My motivation to end solitary confinement began with my work at The Legal Aid Society. I went to Rikers Island and met with a 16-year-old boy. When I interviewed him for a defense report he described his life in solitary. He told me he was permitted 1 hour outside per day. He said the guards would whisper when it was his hour so that he would miss it. It was hard for my eyes not to water and he said, “What’s the matter miss, you must see this all the time?”
With that question, my heart broke. And I’ll never forget it.
Last year, I studied Criminal Justice Policy at The London School of Economics. I planned to write my dissertation on solitary confinement. I read literature my supervisor gave me on the subject, but the fact is, solitary confinement has been written about extensively.
With the United States being a member of the United Nations, solitary confinement should be banned as it has been explicitly documented for what it is: torture. While solitary, as the name implies, may sound like it is an isolated occurrence, only affecting those in cells- make no mistake this torment has ripple effects far beyond the inmates themselves. It extends to families, wider society, our nation, and the globe.
Upholding isolation in the U.S. holds strong global resonance not only because of its power, but also its reputation in the world as being a defender of human rights. Now that Donald Trump is the president there are a storm of human rights issues that advocates are fighting for. I am afraid that criminal justice reform, specifically, solitary confinement, will remain on the back burner.
It is disheartening that even the National Association of Social Workers, an agency dedicated to advocacy, refuses to endorse its complete abolition. The NASW is committed to maintaining the integrity of the social work field. Under its Code of Ethics, social workers are encouraged to evaluate current research and policies. It is our duty to ensure that ethical standards are upheld in the workplace. The Code of Ethics emphasizes values including; Dignity and Worth of the Person, Importance of Human Relationships and Social Justice. Isolated confinement is in clear violation of the NASW’s Code of Ethics. The NASW should be partnering with agencies to ensure that forensic social workers have protection in their workplace to advocate against extreme isolation. This could be further aided by the Council of Social Work Education taking a proactive stance in training social workers on this torture, and teaching professionals how best to use their education and experience to advocate toward immediate change.
What can social workers do? I joined Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement because as humans, and social workers, it is our obligation to fight for social justice and command that all tortured persons are given a voice. The first steps to ending solitary confinement are to raise awareness amongst social workers and attorneys nationwide, including encouraging professionals to join SWASC. We need to advise inmates to file civil and federal lawsuits saying their 8th Amendment rights are being violated. We need attorneys at Big Law to write amicus briefs in support. SWASC members need to continue to lobby to legislators to be held accountable in upholding the Constitution, which I think ultimately it can be proven, prohibits the use of solitary confinement.