Today and tomorrow, I am fasting as an individual in solidarity with tens of thousands of American individuals in solitary confinement. I am also fasting in solidarity with hundreds of faith leaders across the country calling for an end of solitary confinement.
Tomorrow is a historic day, as the Senate will be holding its first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Leaders from Uri L’Tzedek, RHR-NA, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and other clergy around the country will be fasting for 23 hours prior to the hearing to draw attention to the physical and emotional harm caused by prolonged solitary confinement.
The fast symbolizes the 23 hours prisoners spend in solitary confinement cells daily. We view this as an important opportunity to advocate on behalf of the tens of thousands of individuals languishing in solitary confinement across the country.
We have seen in recent prisoner hunger strikes in California, Virginia, and across the country that prisoners are refusing food as one of the few means they have to protest their conditions in solitary confinement.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate’s Assistant Majority Leader, will chair this first-ever hearing on the human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers. At this hearing (open to the public), they will explore the detrimental psychological and psychiatric impact on inmates during and after their imprisonment, the exorbitant costs of running solitary housing units, the moral human rights issues surrounding the use of isolation, and some of the successful state reforms that have taken place.
The United States is a world leader in its use of prolonged solitary confinement. This extreme treatment had been used sparingly for more than 150 years. However, after a federal supermax facility to hold inmates exclusively for solitary confinement opened in 1983 in Marion, IL, the number of state facilities mirrored the exploding prison population over the next generation. There are now 44 state-run supermax prisons, and at least 80,000 people in the U.S. criminal justice system are kept in solitary confinement on any given day, with some serving for years, even decades.
From 1995 to 2000, the growth rate of these segregation units significantly surpassed the prison growth rate overall: 40 percent compared with 28 percent. While authorities claim that this is necessary due to the presence of gangs and other violent offenders, the reality is that the United States has decided to quadruple its prison population (now the largest in the world), while not providing adequate funding. Thus, throwing prisoners in solitary confinement for even minor violations is now the norm.
Solitary confinement has a tremendously adverse effect on health. For example, a 2006 study found that up to 64 percent of prisoners in solitary confinement were mentally ill. Clinicians have even created a term for those affected by this confinement: Special Housing Unit (SHU) syndrome. Some of the symptoms include:
- Insomnia and paranoia
- Uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear
- Distortions of time and perception
- Increased risk of suicide
University of California at Santa Cruz Psychology Professor Craig Haney studied 100 solitary confinement inmates at a California supermax, and found that 90 percent experienced “irrational anger,” thirty times the rate found in Americans who are not in prison. A high percentage of the inmates also experienced lethargy, depression and despair to the point where they were unable to initiate any activity. Since the United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as an intentional act that causes “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” then surely solitary confinement is torture.
We use a hunger strike because it is a time-honored tradition among those seeking redress for social injustice. Over the past century in Asia, for example, the hunger strike has been used by Mohandas Gandhi (India), Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), and Aung Suu Kyi (Myanmar) to protest religious warfare and the suppression of civil liberties. In the United State, Cesar Chavez was noted for his hunger strikes to promote labor and civil rights for Latinos in the Southwest. In addition, it is not well known that Alice Paul and her group of militant suffragists, the National Woman’s Party, engaged in a hunger strike after being jailed for picketing in front of the White House in 1917-1918 in an effort to get President Wilson to support a federal woman suffrage amendment. In addition to enduring force-feeding, many were put in solitary confinement, and Paul had the added torture of having a flashlight shined in her face every hour of the day. In spite of opposition from moderate suffragists and those who saw picketing during wartime as unpatriotic, Paul and her organization witnessed the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote by Congress a year later, and its eventual ratification in 1920.
Jewish values are opposed to the abuse of prisoners and to the practice of solitary confinement. The rabbis teach us that one important way to inspire mercy from above is to take fasts upon ourselves. We do so with trepidation and caution to remember the frailty of the human condition and to stand in solidarity with all who are suffering.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.