LETTER: A Justice Reform Appeal of Conscience

To the Editor:

I’m a Quaker. I sometimes have trouble explaining what that means to people. Partly that’s because, unlike most other religions, Quakerism doesn’t have much of a hierarchical structure, so to speak. Long ago, before I began to know the Society of Friends (our “formal” name), I asked a beloved elder in Wilton Meeting to explain to me how Quakers are “organized”, and he broke into peals of laughter!

And Quakerism is based on each member’s personal experience of God, Spirit, the seed of Light within – the meaning of Quakerism is as varied as the people who come to it. That is why we believe that the truest embodiment of a Holy Spirit is the community together, in the shared sense of the meeting as we say. Every person is a minister of a kind, with Grace speaking through him and her; but the essence of Friends Meeting is its communal expression of beliefs.

Friends are guided by what we remember as the “SPICES Testimonies”: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship of the Earth. Maybe more on that another time. But no one tells us what we should believe about the Spirit except the still small voice that may come to us.

It is from my leadings as a Quaker that I write to advocate for the abolition of solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons.

From the late 1700’s, Quakers in England and in Pennsylvania played a large role in the introduction of isolation as an alternative to the mayhem that was then prevalent in prisons. In the U.S. a group of reformers, including many Quakers, developed a vision of the penitentiary as an alternative to these horrendous squalid dungeons. The notion at the time was that providing a space for silent, solitary reflection and penitence would result in rehabilitation.

Instead, the stark isolation caused people to deteriorate mentally and physically and yet the experiment in solitary confinement has proliferated and is a cautionary tale of how unintended consequences can undermine good intentions.

Today we know that “solitary” does not help prison inmates to be penitent or to become rehabilitated. Rather, it causes them torment and, often, irreparable harm that they may take “outside” when they are released back into society. The recidivism rate for people coming from solitary is far higher than for people released from the general population.

In 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Council received a report from a UN Special Rapporteur on torture. The conclusion of the Report was that the excessive use and particular practices of solitary confinement in the Connecticut prison system constitute torture under the definition of that organization.

The investigation found that “There seems to be a (Connecticut) state-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental.” These punishments seem to be aimed at particularly disfavored “categories” of inmates, e.g. present or former members of gangs, people with ongoing behavioral problems, and people with severe mental health problems.

Aside from being locked into a small cell for 22 hours a day for days or months or even years on end (that is no exaggeration), prisoners in solitary are often “placed” in in-cell chain “restraints” that make normal physical movement impossible. There are reports of prison guards making the restraints so tight that the prisoner is unable to reach a tray of food placed just out of reach, or to lift a cup of water to his mouth.

This kind of treatment occurs on a regular basis in Connecticut prisons, but it does not just dehumanize prisoners, it creates dehumanizing working conditions for prison staff. There are former guards who relate that they have left prison employment because they could no longer stand what they were being coerced to do to prisoners and the stress they endured.

In Connecticut, prisoners of color are extremely unequally subjected to solitary confinement. The ACLU reports, “In 2019, Connecticut was the absolute worst state in the nation for disproportionately assigning Black men to solitary.”

One of the first questions proponents of ending solitary confinement are always asked is, “Well, what can we do with prisoners who are acting out in such a way that they are a disruption or even a danger to other inmates or to themselves?”

The responsible answer is that there are much better ways of dealing with individuals’ behavioral and/or mental health problems than by subjecting them to such harmful conditions that they become more dysfunctional or deranged. There are better models for dealing with these problems in prison systems in Scandinavia, even in some U.S. states, for instance, where much more effective alternative methods have been developed.

The Interfaith Council on Human Rights puts forward a range of alternative humane approaches for disruptive and violent prison inmates.

In this Connecticut legislative session, a bill, the PROTECT Act, S.B. 1059, offers Connecticut’s lawmakers the opportunity to reject solitary confinement in favor of a correction system that affirms the humanity of the people who live and work in prisons. In April of this year, S.B. 1059 was reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on Judiciary of the Connecticut General Assembly and has been placed on the Senate Calendar.

I support the PROTECT Act for moral, religious, and practical reasons. I ask my Wilton Friends and friends to support it as well!

Madeleine Wilken

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you Madeleine for bringing up these unacceptable prison conditions. I join you in supporting the Protect Act S.B. 1059 and will do my part to let Connecticut lawmakers know. I had no idea that this was happening and I’m sure many others are not aware either. Your commentary will hopefully get the word out so that the bill will pass.

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