For Frederick-based prisoners’ rights advocate Kim Haven, solitary confinement is one of the biggest human rights issues of our era.
“We have made our prisons our de facto mental health institutions, our response to homelessness, our response to domestic violence and addiction, our response to people we just don’t give a crap about,” Haven said. “What we do to people in there is what they bring back to our communities. The damage is incalculable.”
Haven spoke along with other advocates at a public forum Tuesday in Frederick on the use of solitary confinement in Maryland prisons. As a formerly incarcerated person now active in campaigns for improved conditions, Haven shared firsthand experience with Maryland prisons.
Corrections officers with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services place inmates in restrictive housing, what they call solitary confinement, for rule violations with the goal of keeping inmates and prison staff safe.
Those placements can be arbitrary and inconsistent, Haven said.
“You’re having a bad day like we all do, or the officer is having a bad day, and you just get angry for a second, we lock people up for stuff like that,” Haven said.
The forum was hosted by the Frederick Friends Meeting and organized by Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a regional organization campaigning for more humane prison conditions in the Maryland-Virginia-D.C. area.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg, executive director of Interfaith Action, sees solitary confinement as both a threat to public safety and an immoral offense. He referred to two passages from the Book of Genesis. One states that every human being is made in the image of God, the other that man shouldn’t be alone.
“Human beings need social contact in order to thrive. They have to be part of a community,” Feinberg said. “When you isolate a person for a length of time, this is an assault on that person and can cause both emotional and physical distress. ... Too often our prisons and jails undermine these two essential biblical beliefs.”
Munib Lohrasbi spoke about the research he has been doing with Disability Rights Maryland, a group tasked with investigating the treatment of people with disabilities. Lohrasbi is finishing a report on the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. Incarcerated people are often placed in disciplinary segregation for behaviors that could be symptoms of mental health problems, he said.
“In segregation, the conditions are particularly awful,” Lohrasbi said. “There are cells with broken glass because the windows are broken. We’ve seen cells with no mattress, just a bed frame. Cells with no working water.”
Wendell France, former deputy secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, described his efforts to improve prisons and the institutional resistance he ran into.
“If you want to know how the prison should be run, you probably should ask the people being housed in the prison,” he said. “And that will probably get you in trouble if you’re a bureaucrat.”
Occupying inmates’ time with jobs and other programming could help stem the behaviors for which people are being sent to solitary confinement, France said.
“If you have something productive for people who are incarcerated to do, they will do that,” he said. “This gang thing, this introducing contraband and this violence and this stuff, that’s a subset of the dysfunction that exists in the institution.”
Interfaith Action supported legislation introduced during the most recent Maryland General Assembly session that would have reformed how restrictive housing can be used in several broad ways. The bill did not get passed.
Interfaith Action is working with other advocacy groups across the state to draft multiple, more specific bills to introduce next year, according to Suzanne O’Hatnick, a founding member of the group.
The forum speaker’s pointed to states including Pennsylvania and Colorado as examples of states where inmates on segregated housing are allowed more out-of-cell time and access to programing to ease the effects of isolation.
“We can find a way for folks to do their time, pay their debt to society, and still treat them like human beings,” Lohrasbi said.
Follow Cameron Dodd on Twitter: @CameronFNP.