Solitary Watch

The Word: In Prison, We Face Epidemics of Isolation and Neglect on Top of COVID-19

This is the third in a new series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch. COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise and fall. Death rates for vaccinated people, however, remain relatively low, so many, if not most, Americans are unmasking and reclaiming the freedom of their pre-pandemic lives. Still, a virus that persists for this long can affect the vaccine’s efficacy, and impending variants are unknown. “It’s a crapshoot,” an epidemiologist from the University of Texas told PBS NewsHour listeners earlier this year as to the deadliness of future variants.
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Seven Days in Solitary [6/29/22]

• In the latest installment of the Voices From Solitary series, Solitary Watch published several poems written by Charles Tooker, which he composed in solitary confinement. Tooker has spent three years in solitary, and uses creative expression to cope with the isolation. His three pieces are entitled “It’s a Lifestyle: Ode to PTSD,” “Untitled (Unexceptional and Unforgettable),” and “Appeals to the Bowerbirds.”
Picture for Seven Days in Solitary [6/29/22]

Voices From Solitary: Solitary Poems

Charles Tooker, 47, has been incarcerated since 2016 and is currently being held at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad California. Having spent three of the last six years in solitary confinement, Tooker told Solitary Watch that creative expression is his biggest coping mechanism. His passion for the arts, he said, was present prior to his incarceration, and he earned both Bachelor of Fine Art and Master of Art degrees.

seven Days in Solitary [6/22/22]

• Solitary Watch reports on the latest Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, data collected by the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), reports 75,505 people were held in solitary confinement in state and federal prisons in 2019. This was the first BJS census to ask prisons about placement in solitary in 14 years. Like previous censuses, it does not include information from local jails or immigration detention facilities, ensuring the actual number is even higher.

Seven Days In Solitary [6/15/22]

• A series of haiku was published this week in the Solitary Watch Voices from Solitary series, featuring work from people incarcerated in Pennsylvania. The project, called Holler with Haiku, was a collection effort by Keystone DBlock, an offshoot from the advocacy group Straight Ahead, in honor of Mental Health Awareness month in May. Over 200 submissions were received and published on Twitter. Voices from Solitary selected a few of those poems to feature.

Voices from Solitary: Holler with Haiku

Last month was Mental Health Awareness Month. For those in solitary confinement, access to mental healthcare often is restricted to what can be provided through a tiny slot in their cell door. In solitary units, visits from psychiatric professionals are infrequent and, when they do occur, brief. Often these visits are limited to the time necessary to prescribe medication or determine if someone poses an immediate risk to themselves.

Seven Days In Solitary [6/8/22]

• Solitary Watch Director Jean Casella looks at the response from anti-solitary advocates to President Biden’s Executive Order issued last month, which gives the Attorney General (AG) six months to submit a report on progress towards ending long-term solitary confinement. In a press release, the Federal Anti-Solitary Task Force (FAST) questioned the impact that the AG’s report would have and noted the lack of substantive action by the administration on this issue thus far, commenting that “As it now stands,” the AG’s progress report “would be very short.”

UPDATE: Advocates Respond to New Executive Order, Urge Biden to Take Far Bolder Steps to End Federal Solitary Confinement

UPDATE, JUNE 6: In a press release, the Federal Anti-Solitary Task Force (FAST) “questioned the impact of provisions in President Biden’s recent Executive Order on Policing and Criminal Justice Practices related to solitary confinement in light of the widespread use of solitary in federal prisons and his and Vice President Harris’s much more far-reaching pledge to end solitary confinement. Under the Order, the Attorney General now has 180 days to report on progress made toward limiting the use of solitary confinement and other forms of restrictive housing.” Since little to no action to limit solitary has taken place under the Biden Administration, FAST commented that “As it now stands,” the AG’s progress report “would be very short.”

Seven Days In Solitary [6/1/22]

• Solitary Watch Director Jean Casella published a piece examining President Biden’s newly signed Executive Order (EO), which includes a paragraph restricting the use of prolonged solitary confinement, highlighting its “non-specific terms.” The EO includes a request for a report from the DOJ about their effort “to ensure that individuals in DOJ custody are housed in the least restrictive setting necessary.” Casella writes that whatever effects this EO might have, “they seem highly unlikely to come close to Biden’s sweeping promise to end nearly all uses of solitary.”

The Word: The “Voiceless” Do Have Voices. Are We Listening?

This is the second in a new series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch. It isn’t uncommon to hear people who have traditionally been excluded from the public discourse—and who, more broadly, lack political and economic power and visibility—described as “voiceless.”. This vast group of Americans...

Seven Days In Solitary [5/25/22]

• The Vera Institute of Justice published an article writing about the “Crisis of Isolation” in lockup as a response to the pandemic. They describe the emotional toll on families when prisons denied visits between incarcerated people and their loved ones, and Clinique Chapman, associate director for Vera and MILPA’s Restoring Promise initiative, states, “The impact of being physically and emotionally caged while the world navigates a global pandemic will have unforeseen collateral consequences for years to come”

Seven Days In Solitary [5/18/22]

• Thomas Bartlett Whitaker published a piece in Solitary Watch’s Voices from Solitary series, describing his time on “Deathwatch,” a solitary confinement section of Texas’s Polunsky Unit for those with execution dates. Whitaker was housed there before his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. He says, “Nobody wants to live on Deathwatch. Such is the fear that this section engenders that many prisoners won’t even look in that direction when being escorted to visitation or recreation.”

Voices from Solitary: Living on Deathwatch

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker‘s writing has been previously published on Solitary Watch (here and here); was selected for inclusion in our 2016 anthology Hell Is a Very Small Place; and received a grant from our Solitary Confinement Reporting Project in 2019. His work has also taken top prizes in the PEN Prison Writing Awards for both fiction and essay. Hundreds of pieces of his writing have appeared on Minutes Before Six, the website he started with the help of volunteers on the outside. Originally intended as a forum for his own work, it has since expanded to include over 100 other incarcerated contributors, and comprises one of the best online collections of current prison writing in the world.

Seven Days in Solitary [5/11/22]

Chris Wilson published in the Voices from Solitary series, about his experience entering prison as a 17 year old, about the 117 days he spent locked up, and about the art he created after leaving solitary. He describes, “Going into it, I knew I wanted to create something beautiful despite the ugliness of solitary. I wanted to capture my hurt and pain but also the ways that I found the strength to persevere through that inhumanity.”

Voices From Solitary: Positive Delusions

Born and raised outside of Washington, DC, Chris Wilson is a formerly incarcerated author, artist, advocate, and entrepreneur. At the age of 17, Wilson was sentenced to life in prison, and, subsequently spent 117 days in solitary confinement. During his time in solitary, Wilson committed to bettering himself and began taking classes to get his GED. Following what he called his “Master Plan,” Wilson continued to pursue education, receiving an Associate’s Degree in Sociology.

Seven Days In Solitary [5/4/22]

• In the first of a series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch, Vaidya Gullapalli writes about the ineffective, inhumane use of punishment for rehabilitation in lock-up. She describes the extreme of this punishment, noting that ​“the response to difficult or dangerous behavior, acts of survival or resistance, or even benign rule-breaking, is more punishment and more deprivation, often in the form of solitary confinement.” Although alternative forms of rehabilitation have demonstrated results, Gullapalli notes that they have been disregarded in favor of this failed approach.

The Word: The Myth of Safety Through Punishment

This is the first of a new series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch. Two weeks ago, a Tuesday morning in New York City, where I live, began with shock and horror. A man riding the subway at rush hour shot multiple passengers in a crowded car. Ten people suffered gunshot wounds and at least thirteen others were also injured.