Advertisement
Click here for General Assembly coverage

A moral call to end the torture of solitary confinement

Beverly Brewster shares a commissioners' resolution that will be introduced this summer at General Assembly.

At a justice conference ten years ago, a United Church of Christ minister invited me to step inside a solitary confinement cell replica. I hesitated, claiming claustrophobia. The minister, Ron Stief, assured me that he’d let me out in a minute. Once inside, with the solid metal door of the windowless cell sealed shut, I stood in the overly bright artificial lighting and wondered how a person in that cell could know day from night. How could anyone survive in here? Deprived of any contact with nature, of any human contact? When Stief, who is the executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), opened the cell door to let me out, I said, “Sign me up to help.”

On any given day in U.S. federal and state prisons and jails, more than 122,000 people are held in solitary confinement, sometimes called restrictive housing, for 22 or more hours a day. Human rights organizations estimate that many more face these conditions in immigrant detention and youth facilities. Incarcerated people (including juveniles, those who are pregnant, the elderly, and individuals with mental or physical disabilities) are denied meaningful human contact and held in a cell the size of a parking space, often with no natural sunlight or access to nature. Meals are shoved through a slot in the door. In its February 2024 report, Physicians for Human Rights calls this an “endless nightmare.”

On any given day in U.S. federal and state prisons and jails, more than 122,000 people are held in solitary confinement, sometimes called restrictive housing, for 22 or more hours a day.

The United Nations’ “Nelson Mandela Rules” prohibit the use of solitary confinement beyond 15 consecutive days in all circumstances and call for its abolition for women, children and individuals with mental and physical disabilities. Article I of the UN Convention Against Torture prohibits policies and practices that “constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”

Yet in the U.S., incarcerated people in most states can be held in such conditions for months, years, even decades. As The Atlantic, Solitary Watch, and other media outlets have reported, Black people, Latine people, Indigenous people, and other people of color are disproportionately subjected to solitary confinement and receive longer terms in solitary than White people for minor disciplinary infractions. Neither a judge nor jury sentences people to solitary confinement. Its use is left to the discretion of corrections officers, who often keep no records, and are not accountable.

Being transferred to solitary confinement while in prison means automatic suspension of participation in educational programs and vocational training. This significantly decreases the chances for a solitary survivor to secure a job, or even a job interview, upon re-entry to society. Those who endure weeks, months, years, and even decades of total isolation before returning back to society carry a deep and debilitating trauma from their torture that often makes it difficult to effectively interact with family, friends, potential employers, and their community.

The director of NRCAT’s U.S. Prisons Program, Johnny Perez, has spoken to this saying, “As someone who has personally endured the torment of solitary confinement, I can attest to the devastating toll it takes on one’s mental and emotional well-being.”

What can Presbyterians do?

Help build support for a Commissioners’ Resolution (CR), “On Ending the Torture of Prolonged Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons, Jails, and Immigration Detention Facilities,” co-sponsored by Commissioners Linwood Bagby, Presbytery of Northeast New Jersey, Rev. Judy Slater, Presbytery of the Redwoods, and Rev. Trina Portillo, Presbytery of Boston, which will be submitted to the 226th General Assembly.

This commissioners’ resolution (CR) was prepared by a team of Presbyterians working with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). The CR asks presbyteries, congregations and individual Presbyterians to support and participate in the work of the Office of Public Witness and human rights groups, including NRCAT, to end the torture of prolonged solitary confinement and prohibit solitary confinement for vulnerable populations in U.S. state and federal jails, prisons and immigration detention centers.

The CR asks … Presbyterians to support and participate in the work of the Office of Public Witness and human rights groups, including NRCAT, to end the torture of prolonged solitary confinement and prohibit solitary confinement for vulnerable populations …

The CR also urges the General Assembly to call upon every U.S. jurisdiction to pass laws to limit solitary and its use, to prohibit solitary for vulnerable populations, and to provide therapeutic alternatives.

The time is now for our church to lift its moral voice on behalf of those who are unable to advocate for themselves. Federal legislation to end solitary confinement in federal facilities is pending (H.R.4972 – End Solitary Confinement Act, 118th Congress, 2023-2024). There are grassroots campaigns to limit the torture of solitary confinement in more than 20 U.S. states. But significant moral pressure is needed from the faith community and the public to enact the legislative and administrative reforms that would end the torture of solitary confinement.

I was reunited with that solitary cell replica last fall at my state Capitol in Sacramento, California. I was there for a NRCAT-sponsored Day of Action supporting the California Mandela Act to End Solitary. I led a prayer for the assembled crowd of dozens of solitary survivors. Then I went with my assigned small group of survivors and clergy to advocate for the Mandela Act with our state legislators. NRCAT organizes, equips, empowers and honors solitary survivors, and we ensure their stories are heard first.

The stories I heard that day make my heart ache. Most of these survivors were put in solitary as juveniles; none were White. They endured terrible trauma in solitary, listening to the screams of people who didn’t survive. Eventually the survivors were released, but many went home to their loved ones too wounded to function. One man told us how in fear, he lived in his bedroom closet for months. Another sat with me shaking his head and softly asking, Why?

Hebrews 13:3 states: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

Faithful to this biblical mandate, let’s work together to end the torture of solitary confinement.


The Presbyterian Outlook is committed to fostering faithful conversations by publishing a diversity of voices. The opinions expressed are the author’s and may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Outlook’s editorial staff or the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation. Want to join the conversation? You can write to us or submit your own article here

LATEST STORIES

Advertisement