If The Steel Walls Could Talk: The Abuse of Human Rights Through The Use Of Solitary Confinement

This prisoner held in solitary confinement is kept in isolation with little sunlight.
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One of the saddest stories that I ever listened to was the story of Kalief Broder. He was a young man from the Bronx who spent three years in jail because he could not pay for his bail after being arrested in 2010.  I heard about this story while watching 13th, the documentary that examines the connection of slavery to the mass incarceration of Black people in America. While I looked at Broder’s experience through the lens of racial injustice, there was another piece to this disheartening story. Broder also spent two years in solitary confinement without being convicted of a crime or having a trial. Broder was finally released from prison in 2013; two years later, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his parents home. 

Kalief Broder, a victim of the effects of solitary confinement.
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After making the connection between solitary confinement and mental illness, I started doing more research on this and thought about it in the context of human rights. The connection stems from the lack of connection between human rights and the rights of prisoners. In the context of solitary confinement and human rights, the overpractice of solitary confinement violates the human rights of prisoners. These violations include torture, mental abuse lack of resources such as sunlight and social interaction. To give a background on human rights in the scope of prisoners, their rights have been recognized by the United Nations to protect those rights. According to the Office of the High Commissioner in the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, the basic principles on the treatment and conditions inmates were adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations in December of 1990. One of the most profound statements stated that “All prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings”.  Although their rights have been recognized by the human rights community, most of the rights of prisoners are often abused due to this underlying notion that perhaps prisoners are not even seen as humans and do not need their rights to be protected. If their rights and humanity were protected by the state, then their rights would not be abused.

To give a context to the global prison system, the United States plays a big role within it. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has the highest incarceration rate worldwide. The use of solitary confinement is also used widely within the United States. The definition of solitary confinement is the isolation of a prisoner in a confined cell as a form of punishment. According to the Human Rights Watch, prisoners are “Prisoners in solitary typically spend 22 to 24 hours a day locked in small, sometimes windowless, cells sealed with solid steel doors”. While confined they do not have any contact with other inmates besides a prison guard that serves them their meals through a small opening on the door.  The National Public Radio  did a special series on the practice of solitary confinement. In the series, the hosts explain that the first documented use of solitary confinement in 1829. It was used in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Based in Quaker belief, it was seen as a place where criminals were locked in a stone cell with a Bible to pray and repent for the crimes. Although it was seen as a place for rehabilitation, many criminals went insane and committed suicide while being locked in the cells. After this, solitary confinement slowly stopped being practiced for many decades. 

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, one of the earliest places where solitary confinement was used in the 1800s.
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This practice was proven to be detrimental to the mental health of human beings over the course of decades. As the statement proves to be true, it is still used widely in the United States. The Human Rights Watch has offered research to the growing use of solitary confinement in prisons. The research states that solitary confinement in US prisons is imposed for different reasons, but most commonly it is used as punishment for breaches of discipline such as disciplinary segregation to manage prisoners considered to be particularly difficult or dangerous through administrative segregation. The increase in solitary confinement in the United States has occurred primarily through administrative segregation, and particularly the segregation of prisoners in special super-maximum security facilities, which are built solely for this purpose. Solitary confinement is not only used to punish prisoners physically but also mentally. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, has condemned the use of solitary confinement, finding that the imposition of this punishment can constitute torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The effects of solitary confinement are so damaging that it has been deemed as torture for human beings. According to the Human Rights Campaign, prisoners that are held in solitary confinement, they do not have opportunities for meaningful social interaction with other prisoners. The contact that they do have with officers is very brief and interaction only occurs when prisoners are being handed food through a small door. Phone calls and any visits by family and loved ones are severely restricted or prohibited. During the week, prisoners are let out for showers and solitary exercise in a small, enclosed space, sometimes indoors on a few times a week. They often have very little or no access to educational and recreational activities or other sources of mental stimulation. Lastly, they are usually handcuffed, shackled, and escorted by correctional officers every time they leave their cells. This also goes into them not having any access to sunlight or adequate housing that it is fit for the shelter of any human being. The research from the American Civil Liberties Union shows that the practice of solitary confinement can also damage an inmate on the psychological level. There are quite a few destructive effects of solitary confinement that include perceptual distortions and hallucinations increased anxiety and nervousness, along with self mutilation, severe chronic depression, and lower levels of brain activity. 

Another issue with this is the use of solitary confinement for inmates who are mentally ill. Statistics from ACLU state that most experts would estimate that approximately 10 to 20 percent of all prisoners in United States prisons suffer from a mental illness.  One story noted from ACLU from a prisoner who was mentally ill who spent time in solitary confinement actually set himself on fire and succumbed from his burns while another prisoner hung himself with a washcloth. It was also noted that prisoners were found to have attempted or have committed suicide, ingested razors, or have  pummeled their heads against walls. The issue with solitary confinement is the damaging psychological effects that it can have on the individual. By limiting social interaction, the prison is depriving one of social interaction that  is crucial for psychological growth and when that is interrupted that could have a detrimental influence on the individual. For those that are released from prison, they still face psychological harm from their time spent in solitary confinement. Craig Haney, PhD is a member of the American Psychology Association and a professor of psychology at the University of California who evaluates the psychological effects of solitary confinement on a human being. He states that “one of the very serious psychological consequences of solitary confinement is that it renders many people incapable of living anywhere else.” Then, when prisoners are released into cells or back into society, they are often overwhelmed with anxiety.” They actually get to the point where they become frightened of other human beings,” he said. These long term effects from solitary confinement leave a damaging mark on the humanity of these people and mentally abuses their human rights to the worst degree.

The effects of solitary confinement has damaging effects on the mental psyche of prisoners shown by this prisoner who is being held in isolation.
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With all of these human rights abuses, there should be an effort to abolish solitary confinement in prisons all over the world. It has too many detrimental effects on human beings and abuses the rights of prisoners and as members of society. There have been efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union to abolish solitary confinement. Their statement reads: “Over the last two decades corrections systems have increasingly relied on solitary confinement as a prison management tool – even building entire institutions called “supermax prisons” where prisoners are held in conditions of extreme isolation, sometimes for years or decades. But solitary confinement jeopardizes our public safety, is fundamentally inhumane and wastes taxpayer dollars. We must insist on humane and more cost-effective methods of punishment and prison management”.  In order for this issue to be solved, there must be major reform within the prison system and more access to mental health resources and rehabilitation services for prisoners. It does not do any good to lock people into cages to the point where they do not even know that they are human anymore. Even though they have committed crimes, these people are still human beings and their rights deserve to be protected. 

a demonstration by the people of Pennsylvania to abolish the practice of solitary confinement
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The Legacy of Lynching: How Hate Violence Still Haunts The American People

This is a Black man being hung from a tree with his tied behind his back during the 20th century and is used to demonstrate racial terror.
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I remember when I first saw a photo of a lynching. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old and was afraid to go outside of my house or attend school. I told my mother that the people that were hanging could not have been viewed as human but as objects of intimidation and pure terror. I recall the trauma from this photo I experienced as a child. The fear and concern for me and my family began to really scare me. Once researching this photo, I told my mother about it and she told me to research the word “lynching”. Upon the discovery, I stepped into this dark time of American history and I have become an advocate against the violation of human rights  since then. As discussed by Paula Giddings, professor of Afro-American Studies, the historical definition of this term is when someone is put to death by hanging by a mob consisting of three or more people. Lynching is done without a legal sanction, a trial, or a court sanction and actually began during the Revolutionary War. It did not become an issue of racial terror until 1886 when the number of Black lynching became higher than that of White lynching. 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that fought against the struggle against lynching  discusses the act of lynching and the nature of its terror. Lynching in America was done as an act of terror against Black people following Reconstruction in the late 19th century. The organization estimates that between the years of 1882-1968, 4,743 people were  lynched. Among those people, 3, 446 of those victims were Black. The Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated towards the liberation of oppressed people in America has done much research on lynching. It documents the practice being done in mostly Southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. It was not limited to the Southern states. The organization lists that it also occurred in other Western states such as Illinois, Kansas, and Oklahoma. So, during this time after Reconstruction, racial lynching was a nationwide phenomenon. 

Demonstrators of the NAACP protesting against the terror of lynching and brutal murder of Black lives in America. It includes men and women protesters advocating for laws against lynching.
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Research from the NAACP and Giddings notes, that most of these acts of brutality were justified  in the eyes of many Southerners. It was used as a method of intimidation to  Black people within their communities which resulted in this season of racial tension. Lynching was also a tactic that was influenced by the desire to protect the Southern white womanhood. In the eyes of Southern whites, there was this notion that Black men were sexually aggressive and predatory towards white women. Most lynching were motivated by the accusations of sexual assault and violence of Black men against white women. Although that was the story that the history books told, I knew that it had to be more to the story than that.  I wanted to study more about lynching because it affects so many things in our society and our country overall. For all these incidents of racial terror to occur for so many years, the effect of that terror does not just cease.  As I came to college and became more of an activist, I wanted to do my own research on lynching. I began to understand the importance of studying the ugly moments in history because we are told to forget.

Although the act of lynching has decreased at a tremendous level, the attitude and the justification of lynching has not. During my research, I discovered lynching was not only subjected to death by hanging, but also through beatings or being burned alive. Not only the denial of a trial but to hang someone from a tree who was most of the time innocent of the crime they were accused of. The victims were confronted by a lynch mob in jails and then beaten and tied with rope. The most shocking thing about all this was the vigilantism about it and the act of mobs storming into a jail cell to retrieve an innocent man or woman and deny them a fair trial. Hanging was not the only form of punishment they endured. Giddings also notes that victims were also burned alive, dismembered, or even dragged by vehicles, beaten, and even castrated. As lynching became spectacles for the white people in these communities, it became clear to me that these victims could not be viewed as human beings during this time. This was during a time period in America where Black people did not have many civil or human rights.  The rights of their humanity were not protected under the American law as many white people did not even look at Black people as citizens. The ADL, an organization for anti-hate advocacy, declares that there was this notion of superiority that allowed for the white race to feel superior to the Black race. This notion is the foundation of white nationalism and white supremacy in the United States. 

Lynching was viewed as the hate crimes of their day and were often used to maintain their superiority and social order in America. This lack of respect for their humanity is displayed as they were killed simply because they were Black. They were not seen as humans and their rights were not protected under the law. This problem of the lack of recognition of the human rights of Black people has left a damaging legacy and continues to contribute to the racial issues in America. Recently, I have visited the EJI museum and witnessed the jars of the soils of the sites of the lynching victims. There were so many, and it dawned on me that all these human beings could only be remembered in a jar of soil. Then I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and saw the pillars of the lynching victims in America. Not only did the number of pillars completely shock me, but as you walk down the area, the floor descends, and the pillars ascend. This was to represent the victims hanging from the trees as the pillars are hanging from the ceiling. Breathtaking is not strong enough of a word to describe how I felt, I felt helpless and full of sorrow because I could not help them nor fight for them. All I could do was memorialize them as the ones that died in the struggle for Black liberation. 

This is the National Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. This is the pillar display to memorialize over 4, 000 lynchings of Black people.
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As I think about this kind of hate violence, I begin to think of other victims whose lives have been taken by hate. I think about people such as Emmett Till, James Reeb, Matthew Sheppard, Brandon Teena, and countless others. To me that kind of violence that is motivated by hate is the most abrupt and vicious attack on human rights. Although this type of hate violence occurred during Reconstruction, there is this overwhelming feeling that hate violence have been steadily increasing in these present times. This kind of hate violence has left a haunting legacy that still haunts our society today.  In an article by the Washington Post, it discusses the rise of hate crimes  and the target towards minority groups and religious groups. These groups include crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, and Muslims in America. I feel as though the motivation of this growing trend is due to white nationalism and the desire to return to a society where white populace was the dominating voice in the country. Hate crimes have been recognized by the Human Rights Campaign in regards to  hate crime related violence. Even though it has been declared by legislation, there needs to be more advocacy for ending hate crime violence in the United States. 

Hate crimes are committed to express prejudice and hate against a certain group and in this act, one does not see these victims as human. Instead, the victims are seen as people that must be punished for ruining or destroying what they consider as “their country”.  Of course, this is not moral justification to commit violence against humans, but this is normally the attitude of the ones who commit this violence. To me, legislation is not enough to combat this issue without the acknowledgement of the history of hate violence. There must be conversations about where hate violence stemmed from. I have always lived by the quote of “you have to understand the past to understand the present”. By us being able to able to talk about the past, it will allow us to be able to dissect the problem at the root and create resources to prevent it from occurring. 

As a nation that is so rich in diversity, there is not any room for hate towards its American citizens. There is certainly not any room for violence against its American citizens as the rights and safety of American citizens should be protected under the law. If we are really going to move forward as a country, I believe that the country needs to be honest with itself about what has been done in the past. It is imperative because as hate violence was done in order to preserve white supremacy during the lynching period, the same notion remains in our society today. Another aspect is the lack of punishment for people that commit these crimes, and this really exposes the problems that continue to harm the people within our society. Every citizen in this country should be protected under the law along with their rights. 

If we are really going to look at the root cause of this problem of hate crime and violence, then we need to take a look in the mirror and decide if we even value humanity.As a country, we failed during the era of lynching as we failed to recognize our humanity, but that narrative does not have to remain this way for the rest of our lives. There must be more conversations and resources for advocacy against hate violence, it is imperative at this point. It is imperative to ensure that the dark history of lynching and hate violence does not repeat itself as history tends to do. On my part, I have always been dedicated to the liberation of oppressed people and the protection of human rights for minority groups overall. In this I am a fellow of the Jefferson County Memorial Project that does research on   lynched victims in Jefferson County. I appreciate this work because we owe it to them to tell their story and memorialize them. As a part of this fellowship, there will be an opportunity to create conversations in the Birmingham community in an educational way. It is also important to implement this education within the nation about this dark history so that we can see how it affects us today as Americans and how we can dismantle hate violence at the root.