see a doctor had been forwarded. and every day my requests went unanswered. No aspirin, no decongestant, no extra blankets, no Kleenex, no maintenance.
Today my past is the present for many incarcerated people who are five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general public. It is also many times more likely that they will die from it. Since the arrival of COVID-19 in the US, the use of solitary confinement in our country’s prisons and jails has increased by 500%, mainly to contain a health crisis that continues to permeate every crevice of cancer institutions in the US.
There are humane suggestions on how to mitigate COVID-19, e.g. B. the release of those with a prison term of less than 365 days or of those who do not pose a threat to public safety, including those at high risk such as the elderly and women who expect it. But our leaders continue to ignore the humanity of the detainees and put them in situations that can turn any prison sentence into a death sentence.
The Nelson Mandela Rules, a set of revised minimum standards for the treatment of detainees, call on United Nations member states to prohibit indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement beyond 15 consecutive days for all detainees and solitary confinement for vulnerable groups, including Ban persons altogether with mental illness.
Fifteen consecutive days can cause permanent mental harm, but it is alarmingly common in the United States: nearly 15% of people in solitary confinement have been there for more than a year and nearly 30% have been in solitary confinement for one to three months. According to a 2016 report.
As I lead the national religious campaign against torture versus solitary confinement, I work with many religious leaders who, although from different communities, all share common values of humanity, salvation, and the golden rule of treating others with radical compassion.
It is tempting to believe that it is worth spending two weeks in solitary confinement to save a life from COVID-19. But it’s never just two weeks. Even before COVID-19, corrections officers were notorious for arbitrarily normalizing loners as a means of punishment. That normalization has been marred today by the smoke of current health crises and a historic choice. Combined with a lack of transparency, accountability, and political leadership, correction departments that are not accountable perpetuate illness and death.
At first glance, this policy is the most humane option there is. However, ask yourself the following: If you suspected you had COVID-19 and you knew this if you reported it to the prison staff it would result in you being in a tiny cell with just one toilet and one for at least two weeks Bed and are accommodated with no visitors or entertainment (you are only allowed to leave one hour per day).
Because of COVID-19, Americans miss their extended families. Seniors want to hug their grandchildren; Nieces want to see their aunts; and everyone gets a taste of the pain of being apart from the people they love. This year, approximately 300,000 people arrested will spend their vacations in solitary confinement, more alone than anyone.
Below are accounts from two other solitary confinement survivors of what it was like for them to be completely isolated over the holidays, when we are supposed to be together most. If we read them and continue during the holiday season, regardless of our beliefs, we can agree that torture has no place in our prisons and that all are entitled to compassion and care.
Johnny Perez is the director of the US prison program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
I was 20 weeks pregnant in September 2008 when I miscarried in my cell. The prison where I was held until the trial was locked overnight from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., which meant that no correction officer would go around for hours. The room was too dark to see, but as a gynecologist, I knew what was going on. There is no call button in a prison cell to alert someone to a medical emergency. When my cellmate woke up and doubled over in pain, she had no choice but to yell at the other women in my unit, who in turn started yelling that I needed help.
After 2 a.m., the officers finally arrived and first took me to the facility’s designated medical room. They debated whether to call the Marshal or 9-1-1. The nurse called the staff doctor, who knew me as a nurse and instructed the nurse to follow my instructions.
When I got to the hospital, I was handcuffed to the bed and taken to a room. When a nurse and doctor examined me, two male officers stood directly behind them and watched the examination very closely. My legs were in stirrups and the nurse informed me that I had indeed lost my baby. The officers threw sheets that I was bleeding on and that contained the fetus in the trash.
After the investigation was completed, I was taken back to prison and placed in solitary confinement under “medical supervision”. In the name of my own “safety” I spent the next eight months completely alone, with no books, no television, no telephone connection, no visitors, nothing but a bed, a toilet and myself.
The next two months were shear torture. I repeated in my mind the trauma I had just suffered. I wondered if my sons were okay. Did my sons know I lost the baby? Did the baby’s father know? As October turned into November, I realized this was going to be the first holiday season my children would be without me.
Thanksgiving came and went with nothing, not even a special meal, to watch. The agony continued. Every year on December 12th, before the 12 days of Christmas, my family planted a tree. What kind of vacation would my sons have without me? There was just no way I could know because I couldn’t talk to them.
After the vacation, I was transferred to another prison and was again placed in solitary confinement for my own “safety” as the prison was viewed as a hostile environment for people with federal charges of white-collar crime. I had been charged with health and banking fraud.
It would be nearly eight months before I spoke to my sons and the father of the child I had lost.
As a trained medical professional who has witnessed firsthand the horrors that await someone whose health is at the mercy of a prison or prison, it breaks my heart to think of the thousands of lives that have been unnecessarily ended because of gross become negligence.
I bought a house in August, became a grandmother in November and this year I will be hosting my granddaughter Aya Alise for her first Christmas. When the holidays come and we are frustrated not being able to see everyone we want, the only right thing to do is stop for a moment and think about those who cannot see anyone at all.
Pamela Winn is the founder of RestoreHER, an organization that works to improve treatment and access to health care for women in prison.
I spent 40 years in prison, most of the time in solitary confinement, but I never stopped celebrating the holidays. In fact, the holidays were a lifeline that kept me healthy and connected to the outside world. I never lacked maternal love, but geographic realities and her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis made visits from her nearly impossible.
The drive from her Los Angeles County home to Crescent City, on the California-Oregon border, took about 15 hours. For a year, someone’s parents in my unit surprised me by bringing my mother to visit me over the holidays. During the one hour that she was allowed to speak to me on the phone through a glass, I could see exhaustion on her face and the debilitating pain in her body. It caused me extreme sadness which led to my begging her to please, never to go on the journey again.
For people who, like me, are serving long sentences in solitary confinement, visits from friends and family are becoming increasingly rare. As decades go by and life evolve, it is only natural to forget someone behind bars at some point. But that didn’t stop me from taking care of my mother and others. I wanted her to know that I still remember her.
Every vacation I went to work creating elaborate maps to reach everyone in my address book. It wasn’t an easy task. In solitary confinement there are strict limits to who can be accessed. Sometimes at Christmas I was only allowed to use paper, pen and five envelopes. My Christmas card list was well over 20 people.
I collected old Los Angeles Times Sunday newspapers and was able to extract colors from newspaper printing to use on my maps.
After the cards were written, drawn, and colored, I set about making enough envelopes to mail them out. Using nothing but a paper clip, I cut sheets of paper into a pattern that can be folded into an envelope. Then I used thinned sealant glue from a real envelope to seal them.
For someone who only has time, this card made me feel like I wasn’t wasting time. They were how I kept up with whatever month and day. That way, I let others out there know that while they’ve forgotten me over the decades, I would never forget them. For 40 years these cards were my only means of expressing love in some form to another person.
This year I will spend Christmas with my mother who lives with me and my girlfriend. Because of COVID-19 and her age, I’m the only family member that can see her around Christmas time, but it doesn’t make this holiday season and our ability to spend it together any less sacred.
Jack Morris is a peer community health advisor who helps former incarcerated people rejoin society at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. He spent four decades in prison for murder.