A Moral Call to End Solitary Confinement, Torture in Our Name

This summer, as the United Church of Christ gathers for the Thirty-Fourth General Synod, “A Resolution Condemning Solitary Confinement as a Form of Torture” will be considered. The resolution calls on UCC congregations to join the growing movement to end a form of torture that is hidden yet pervasive in prisons, jails, and detention centers across the United States: the torture of solitary confinement.

On any given day in federal and state prisons and jails, more than 122,000 people are held in solitary confinement, also called restrictive housing, for 22 or more hours a day. And while data is limited, many more face these conditions in immigrant detention and youth facilities. Denied meaningful human contact, they are held in a cell the size of a parking space, alone or with another person, often with no natural sunlight or access to nature. Meals are shoved through a slot in the door. Such conditions have long been considered a form of torture by other developed nations, the United Nations, and leading medical and mental health experts. Yet in the U.S., incarcerated people in most states can be held in such conditions for months, years, even decades. Disproportionately, Black people, Latinx people, Native people, and other people of color are subjected to this form of solitary confinement and receive longer terms in solitary than white people for the same disciplinary infractions.

And the consequences are deadly.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), solitary confinement for any amount of time can be fatal. Compared to those who were incarcerated and not placed in solitary confinement, the study found that people who were incarcerated in solitary confinement for any amount of time were 24% more likely to die in the first year following their release, as well as 78% more likely to die from suicide, and 127% more likely to die of an opioid overdose in the first two weeks after release.

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.”

So, why do people end up in solitary confinement?

Neither a judge nor jury sentences people to solitary confinement. Its use is left to the discretion of corrections officers. Incarcerated and detained people are most often placed in solitary for non-violent disciplinary reasons, a need for protection, or because corrections staff misinterpret their symptoms of mental disability as an act of defiance or rule breaking. A recent study by the California State Library found that isolated confinement does not increase safety and that the state could save money by limiting or ending its use. Solitary survivor Joseph de la Luz was recently highlighted on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, describing some of the senseless reasons he has witnessed others be sent to solitary, including “talking back,” “not having their shirt tucked in,” “not having the right shoes in the gym,” and “for taking too much food or asking for more food.” 

So, what can people of faith and conscience do?

Join the growing movement to end the torture of solitary confinement. Led by leaders who have survived the torture of solitary confinement, after years of advocacy, three states have banned prolonged isolation legislatively: New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. California’s Mandela Act on Solitary Confinementis moving through the state’s legislature with the same aim. More than a dozen states have introduced similar comprehensive legislation to make prolonged isolation a thing of the past.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), an interfaith membership organization comprised of over 300 members including the United Church of Christ, is organizing a growing cohort of interfaith allies at the national and local level and a National Network of Solitary Survivors, to issue a moral call to end this form of torture. NRCAT has worked with allies from the legal, medical, and human rights sectors to launch the Unlock the Box campaign, with the ambitious goal of ending solitary within 10 years. More than 20 statewide campaigns are actively working toward that end, with solitary survivors leading the way.

In a scene that inspired the name of the newest NRCAT film, Torture In Our Name, New Jersey campaign leader Antonne Henshaw says of solitary confinement:

“You should be concerned because it’s done in the interest of the citizens in which the state, or the county, the person is being punished. And they’re doing it in your name. So, whether you like it or not, they’re doing it in your name. They’re doing it to protect you. That’s what they tell themselves. And this is why it’s important to say, ‘no, I don’t need that kind of protection.'”

Antonne Henshaw
Your congregation can take these steps today to end solitary:
  1. Sign the NRCAT National Pledge
  2. Organize a screening of NRCAT’s film Torture in Our Name
  3. Join or invite others to join NRCAT’s National Network of Solitary Survivors
  4. Join one of the 20 state campaigns
  5. Share one of the NRCAT Humans Out of Solitary videos on social media or use one for an opening reflection in a meeting.
  6. Host programming during Torture Awareness Month each June utilizing NRCAT resources

Laura Markle Downton, M.Div., is the Director for Faith and Community Engagement at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture

Categories: Getting to the Root of It

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