Some of the most obvious things are not embraced, probably because they are so obvious.
A columnist in The New York Times noted four years ago that Britain reduced the pill-taking suicide rate 43 percent by requiring that Tylenol and other medication providers pack their pills in harder-to-open dose-limiting blister packs. By the time the packs actually get opened, the suicide impulse has often passed.
The Vera Institute of Justice is making a blister-pack — all-too-obvious — argument regarding the use of solitary confinement in prisons. Vera, which operates nationwide, contends that changing the rationale for solitary and the length of such confinement could be beneficial to all involved, including the prisons themselves, our communities, and certainly the men and women so confined and their families.
Vera’s efforts and insights are especially pertinent in Louisiana, one of five states Vera is including in a two-year study of solitary confinement. (The Louisiana Department of Corrections doesn’t use the term “solitary confinement” as most inmates are moved out of their cells into another cage an hour a day; DOC prefers the term “restrictive housing.”) What Vera has discovered and now advocates aligns with what I have discovered about solitary confinement in my longtime prison ministry.
An open letter, from Fred Patrick, Vera’s chief spokesman on solitary confinement, includes this passage: “The overuse and misuse of solitary confinement by our prisons and jails is yet another indication of the overly punitive approach that has characterized our nation’s sentencing and corrections practices. Not only do we incarcerate too many people and for far too long, we also have a corrections system that employs, all too frequently and at times, too casually — the most extreme form of confinement as a routine management strategy.”
Listen up, Louisianans, we who incarcerate more of our people per capita than anywhere else in the world!
Popular support for the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to sentencing has begun to lose ground nationally among both conservatives and liberals. Even Louisiana, appalled by both the inequity (close to 80 percent of the people we incarcerate are African American) and ineffectiveness of mass incarceration — not to mention spiraling costs — has begun to inch toward reform. But the problem is compounded by hardened district attorneys who seek maximum punishments and by parish sheriffs who lobby to keep their jails full because their budgets depend on the income from the state for each jailed person.
Vera’s help, however, will add momentum to the reform movement and give hope that prison wardens and professionals in the Department of Corrections will begin to make significant changes in Louisiana’s approach to mass incarceration, starting with its approach to solitary.
On the topic of solitary confinement — Vera calls it “segregated housing” — the institute lists the following common assumptions and calls every one of them a “misconception:”
- That conditions in segregated housing are stark but not inhumane.
- That segregated housing is reserved only for the most violent.
- That segregated housing is used only as a last resort.
- That segregated housing is used only for brief periods of time.
- That the harmful effects of segregated housing are overstated and not well understood.
- That segregated housing helps keep prisons and jails safer.
- That segregated housing deters misbehavior and violence.
- That segregated housing is the only way to protect the vulnerable.
- That safe alternatives to segregated housing are expensive.
- That incarcerated people are rarely released directly to the community from segregated housing.
Vera’s studies show what is all too obvious, but missed by most prison policy makers and wardens — just like those blister packs that save hundreds of lives each year. As one who has served as a volunteer in prisons over the last 40 years, mostly with the Kairos Prison Ministry International, I know from my own experience what Vera has learned. On April 2, 2016, Terrance Carter, a longtime friend, took his life at Camp J — a 300-bed solitary-confinement place at Angola. Another Camp J inmate took his life the same day.
Many other suicides are narrowly prevented. I know that from inmates assigned to walk the tiers on Camp J. They are proud to have intervened in time to prevent a death, but the numbers beg a deeper question: Why should solitary confinement be so conducive to suicide?
During the last six months, a formerly incarcerated woman named Maryam Henderson-Uloho has been working with me on a book about her 12 ½ year experience at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, commonly called St. Gabriel, after the town where it is located. She spent close to half of her time in “the hole” — solitary confinement. The stories she tells make clear the cruelty rampant in the prison and especially in the hole. Women sometimes die there without medical help, and just about always respond to institutional abusiveness by becoming more angry, more hateful, more violent than they were before.
Sister Maryam, an African-American Muslim, has come to her own blister-pack insight: “The better you treat the women on the larger compound and especially in the hole, the better and more caring they will become.” The same would be true for men, she believes. Here is more of a conversation we had recently:
“As long as we have solitary, we must shorten the time people live in those places and, if we can, make them places of growth instead of misery. When women go to prison, they are treated like trash, especially in solitary. So eventually they start identifying as trash, especially in the hole. In prison you are surrounded by everyone all the time with various activities, fights; so many things, so much noise. You don’t have time to really focus on yourself and your issues.
“In my life, I want calm, quiet and stillness, those three things that are really not accepted on the compound. The hole became a place for me to detox from the filth all around me in the main prison. The prison system is designed to be negative, but I refused that. That would be me giving them power, and I did not want to do that.”
Sister Maryam is an exception to what happens to most people in solitary. She left the misery of confinement at St. Gabriel with a clear strategy for turning her life around and avoiding recidivism. In the three years since her release, she has started a successful thrift store, named after a group she also started, SisterHearts. It provides work for other formerly incarcerated women and men and is already expanding to offer an array of services to support individuals attempting the perilous journey from incarceration back into the free world.
Some of the wisdom that she embodies in her work Sister Maryam credits to her participation in one of the intensive three-day workshops, with the year-long follow up, offered by the Kairos Prison Ministry, a broad-based Christian program that has been an important part of my prison work.
Kairos is fully supported by administrators in the 400-plus prisons where it has taken root. But it stands the prison ethos on its head. It offers forbearance, patient listening, respect and love as a substitute for the prison culture of retaliation and punishment. It provides the kind of quiet in which a dynamic woman like Sister Maryam was able to master her anger and plan a better life.
The solitary challenges aren’t going to be eliminated by the Kairos ministry. But solitary, in all of its mindless brutality, is not solving the problems that widely exist. Our hope is that, just as Kairos has turned individual lives around, Vera will provide the strategy that will help Louisiana find its way to a correctional environment that is both humane and more effective. Better for the inmates. Better for all of us.
William Barnwell’s last book, “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted:
Stories from Kairos Prison Ministry International’ was published last year by the University Press of Mississippi. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press is publishing “Angels in the Wilderness:
Young and Black in New Orleans and Beyond” this fall.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.