Just ask Rick Raemish. In January 2014, he spent a grueling 20 hours in solitary confinement at the Colorado State Penitentiary. Raemish experienced crushing isolation and mental degradation. Those 20 hours had a profound effect on Raemish, and he emerged from his ordeal vowing to lead a campaign against the barbaric use of solitary confinement.
Although Raemish’s experience was ordinary, he was no ordinary prisoner. In fact, he was not a prisoner at all. At the time of his incarceration, Raemish was executive director of the Colorado Corrections Department.
Raemish’s experience called much-needed attention to how solitary confinement is used and its debilitating impact on prisoners. In Colorado, he was able to “completely reform its use as a disciplinary practice.” Raemish successfully curtailed the use of solitary confinement for people with mental health disabilities and capped the amount of time spent in solitary to 15 days.
Luke Woollard, an attorney and prisoner rights’ advocate, has visited numerous clients housed in solitary cells in North Carolina’s prison system and wrote a commentary about it for NC Policy Watch. Unlike Colorado, North Carolina has failed to significantly reform how solitary confinement is used.
At any given moment, almost 3,000 people on average are wasting away inside solitary cells in the state. “They would eat, sleep, and live penned in by cement walls and a steel door, never more than a few feet away from their toilets,” Woollard observed. Their only interaction with other people, like Woollard, occurs through a narrow slit in the wall.
The North Carolina attorney described the experiences of those in solitary confinement as unimaginably cruel. From inside the solitary boxes, Woolard could hear the sounds of desperation.
Their feelings of anger, frustration, and hopelessness were palpable through the steel and concrete. “Sometimes,” Woollard lamented, “you hear nothing and look in to see someone who has just stopped believing anyone could help them.”
Because North Carolina incarcerates many more people of color than whites, minorities are disproportionately more likely to be harmed by solitary confinement. Implicit racial biases in ... disciplinary processes condemns people of color to longer periods in solitary. “At the most severe housing assignment, where solitary confinement conditions are the most draconian, anywhere from 75%-85% of incarcerated people are people of color,” Woollard noted.
Woollard and other advocates have pushed officials in North Carolina to reassess the use of solitary confinement. Last December, the governor of North Carolina created the Task Force for Racial Equality in Criminal Justice to do just that. Governor Cooper’s Task Force identified key areas of concern and recommended adopting the Mandela Rules for using solitary confinement. Those rules embody recommendations by the United Nations that define the use of solitary for more than 15 days as torture and prohibits placing juveniles, people with mental health issues, and other at-risk groups in solitary confinement.
Woollard is optimistic that North Carolina will eventually fallow the lead of other states, like Colorado, and change the prison system’s inequitable and inhumane practice of solitary confinement. He admits that North Carolina still faces significant cultural, political, and institutional barriers that make reform difficult. Ultimately, though, Woollard not only believes that reform is “possible, it is beneficial, and leads to healthier communities.”
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