Johnny Perez is an expert on what solitary confinement is, and this week on What We Don’t Know, he joins us to discuss his journey from prison to advocacy and his efforts to eliminate the use of solitary confinement. Johnny was sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment as a minor, and during that time he tested positive for marijuana. He was punished by serving time in solitary.
He ultimately endured three years total in isolation during his sentence. The traumatic experiences he encountered are much like many others, like teenager Kalief Browder, who ended up in jail due to lack of bail (a conversation we’ll explore more in next week’s interview) which led to his eventual suicide due to instability in his mental health after solitary. Albert Woodfox is well known for his astounding 40 years of solitary confinement while remaining uncharged for an accused crime. Perez not only survived but triumphs as a well-known advocate, fighting to abolish solitary as the director of U.S. Prison Programs; National Religion Campaign Against Torture.
Johnny Perez Explains how Solitary is torture
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, quarantine has put our days on a continuous loop of mundane routines, three meals a day, and too much snacking and Netflix. Dining rooms became home offices, gyms became streaming workout videos, and happy hours moved to Zoom calls from your bedroom. Now imagine that food and snacks are reduced to one bland meal a day, there's no television or music, exercise routines reduced to quick walks in circles, and the home office is only a room with a hard bed and toilet. That room is so small that both arms stretched out can touch the walls; it's dark, quiet and absent of any essential human connection. Welcome to solitary confinement.
Also referred to as Segregated Housing, or Restrictive Housing described as the removal of an inmate from the general population into a separate space; solitary confinement is an area of much debate and confusion due to its various implementation, terminology, and conditions depending on prisons. Generally, the common factors are:
Would you be able to handle it? Try this virtual experience of a solitary cell below.
Johnny Perez breaks it down for us, and he explains just how often solitary is overused and why America has a big problem with it explicitly. He says, "We (American prisoners) represent half of the world's isolated prisoners if you think about every single person in the world who is in solitary or in some solitary like condition, The U.S. counts for half of that we also account for 25% of the worlds' incarcerated population."
Who Ends Up In Solitary?
Political propaganda, film, and television has many believing solitaries are necessary evils. Where else would the El Chapos and the Hannibal Lectors of the world be kept? The fact is, however, that many subjected to solitary are there for non-threatening reasons. In some states, you can be isolated simply for being related to a staff member.
If you make even the most minor infraction, such as talking back to a guard or stealing cigarettes, you can be locked away. Some prisoners involuntarily end up in solitary for "their safety," such as minors or LGBTQ people. The criticism here is that in terms of prison life, there is no foreseeable time frame where that individual becomes "safe" enough to be released into the general population.
Now, imagine being punished for being sick. Currently, prisoners are locked away in isolation for contracting COVID- 19 as well.
Each prison has its own set of rules based on wardens and correctional officers' discretion. While there can be valid causes for isolation ranging from gang violence to physical fights, there's still too much gray area in terms of what constitutes it, and the time spent is malleable. Prisoners can expect to endure two weeks minimum, but the average time spent is months to years, but does this punishment always fit the crime?
There is no argument that maintaining a prison population is dangerous and challenging, especially since facilities are often overcrowded. The World Prison Brief reported that U.S. prisons are at an overwhelming 103.9% occupancy. Still, critics suggest the real issue is a lack of rehabilitation programs that prevent recidivism. Guards are understaffed and jaded, which encourages them to use the threat of solitary punishment as a management tool to keep prisoners in line and out of the way. It's essentially an "out of sight, out of mind" way of operating, which is why the U.N.s "Nelson Mandela Rules' that went into effect in 2015 are essential.
The new rules were previously known as Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and hadn't been updated for over 60 years. That’s right; 60 whole years of the same old guidelines. The Mandela Rules, Inspired by its namesakes, Nelson Mandela, time imprisoned in South Africa are rules set to make solitary more humane. The 122 provisions set out to ensure dignity and prevent torture.
Some Key Components of The Mandela Rules:
Safety and Health Concerns
These rules would imply the problem is solved, right? Nope, unfortunately, the rules are not binding, allowing for many loopholes. Despite a time limit on days spent in solitary, there are no regulations on how many times and in what period the 15 days occur, so typically, it can remain indefinite. Many of the "rules" are just guidelines left to the discretion of each prison and correctional officer.
Under rule #43, restraints are "only legitimate if no lesser form of controlling an actual risk is available, and they must be removed as soon as possible." The amount of control needed for a situation is subjective, and the level of force and restraints is determined on the spot by those applying it.
U.S. federal laws are more concise, such as the exclusion of confinement for minors as per President Obama's executive order in 2016. Still, laws vary from state to city with misreporting of cases due to its different naming like "administrative segregation," which makes enforcement challenging and hard to track.
Despite these many grey areas, some other countries can limit or eliminate this practice. Presumably, in the land of opportunity, there can be better innovations applied geared toward rehabilitation and away from mental distress caused by this torture
What's Happening 'Over There'?
While all prison systems globally require review and reform, it's no surprise that the United States, with its most tremendous incarceration rate, leads to its solitary abuse. Some places have a very low maximum on days in solitary like Belgium; 8 days and Finland;14 days.
In France, solitary confinement often requires a judicial constitutional review in its primary use for radical prisoners and though its cells are also dreary, they are allowed visits in a designated 'visiting room.'
Some countries are excelling at highlighting rehabilitation programs that limit the need for isolating inmates.
Netherland prison populations have been declining steadily since 2006, leading them to close down 29 prisons between 2013-2018. Mentally ill inmates do not get mixed into the general population; instead, they go to the penitentiary psychiatric center or EXG's (Easy Care Facility) as opposed to the U.S., where the mentally ill end up in solitary due to erratic behavior.
Closed Supervision Centers, CSC, replaces solitary. Though it is still pretty much-isolated confinement it's often in groups of no more than ten and used less than the U.S. It provides daily check-ups from staff and nurses: some CSC's offer in-cell T.V.s and unlimited outside exercise.
Norway and Sweden
Scandinavia, overall, has the best reform and rehabilitation rates, but Norway tops the list among the most progressive in prison systems. They sustain as much normalcy as possible for inmates. Instead of bars and barbed wire, you find windows and communal kitchens. Inmates maintain control of their day's schedule with access to a wide variety of rehabilitation programs, classes, and required work. It's believed this autonomy keeps populations calm, therefore, minimizing the need for solitary punishment. Relationships between guards and inmates are cultivated and programs available to ready them for reentry into society. Even in the rare occasion of solitary, places, like Halden Prison in Norway, dignity remains intact with each room having a window, private bathroom, and as much normalcy for the inmate as solitary allows.
In an interview with Business Insider, Are Hoidel, Halden prison director, says, "Every inmate in Norwegian prisons are going (to go) back to society. Do you want people who are angry or people who are rehabilitated?
Prioritizing harsh punishment over plans for rehabilitation ultimately hurts public safety. A prisoner enters the jail; they enter solitary and later falls into mental despair, which causes lasting psychological effects. 95% of the time, that person will ultimately be released back into the world. This Russian doll experience of a box within a box returns to society a person with less dignity, trust, finances, and mental stability than they had prior.
Many believe that what may work in other countries can't possibly apply to the U.S., but studies show the current system isn't working either. Norway's repeat offenders are at 20%. In comparison, the U.S. is the highest worldwide at 76.6%. The need for rehabilitation as opposed to spending more money on punishment with supermax prisons should be the focus if public safety is the concern, especially now in these uncertain times.
Perez's organization calls for more release and rehabilitation programs like anger management and reentry programs. In his interview with SolitaryWatch.org, Perez states, "... I would say that as a nation, we cannot keep victimizing people to teach them that they shouldn't victimize people...We have to be careful about becoming the cure that is worse than the disease.
Perez and others are still in the fight to end solitary. Currently, in New York, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act or HALT act calls for an end of solitary in favor of new and humane alternatives. It also limits the criteria for application and prohibits special populations such as minors, elderly, sick, and disabled. Right now, the bill is still in wait as Perez and other activists continue to bring awareness to pass it and calls for action from Governor Cuomo, who instead passed lesser legislation dealing only with administrative regulations in 2019.
To help bring awareness, donate and help to get the HALT Act passed visit http://nycaic.org/, and #HALTsolitary
In 1842 Charles Dickens famously wrote of his visit to the solitary prison, Eastern State Penitentiary.
Looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. ...an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired….He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years…."
To learn more about the work of Johnny Perez and his mission to abolish solitary with his organization, visit: www.facebook.com/nrcat and www.nrcat.org.
You can donate and get involved through the ACLU.
Go to www.aclu.org to find out how and for more about Perez's contributions to their mass incarceration series dealing with various prison issues from the sentence and bail reform, to parole and release.