Advocates Pushing for End of Solitary Confinement

September 12, 2019

Should Prisons Use Solitary Confinement? Advocates Condemn It; Officials Say There is a Need

 

 

Jillian Atelsek - September 10, 2019

 

On paper, Chris Kimmenez has every tool you’d think he needs to recover from the ordeal. He’s a former Marine with a hardened shell, a pastor with a deep faith in God’s ability to shepherd him through even the most difficult times, and a practicing psychologist with a nuanced understanding of the brain’s reaction to stress.

 

But it’s been more than 20 years since he was locked in solitary confinement, and he said the nightmares still haven’t stopped.

 

Most inmates in the hole spend 23 hours per day, five days per week, in their cells. On the weekdays, they get an hour of exercise, but on the weekends, nothing. While they can receive therapy and have monthly visits with family or friends, their access to such programs is more limited and under strict supervision.

 

“I tell people all the time,” he said, “I have more trauma from six months in solitary than I have from four tours with the Marines.”

 

Still, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. He has a job, a family and his sanity. And now, he’s part of a group fighting for a Pennsylvania law that would limit the use of segregated housing in prisons across the state and require more robust mental health programs to help the people sent there.

 

Many activists fighting for reform are former inmates who are scarred by the months or years they spent in a brightly lit cell about the size of a parking space, allowed out for an hour per day or not at all. But they’re stable. They made it — not just out of prison but out of the shadows of trauma it wrought — when many others didn’t.

 

As of 2016, Pennsylvania had more prisoners in long-term segregation than all but four states. State Rep. Tina Davis, a Bucks County Democrat, has sponsored a bill (House Bill 497) that would reduce the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. Davis acknowledges the bill has yet to gain much traction.

 

State Department of Corrections staff say they’re already working toward many of the goals laid out in the bill. Since the department was investigated by the federal government in 2013 for the way it used segregated housing on mentally ill prisoners, it’s begun working on alternative sanctions and programs to help inmates phase back into their communities.

 

Still, corrections officials say, segregation is a valuable tool for keeping the peace.

 

People like Kimmenez, though, are making trips to the Capitol and spending hours compiling documents for legislators. They’re gathering former prisoners and their families to speak in churches and libraries across the commonwealth.

In nearly every informational packet and at nearly every event, they push the same statistic: Some 95 percent of current prisoners are coming home one day. So, they say, their fight is about more than a desire to reduce the number of people who serve time in segregated housing.

 

It’s about making sure inmates aren’t so broken when they’re released that they pose a danger to themselves or the communities to which they’re returning.

 

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