"What does it feel like to be in solitary confinement, spending 23 hours of every day isolated in a 6x8 room with no human contact?" John Jay hosted a panel entitled Face to Face with Incarceration, Solitary, and Rikers, which included a panel of guests and video clips from RIKERS: An American Jail and The Marshall Project's We are Witnesses. Students also had the opportunity to step into a replica solitary confinement cell, and even participate in a virtual reality solitary confinement experience.
President Karol Mason provided opening remarks. She discussed how she was interested this event and wanted to speak at it, because while serving as U. S. Assistant Attorney General the White House asked for a report on solitary confinement and its effects, which was issued to the President in January of 2016.
Moderated by Stephen Handelman, director of John Jay Center on Media Crime & Justice, the panel included Tyler Nims who leads the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, and Scott Hechinger who is policy director of Brooklyn Defender Services. There were also three panelists who were previously incarcerated, including Johnny Perez, director of US Prisons Program for the national Religious Campaign Against Torture; Tyrell Muhammed, who works for the Correctional Association of New York; and Miyhosi Benton, associate at the Women and Justice Project.
Panelists provided their opinions on incarceration, Rikers, and solitary confinement. Additionally, Perez, Muhammed, and Benton were able to provide their firsthand experiences with incarceration and solitary confinement. Perez spent three years in solitary for smoking marijuana, and during that time he was not provided anger management or substance treatment, two things that could have benefitted him more than solitary. He says that he was in solitary "for what felt like forever". He also told the audience that he was recently diagnosed with PTSD from his time incarcerated and in solitary, and that it was the first time he had ever admitted that publicly. A key problem he mentioned with solitary is that people are not there for days, weeks, or even months, but for decades. He posed the question, "What is the purpose? What are we doing?"
Muhammed said that there is never a time when a person needs to be put in solitary, because this is the twenty-first century yet we are still using medieval tactics. Additionally, there should be better trained guards. He explained how in other countries, officers do not see themselves as solely officers, but as educators, therapists, and more. The goal is more rehabilitative, which is something our country and system should focus on.
As Hechinger pointed out, solitary confinement begins outside of solitary walls and outside of prison walls, and begins on the street. He said that it is extraordinary how quickly Rikers and other institutions change someone, as he has seen dramatic changes in clients after being in Rikers for only five days.
Benton was pregnant when she was put in solitary, which was an even more damaging experience as she was focused not only on her health and survival, but the health and survival of her child as well. She explained that you start to deteriorate mentally in solitary, and that in order to survive you have to mentally bury a lot of memories and emotions. As she said, she will never get back the months during which she felt like her baby would not survive and like she was losing her mind.
Yes, there are times when some people need to be separated form the general population for whatever reason, but what is a humane way to do that? A lot of people that were in solitary confinement go directly from solitary back to society, which is not effective. Perez said that to this day, he still has dreams about being incarcerated, and that those demons always stay with you.
Some alternatives to solitary that were discussed included not isolating people, but separating them if necessary. Additionally, getting to the root of the problem to help people instead of punishing them, which worsens the problem. Another solution is reducing the offenses that people are arrested and incarcerated for, including jumping turnstiles on the subway and minor drug offenses. There is a way to hold people accountable but still treat them humanely. A simple way to help those impacted by the criminal justice system is to not call them criminals, inmates, or ex-cons, but people. Also by educating ourselves, peers, families, and communities.