Moya Atkinson’s testimony at the NASW annual board meeting

Testimony to the NASW Board and Membership at its Annual Meeting, June 21, 2016

My name is Moya Atkinson. I’m a member of NASW, a former executive director of the NASW Maryland Chapter (January 1993-June, 2002) and a Maryland Chapter Delegate for the 2017 Delegate Assembly. I am here today as the convener and a co-founder of the Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC) Task Force and I’m making the following statement for the record.

Our Task Force was created in October, 2014 because of the deep concern for and by those mental health social workers working directly with prisoners in solitary confinement who were trapped in the dual loyalty ethical dilemma – working in a prison system which promotes the dehumanization of its prisoners, when their profession is founded on the total antithesis – social justice and human rights. For copies of social workers’ experiences working in solitary confinement units, read Mary Buser’s OpEd and Mary Gamble’s article about her experiences working as a mental health worker in a jail with prisoners in solitary confinement, in her article: Social Workers Cannot Practice Ethically in a System Where Solitary Confinement Exists at our SWASC website: As of now, social workers and other mental health professionals have little, if any recourse when it comes to speaking out, for fear of reprisals from the corrections officers and the correctional institutions where they work.

Our SWASC members have been urging NASW to become a leader among health and mental health professionals to effect reforms since SWASC’s inception. In August we presented a list of requests focusing on education, advocacy and legislation to the NASW Board of Directors. We were told to write a formal Report, which we presented very briefly at NASW’s January 21, 2016 Board meeting. The members deliberated our SWASC Task Force’s requests at its April 28/29 meeting, and the following statement was made in the June issue of NASW News acknowledging our work. “The board’s position is that the association should continue to support and advocate for major reforms of solitary confinement/segregation within the criminal justice systems”.

It appears that the board’s position supporting general advocacy for reform did not address support for individual social workers employed in criminal justice settings who face a conflict between complying with the demands of their employer and acting in the best interest of their client in accordance with the NASW Code of Ethics.

Yet, support for individual social workers is out there. In New York State two bills are working their way through the system, which prohibit the participation of licensed health professionals in torture and improper treatment of prisoners, with sanctions for non-compliance, including the withdrawal of licenses. Additional whistleblowing legislation is assured, to protect health professionals at risk of reprisals. Mandated oversight of correctional facilities is also being promoted, to eliminate the abuses that currently terrorize prisoners and staff.

NASW’s International Policy on Human Rights’ reaffirms what we’re working for: Recognizing that social workers who advocate on behalf of human rights can become subject to reprisal, NASW should ensure that social workers who are threatened are given the full support of the profession. International social workers include those in the United States, the country with the worst solitary confinement incarceration record in the world. All social workers must be given our profession’s full support.

We seek written assurance that the current Board and incoming Board members and the National Ethics Committee will accept our offer of assistance in its advocacy efforts for major reforms, and encourage and support all chapters to become involved, including those chapters already invested in this initiative.

In closing, I’ll share the following statement by Juan Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, has reinforced our SWASC efforts with the following statement:

In the ongoing struggle to abolish solitary confinement, one aspect of this practice that cannot be overlooked is the complicity of mental health staff who work with correctional personnel in these units. One organization, Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement, should be applauded for its efforts in highlighting and addressing the ethical conflict of social workers and other health and mental health providers in these settings. Solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment and often torturous. It must be eliminated and replaced with humane alternatives.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak.