If I don’t step up my posts about my recent trip, I’ll still be blogging about it by the time I go on my next one, which I just booked—a week of hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking in Belize and Guatemala in February with Wilderness Inquiry. It may sound precious, but I need something to look forward to. We’re in the midst of our second blizzard in a week now, and today’s low will be -11F (-23C). Need I justify myself further? I was able to book with a deposit and somehow I’ll come up with the rest. Somehow it always works out.
But it’s time for a post about prison. My son’s imprisonment was the reason I started this blog, in case you are new here. He’s been out for a year and is doing great. I continue to do what I can toward changing the system.
Last Sunday I went to a summit on criminal justice reform organized by Jewish Community Action. About 300 people attended. At my table were two people whose parents or grandparents were holocaust survivors. As we talked about the election and the prospects for meaningful prison reform (or reforms of any kind), they both said they felt afraid for the first time in their lives to live in America. They both said something like, “I remember my father talking about how it happened so gradually that people kept thinking it couldn’t get worse.”
There were a number of passionate speakers. A professor of African American studies at the University of Minnesota talked about how we needed an abolitionist movement to get rid of prisons all together. Others echoed this language.
Coincidentally, the Minneapolis Star Tribune had run a feature story about the abuse of solitary confinement this very day. The last speaker at the summit was the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, and one of the questions posed to him was about completely banning solitary confinement and abolishing prisons in the US. I could sense he was struggling to be diplomatic. “There are people in prison …” he began, “… who have raped five year olds. I have had other prisoners tell me that they would murder again if they could get out of seg.”
Yep. I’m an idealist, but I hope we can focus on issues that stand a chance of delivering meaningful change to prisoners.
I wrote a letter in response to the Strib story:
Thank you for the feature, “Extreme Isolation Scars Inmates: Minnesota prisons pile on solitary confinement, often for minor offenses ….” Last year my son, who was serving a 50-month sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, was transferred from St. Cloud to Moose Lake, which didn’t have a bed ready for him in general population. So they put him in solitary for no offense. I was not informed, and became concerned after not hearing from him for days, but fortunately he was released after “only” six days in solitary, with no explanation, apology, or even an acknowledgement that something had gone wrong.
We didn’t bother protesting. I had turned to the American Civil Liberties Association after being banned from visiting my son for six months (when I protested a visiting policy). The ACLU told me that corrections officers and facilities have “almost total discretion.” It would be their word against mine, and I didn’t want to risk being punished again.
The terrible experience of having a family member in prison has led me to become active in the movement to reform the correctional system, specifically through Jewish Community Action (JCA), which has made the issue one of its advocacy priorities.
I happen to work for the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and I organized an event in September which brought together experts from CVT and JCA—and my now-released son—to explore the physical, psychological, and social effects of solitary confinement. The effects are heartbreaking. My son experienced some of them after only a few days. Imagine spending years in “seg.”
I hope others will be moved to demand prison reforms after reading this series.
My letter was the featured letter; I really do hope it gets more people involved.