SWASC’s Recommendations under NASW’s Criminal Justice Priorities for 2018-2019
By Moya Atkinson, MSW, Co-founder, SWASC, member of NASW-MD, former NASW-MD executive director (1993-2002)
Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC) was founded in October 2014 because health professionals who were working with incarcerated people in solitary confinement exposed the punitive, inhumane, degrading settings in which they were working. Not only is solitary confinement a form of torture, but social worker collaboration raises questions of dual loyalty and challenges our professional Code of Ethics.
Since then, our members have been working with formerly incarcerated people, family members, health professionals and others, advocating for legislative reform in several states, and conducting educational workshops with faculty, students and audiences around the country. We communicate through a listserv, web page and e-newsletter.
SWASC is a chapter of the Social Welfare Action Alliance, a 501(c)3 organization committed to progressive politics and activism.
In spite of suffering under a president who openly endorses torture, we feel the movement against solitary confinement has made great strides in recent months:
- Canada’s Supreme Court recently ruled that prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement is unconstitutional. https://bccla.org/2018/01/bc-supreme-court-ends-indefinite-solitary-confinement-federal-prisons-across-canada/
- At least prior to potential budget cuts, the U,S, Department of State incorporating the revised “Nelson Mandela Rules” for better prison treatment into penal reform programs worldwide. A partnership between the State Department and Colorado’s Department of Corrections has trained 1,050 corrections professionals from more than 20 countries to limit solitary and other abuses.
- NASW and SWASC Partnership on Ending Solitary Confinement
SWASC members welcome NASW’s Social Justice Priorities – Equity and Inclusion for 2018-2019 as an opportunity for making the case against solitary confinement. All five priorities impact the lives of those caught in the carceral system, ie Voting Rights, Criminal Justice – Juvenile Justice (including Solitary Confinement), Environmental Justice, Immigration and Economic Justice.
Given that social workers working with prisoners in solitary confinement units risk violation of their professional ethics due to dual loyalty concerns, we believe that NASW needs to take much more vigorous steps to protect members.
- Exclusion of “Human Rights” in 2018-2019 Social Justice Priorities – Why?
NASW’s 2016-2017 Social Justice Priorities included “Human Rights. However, NASW excluded them in its current “Priorities”. This is in complete disregard of the profession’s history and value system. SWASC requests that this omission be corrected – after all, “Human Rights are the cornerstone, the bedrock of social justice.”
The following should also be included:
- the revised United Nations’ Mandela Rules,
- the statement limiting the use of solitary confinement by former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez;
- United Nations’ Human Rights information, including social worker Joseph Wronka’s website and
The National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s Position Statement on Solitary Confinement, based on the Mandela Rules.
- Petition to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care
SWASC is concerned that while the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) has excellent guidelines in its Position Statement based on the Mandela Rules it has no mandates. Nor does it require that its Board members, representing 36 associations, assume institutional accountability.
Since NASW signs on to letters with coalition partners to demonstrate unity on an issue and to push for change, we ask its representatives to sign the SWASC/SWAA’s Petition:
“We, the undersigned Helping & Health professionals, question the ethics of health worker participation in the practice of Solitary Confinement. In particular, mental health professionals play a vital role in this practice, as they are routinely called upon to assess the mental status of those held in solitary, to provide psychiatric medication, and to advise correctional personnel as to those at high risk for suicide. Ironically, solitary confinement itself creates and exacerbates mental disorders, yet we are forced to become enablers to this grueling punishment. We call upon the governing bodies of our professions to set mandatory standards for those assigned to these units and to denounce Solitary Confinement in its current form, as it is in direct violation of our Codes of Ethics, which call upon us to uphold the dignity and humanity of all people.”
- Education – Focusing on Criminal Justice/Solitary Confinement
To date, social workers and related professions have done little to teach about mass incarceration, including solitary confinement. SWASC has made as a priority the development of instructional modules for use by instructors, students, practicing professionals and individuals. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) recently accepted SWASC’s request to work together by developing instructional modules and resources as a Human Rights and Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards concern. CSWE represents social work education in the United States. Its Commission on Accreditation is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the United States and its territories.
NASW also plays a vital educational role for the profession; but so far, it has failed to fully address criminal justice. NASW’s responsibility is clear based on its Social Justice Priorities: to provide the foundation for reform, including updating its policies in Social Work Speaks with a separate policy on Solitary Confinement. It is also responsible for providing professional development programs and products such as credentials, education and training courses, newsletters, employment information, resources, and publications. .
- Additional Resources on “Solitary Confinement”
The Physicians for Human Rights’ Report on Dual Loyalty and Human Rights in Health Professional Practice makes the following statement in Chapter V on Institutional Mechanisms, such as national membership associations:
Developing and strengthening institutions to address the problem of dual loyalty at a systemic level is critical to promoting high standards of professional practice among health professionals and protecting patients’ human rights… In many cases of dual loyalty conflicts, particularly in repressive societies, the absence of institutional mechanisms to support an ethical response leaves the individual health professional isolated and facing extremely difficult decisions, sometimes regarding loyalty to the patient and personal safety. In addition, the absence of institutional mechanisms to hold health professionals accountable for the human rights consequences of their actions or inaction encourages violations of human rights when conflicts arise.”
- Taking a longer view: NASW’s Priorities Beyond 2019 – Helping and Health Professionals Working Together
SWASC will update readers on its campaign to work with NASW and professional associations within NCCHC. We welcome expressions of interest and support!