In a recent oped, Shivani Nishar and Lily Picket explained that upon passage, the Restrictive Housing Act, H5740 and S0395, would greatly restrict the use of solitary confinement in Rhode Island’s prison facilities. “The bill specifies that people held in disciplinary confinement should receive a minimum of two hours out of cell time, and can only be held for a maximum of 15 days, a practice that is in line with the United Nation’s Nelson Mandela rules. Additionally, the Department of Corrections would not be able to hold members of vulnerable populations—those who are 21 years or younger, 55 years or older, are deaf or blind, have severe and persistent mental illness, developmental disabilities and/or medical conditions—in extended solitary confinement under the legislation. For incarcerated individuals in administrative confinement, the bill would require four hours of out of cell time each day and a housing status reviewal every week for the first two months.”
On Tuesday ninety advocates gathered outside the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, where the Rhode Island House of Representatives has been meeting during the pandemic, to advocate for the nd of solitary confinement in out state. Advocates erected a mock, windowless prison cell, with walls, a bed and a toilet – all that was missing were the prison bars and locked door – to illustrate the confinement and aloneness those in solitary confinement face while incarcerated by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC). The event was organized by Close High Side, a coalition of prison reform and abolition groups including DARE’s Behind the Walls Committee, the Formerly Incarcerated Union and OpenDoors.
Haley McKee, a lobbyist for the Close High Side Coalition, a DARE Behind the Walls member and a formerly incarcerated person, opened the event with a moment of silence.
“As someone who has grown up with family members in and out of the prison system one of the scariest things in knowing you’re not sure when the next letter is going to come [from a loved one]. You’re not sure what the conditions are inside, only that they don’t want to talk about it,” said State Senator Tiara Mack (Democrat, District 6, Providence). “One of the most heartbreaking things is to grow up seeing families and loved ones – and knowing it’s not just those families and loved ones – it’s more Black, brown, Latino family members … who are disproportionately put into the worst conditions in prisons. And then exacerbating those extremely heartbreaking conditions, to be put into solitary confinement…”
“We have to pass this legislation because we ned humane conditions in our prisons,” said State Senator Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence). “Are we going to allow state sponsored torture to go on in the State of Rhode Island?”
Senator Bell then read a letter from someone currently incarcerated inside the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) who has experienced such state sponsored torture.
“I have read first hand experiences of those people who have spent time in jail,” said Representative Grace Diaz (Democrat, District 11, Providence) Representative Diaz is the House sponsor of the bill. “And the stories and experiences they shared with me really touched my heart…”
“I’ve spent a substantial amount of time incarcerated, in fact, a very long time,” said Joe Benton, a minister, musician and DARE Behind the Walls member. “During that time I spent years in segregation.”
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Segregation, like the term “restrictive housing” is a polite, Orwellian term for solitary preferred by prison officials.
“And there were times when I thought I was going to lose my mind,” continued Benton. “It was extremely difficult to exist in such a nasty environment.”
Shivani Nishar read a letter from a person currently incarcerated at the ACI who has spent time in solitary confinement.
People are placed into segregation for things like “too many stamps, not wearing socks, gambling, horse playing with a friend, verbal disagreements, altering electronics and magazines,” wrote the incarcerated person. “In what way is this a threat to this institution?”
Tara Dorsey, a community health worker, peer recovery specialist and person in long term recovery. She was sentenced to 12 years in prison and spent six years – two of them in solitary confinement.
Sentenced to 15 days in solitary for passing a note, she found her stay extended for every minor infraction, such as trying to talk through the tiny hole in her door to other inmates. 15 days turned into six months…
Calling on the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman quotes God. “It is not good for man to be alone.”
“To whom it may concern. I will most definitely end up getting into trouble for writing all I wrote because the Correctional Officer’s union does not want the public to know the truth,” read Representative Liana Cassar (Democrat, District 66, Barrington, East Providence) from a letter written by an incarcerated person.
“I was sentenced to 20 days in segregation while I was in medium for challenging the conditions of confinement,” said Joseph Shepard, a formerly incarcerated person. “I spent eight months in segregation. 20 days ended up being eight months.”
The United Nations defines solitary confinement in excess of 15 days as torture.
Former State Representative Aaron Regunburg introduced similar legislation five years ago. That legislation did not pass. He then convened a series of hearings on solitary confinement as part of a special House commission. The recommendations that came out of that House commission were ignored. Since then, how many incarcerated people in Rhode Island have experienced the torture of solitary confinement?
“When you’re put into segregation, you’re separated from the general population, which, while incarcerated, is basically society,” said Mark Gonsalves, a member of DARE and the Formerly Incarcerated Union, who benefitted from the college credits he was able to earn while incarcerated. “There’s a lack of empathy and humanity when you’re locked down for 23 hours a day. I found myself reading the ingredients on bottles of powder and the ingredients of the toothpaste just to, you know, have something to read to kind of construct y mind…”
Nick Horton, executive director of OpenDoors read a statement from Roberta Richmond, who worked at RIDOC for 33 years and a warden of the women’s prison for ten years. Horton is a strong supporter of prison reform.
Natalia Friedlander, an attorney from the Center for Justice, told the story of Rick Raemisch, the former Executive Director Colorado Department of Corrections, who took over after his predecessor was murder by a former inmate who had spent seven years in solitary confinement. Raemisch began to examine the processes of discipline inside his prisons and led efforts to reform these practices.
Friedlander quoted Raemisch:
“The practice was pervasive because it was considered reasonable and effective. It was neither. Long-term isolation punished people in a way that not only lacked humanity but sense. And when a program lacks both sense and humanity, the results are as clear as they are disastrous: dehumanization and harm.”
As the rally ended, the Rhode Island House of Representatives were leaving the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick) and Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett) paused to engage in discussion with Haley McKee and Natalia Friedlander.