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Disabled People Are Tortured in Solitary Confinement, But Tides May Be Turning

As public outrage grows, even presidential candidates are weighing in on the issue.

A man looks out of his cell on the Administrative Segregation wing of the Coffield Unit, June, 2000, outside of Palestine, Texas.

Charlene Liberty, a woman with a history of childhood trauma and mental health diagnoses, has cycled in and out of Rhode Island Adult Corrections Institute (ACI) for several years. The Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC) has repeatedly subjected her to solitary confinement, a practice that consists of sensory deprivation, social isolation, and eating, sleeping, urinating and defecating in a concrete cell for 22 to 24 hours a day. During solitary “recreation” time in Rhode Island and many other states, people may spend an hour in outdoor cages that resemble oversized dog crates.

While held in solitary, Liberty ran her head into her cell door and dove off the cell sink attempting to injure herself. In response, guards pepper-sprayed her cell. When a medical staffer arrived, he was overcome with pepper spray and was forced to use a stronger mask to lessen its effects. The staffer noted in his records that Liberty was “foaming at the mouth, had cyanosis (bluish discoloration) of the neck and face, and was twitching as if experiencing a seizure.”

Liberty reportedly injured herself again seven days later and was sent to a hospital for intensive care. Once she was sent back to prison, a multidisciplinary team chose the “treatment plan” of restricting her movement with belly and leg chains, a restraint chair and monitoring by a guard with pepper spray. After threatening to hurt herself, guards pepper sprayed Liberty again, this time while her hands and feet were shackled. They punished her by putting her back into solitary confinement.

Liberty is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed on October 25, 2019, by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island, the ACLU National Prison Project and Disability Rights Rhode Island. The lawsuit alleges that the Rhode Island Department of Corrections is violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act based on the “prolonged solitary confinement” of people with mental health diagnoses for weeks, months and even years at a time. Even a few days in solitary confinement can cause irreversible brain damage.

Liberty wrote in a press conference statement, “As a person with mental illness, I hate to see anyone treated the way I was treated — aggressively thrown into segregation, stripped down, made to feel less than a person and placed in a cell with no one to talk to, waiting for them to tell you what you did and how many days or weeks you are going to be isolated, left alone with your thoughts and emotions making things all that much worse.” She continued, “There is nothing positive — only feeling less than human, depressed, unworthy, seeing things on the wall, talking to yourself and wanting to kill yourself.”

The Rhode Island-based lawsuit names six plaintiffs who were diagnosed with “Serious and Persistent Mental Illness (SPMI)” and subjected to harsh solitary confinement conditions. If the plaintiffs win the suit, people diagnosed with SPMI in Rhode Island will no longer be subjected to solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement, although normalized in the United States today, was controversial over a century ago. In 1849, a doctor wrote an essay warning of its harmful effects: any man “excluded from all intercourse with his fellow-men, no attempt being made to call the powers of the mind into operation, the brain will fall into a state of atrophy, and great weakness of mind will result, as the natural physiological consequence.” He continued, “This position is undeniable.” A New York State warden was highly critical of its use in the 1900s. Yet, solitary confinement, sometimes called “segregated housing” by prison authorities, became widespread in the 1980s and ‘90s when the “war on drugs” ravaged Black and Brown communities in the United States.

In 2011, a United Nations Special Rapporteur expert on torture parroted what activists and incarcerated people have been saying for decades: “Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit … whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique.” The United States, however, keeps up to 100,000 people in solitary confinement, a figure that is greater than the entire prison populations of countries such as the U.K., France and Germany.

The tides may be turning. As public outrage grows, a number of presidential candidates have spoken out against the practice. Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Solitary confinement is a form of torture. It is unconstitutional, plain and simple. We must end solitary confinement in America,” and promises to abolish the practice in his “Prisoners Bill of Rights” platform. Elizabeth Warren’s criminal justice proposal calls for the elimination of solitary confinement. Pete Buttigieg’s website calls for a reduction on the “over-reliance” on the practice, and to limit its use to 15 days. Joe Biden calls for an end to solitary confinement. Yet his key role in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which contributed to an explosion in incarceration and solitary confinement, and a refusal to hold himself accountable, calls into question the sincerity of his proposal.

Disability justice for incarcerated people, however, has yet to receive adequate attention, even though people with disabilities represent the largest minority population in jails and prisons. They are disproportionality lower income, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQ, or have some other identity marked by oppression.

On any given day, 15 to 20 percent of Rhode Island’s prison population have been diagnosed with a SPMI. RIDOC reported to Disability Rights Rhode Island that over 100 people with what RIDOC calls “Serious and Persistent Mental Illness (SPMI)” were held in solitary confinement in Rhode Island from February 2018 until December 14, 2018. Self-reported Department of Corrections data, gathered by researchers with Yale Law School, estimates that on any given day, over 4,350 people with an SPMI are held in solitary confinement in the United States.

People with disabilities make up a disproportionate amount of the carceral system, and the system itself is legitimized by ableism. According to Talila Lewis, a disability justice attorney and volunteer director for Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD), ableism is “a system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on socially constructed ideas on normalcy, intelligence and excellence.”

“These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness, colonialism and capitalism,” Lewis told Truthout. “This form of systemic oppression leads to people in society determining who is valuable and worthy based on their appearance and their ability to satisfactorily produce, excel or behave.” People who do not fit into these socially constructed ideals, then, are disproportionately disappeared.

Community health resources are rendered unnecessary in societies that operate under an ableist framework. Advocates describe the “revolving door” of people who cycle in and out of ACI, many who often experience homelessness. ACI is essentially the state’s “largest mental hospital,” says Steve Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.

“Prisons were not meant to be dumping grounds for people with mental illness, but that is what they have become,” Brown told Truthout. “Prison officials don’t have the resources, professional staff or appropriate system model to be serving that function. More resources need to be put into mental health resources at the community level.”

Instead, law enforcement “manages” people with disabilities. Police have what Lewis calls a “disability consciousness gap,” which means they operate through indiscriminate power and control that fail to address unique needs people may have during interactions. Black, deaf individuals, for example, tend to use relatively larger signing language, a cultural difference police tend to find threatening, Lewis says. Police have beaten Black, deaf individuals for failing to comply with orders that they could not hear. A deaf individual could have no way of communicating throughout the legal process once a police officer arrests them. They may not know why they are detained and may not be able to access any medications that they need.

People with disabilities are then disproportionately punished with solitary confinement. Plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, “Ms. C,” a 41-year-old woman diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, arrived to ACI and was taken off her medication and was not scheduled to see a psychiatrist. Ms. C was disciplined with solitary confinement for filing daily medical slips and washing her hands “too frequently.”

Prisons and jails exacerbate disabilities and create new ones because of health care deprivation, poor nutrition and social isolation. Lewis has witnessed the physically toxic environment take a toll on incarcerated people too. “A lot of the folks I work with are deaf people who went into jails and prisons without any other form of illnesses or disabilities and came out with diabetes, hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, cancer, TBI, PTSD, addiction and more.” Lewis said. “These are people who were, relatively speaking, healthy and in just a few years — sometimes months — they became terribly ill or multiply disabled.”

While lawsuits can improve people’s conditions in some cases, advocates should recognize the limitations of legal victories. These “systems have figured out ways around federal disability rights laws and legal judgments,” Lewis said. For example, due to a Supreme Court ruling in 1998, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is supposedly barred from placing people with disabilities into solitary confinement. But, Lewis explained, prison systems “find ways to disappear disabilities, coerce people not to identify as disabled or make it dangerous for people to identify as disabled.” For example, people with mental health diagnoses are sometimes taken off their medications for several months before being transferred to ADX Florence, a supermax prison composed of solitary cells. Once they are off their medications, they are “no longer disabled” in the system, according to Lewis.

“Disability rights litigation, when not informed by disability justice, racial justice, and other social justice praxis, does not go far enough and can sometimes help buff[er] violent carceral ideologies and practices,” Lewis said. For example, “We would not want to sue simply to obtain accommodations while a person is in solitary confinement,” Lewis added. “We want to acknowledge that solitary confinement for everyone is torture, and that its horrific effects are even more acutely felt for particular people.”

The legal system, then, shouldn’t be the sole battleground in the fight against solitary confinement. “People should also focus on disability justice, decarceration and prison abolition as solutions to this perennial struggle against the violence of carceral systems,” Lewis says.

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