The Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black” makes jail look horrible. In reality, it’s much worse, as we at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) know from collecting stories from prisoners and their families for decades.
Those held in US prisons describe inhumane conditions including extended isolation often lasting years, use of torture devices, sexual harassment, brutality, cold, filth, callous medical care, and more. We are haunted by the stories from our prisons, such as this one from a young girl in New Jersey:
I was 12 when they put me in isolation (solitary confinement). I heard people scream. They used pepper spray on this girl and she couldn’t breathe. They kept hitting her. We told them that she had asthma, but they wouldn’t listen.
Tragically, on any given day, more than 80,000 men and women are locked in solitary in US prisons – alone for 23 hours a day. And even more are held in isolation in immigrant detention centers and juvenile facilities.
Long-term isolation has no rehabilitative benefit – but it does have serious negative psychological effects. In fact, solitary confinement is considered a form of “no touch” torture by human rights experts and under international law.
This month is Torture Awareness Month. Please acknowledge it by contacting your state and federal lawmakers and urging them to introduce legislation to end isolation and other forms of “no touch” torture in US prisons. It is not only a stain on our nation’s soul; it is an offense against international conventions for human rights that the United States has subscribed to – and often criticizes other nations for failing to honor.
The United States has the largest prison population in the world with 2.2 million people incarcerated – a 500 percent increase in the last 30 years. Our tax dollars are used to lock up more people per capita than any other nation in the world – more than India, more than Russia and more than China.
African-Americans and Latinos comprise 58 percent of all prisoners, despite being just 25 percent of the population – more proof that racism is alive and well in our justice system.
The continued expansion of the US penal system, and the continued expansion of solitary confinement in the system, is a profound spiritual and moral crisis for our nation.
These statistics are even more disheartening when we consider that for many, the motivation for putting so many people behind bars is cold, hard cash.
You might ask, how is it that a 14-year-old boy in a poor neighborhood, who has little hope of getting a decent job or affording college, can suddenly generate up to $30,000 a year once he’s trapped in the criminal justice system?
It’s because our prisons are a boon to everyone from private prison operators to food vendors to medical services companies, all with one thing in common: a pay check earned by keeping human beings in cages.
At AFSC, in addition to advocating for policy change, we advocate for individual prisoners like Ojore Lutalo, who spent 26 long years in the New Jersey state prison – including 22 years in solitary confinement due to his political beliefs. He was allowed out of his cell for only two hours, every other day. Even when his mother died, they delivered the news through the crack below the door – and no one came in to comfort him. Not only did we advocate on his behalf to the media and provide legal representation, but we also served as a lifeline, calling to make sure he was still alive whenever his phone calls stopped coming or he “disappeared” to another cell without anyone knowing.
Unfortunately, more and more US prisoners are being subjected to this kind of cruel and unusual punishment, but we and our many coalition partners are making progress. In fact, more and more prisoners are standing up for their basic human rights through peaceful protests.
Consider the hunger strike in California’s prisons. Upwards of 40 people went without solid foods for eight and a half weeks. These prisoners weren’t asking for much: just to be free from isolation, to have regular contact with their families, meaningful activities and livable conditions.
And their struggle paid off. With the coalition’s help, the prisoners succeeded in convincing the California legislature to hold hearings and take legislative action to address the prison abuses.
We must transform our prison system from one of violence, torture and isolation to one that embraces true restorative justice and healing. Join the AFSC in the struggle during Torture Awareness Month by calling on your elected representatives to end solitary confinement. Because everywhere in the world, human rights should be nonnegotiable.