Solitary Story Reminds Us Why We Advocate

By Marigny Nevitt

This summer, one of CJPC’s main initiatives is working with the Coalition for Effective Public Safety to raise awareness of solitary confinement practices in Massachusetts and work for reform. As part of this initiative, during the summer and beyond, we are taking part in the monthly Day of Action on the 23rd of each month. Why the 23rd, you may wonder? Each day, men and women in solitary confinement spend approximately 23 hours locked up in their cell. So, the 23rd is symbolic of those 23, or more, hours.

This month, I was able to partake in the Day of Action by chalking facts and information about solitary confinement in Massachusetts on the sidewalk outside our CJPC office to raise awareness among the public. Whenever you plant yourself in the middle of the sidewalk with boxes of chalk and a tape measure, you can expect some curious glances and questioning looks. So, you can imagine what I expected when I set out to raise awareness about solitary confinement in Massachusetts with my blue and orange chalk.

What I did NOT expect about ten minutes into the chalking endeavor was for a young man to tell me he had just been released and had been held in solitary confinement. This young man was most likely no more than 25, but he shared that less than two weeks ago he was released from a pretrial facility where he had been held in solitary confinement for 27 days.

As you might imagine, I had a multitude of questions for this young man, who was well-dressed, well-spoken, and more than polite; but you can only ask so many questions during your first interaction with someone on the sidewalk. According to the young man, the worst part of being in "the hole" was the food. Yes, he said, you get three trays a day, but your dinner comes at 4:30 in the afternoon. So, from 4:30 in the evening until 7 in the morning you're left alone and hungry. Not to mention that when you get your tray, you would be amazed how many foods they manage to make out of soy.

What I did not get to ask was why this young man was in the facility originally and why he was placed in solitary confinement. While I was focused on learning as much as possible, though, he thanked me for what I was doing because solitary confinement practices, speaking directly from experience, are "inhumane." Certainly, I told him, the least I could do was chalk some information on the sidewalk to raise awareness.

As the young man informed me he was pressed for time, I encouraged him to come back to our office sometime and to be in touch. I truly hope he will come share more of his story with us, and many others, as we work to reform, and eventually end, solitary confinement. This young man was luckily able to re-enter society without any serious mental health consequences from his solitary experience, as far as I could tell, but many others are not as fortunate. It is unfathomable to me that someone as friendly and genuine as this young man could have been potentially ruined by 27 days of total isolation for who knows what justification.

My sidewalk interaction this afternoon reminded me why we need to continue working against solitary confinement, but I only wish this young man did not have such an experience to share.

CJPC has had a very active summer. To get a sense of what we've been up to, our interns will periodically offer their thoughts on different events or projects that they have attended or worked on.