Should We Ban The Use Of Solitary Confinement?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Kalief Browder

If you have ever been to New York, you probably have fond memories at the top of the Empire State Building or on the ferry to Liberty Island. You’ll have strolled through Central Park, paid your respects at Ground Zero and taken in a Broadway show. If you ventured out of the city, it was to go to Niagara Falls or maybe over to Rutherford, New Jersey to watch either a NY Giants or a NY Jets football game. What you more than likely ignored was the prison located on the island between Queens and the mainland Bronx. You maybe didn’t see it; you may have thought it was nothing more than a shipping yard. What you didn’t realise was that prison is Rikers Island, a notoriously dangerous prison full of violence, inmates awaiting trial and a significant number of cells used for solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is a punishment that has been used in the western world since the 1700s. The disputed origin of solitary confinement comes from the Quakers; they believed that putting prisoners in stone cells with nothing but a Bible would help them repent, pray and find introspection. In April 1829, the United States moved forward with an experiment based on the Quakers idea of solitary confinement. The experiment was to be carried out in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and by October 1829, Charles Williams – dubbed Prisoner Number One – was sentenced to 2 years solitary confinement with labour for burglary. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the prison and described it as “the system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong…” By 1913, solitary confinement was abandoned at Eastern State Penitentiary and it became a regular prison.

While Eastern State Penitentiary ended the use of solitary confinement in the early 1900s, the practice quickly spread throughout the rest of the United States and also Europe. By the 1960s, the United Kingdom was experiencing a large increase in both prisoners and the use of solitary confinement largely thanks to the Irish Republican Army and their commitment to violent resistance. Isolating prisoners from fellow inmates was supposed to stop prison violence and also help reform inmates but multiple studies into the effects of solitary confinement show that the positive impact solitary confinement was supposed to have has yet to occur.

During the 1950s, University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow placed rhesus monkeys in segregation. The monkeys were kept in a custom-designed solitary chamber with sloped sides that made escape impossible. The monkeys would start to display signs of deprivation within the first few days. They would cower in their cage, rock back and forth uncontrollably and mutilate themselves. When they were eventually allowed near fellow monkeys, they could no longer function socially and would either be scared or violent. In 1951, researchers at McGill University carried out a similar experiment on male students. They were to be kept in a small room containing nothing but a bed and were made to wear goggles, earphones and gloves to limit senses. The study was to last for 6 weeks but no participant made it beyond seven days. The majority of the male students lost the ability to think clearly about anything and some started to hallucinate.

The effects of solitary confinement on prisoners are no different to the effects it had on the rhesus monkeys or McGill University experiment participants. Prisoners subjected to isolation in small cells for 22 or 23 hours a day typically show signs of isolation syndrome; the symptoms of which include depression, anxiety, anger, paranoia, psychosis, cognitive disturbances, self-harm and suicide. Inmates start to lash out as they struggle to cope with the symptoms and some prisoners resort to cutting themselves in order to feel like they’re in control of what’s happening to them. It’s not uncommon for correction officers to extract prisoners covered in their own blood from their cells.

Despite the United Nations warning that more than 15 days in solitary confinement is torturous for inmates, plenty of countries will allow prisoners to remain in segregation for a longer period of time. England, Wales and Poland allow prisoners to remain isolated for up to 28 days, in France and Estonia it's up to 45 days and prisoners in Ireland can find themselves in solitary confinement for up to 60 days. In the United States however, very few states have a set limit for how long inmates can be held in isolation for. During a prisoner’s time in solitary confinement, the symptoms of isolation syndrome quickly set in and it is often extremely difficult for prisoners to integrate back into both general population and everyday life should they be released from prison.

When Kalief Browder was finally released from Rikers Island after spending an estimated 800 days in solitary confinement, he was extremely paranoid that people were trying to get to him and he struggled to silence the voices in his head. He had already attempted suicide multiple times while being held in solitary confinement and he tried again a few more times when he was finally released from Rikers Island. Kalief took his own life on June 6th 2015, he was 22-years-old. Richard Stahursky, an inmate held in Maine State Prison, was allowed back into general population after spending years (he believes it to be around 9 years) in solitary confinement, his mental state was too far gone for him to be able to function appropriately. Stahursky, a victim of a child abuse, stabbed a convicted child abuser 87 times before casually walking over to a corrections officer and asking to be handcuffed. Stahurksy has since been sentenced to life in prison.

Devon Davis lived in isolation for 1001 days in the North Carolina prison system. When he was finally released, he went back to a family he barely knew and struggled to adapt. He was convinced his mum was trying to poison him, he was adamant people would track the phone he was given and, after just a few weeks of being back in the outside world, he had cut his mother and brother out of his life. The only help Davis received from the justice system was in the form of $45, a month’s supply of medication and a lift to his aunt’s house.

Sadly, Browder’s, Stahursky’s and Davis’ stories are all too common. It’s estimated that 20% of prisoners in the United States suffer from a serious mental illness but inmates held in segregation are often denied appropriate medical and mental health care. Anthony Gay, a prisoner held in Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois, spent 7 years in solitary confinement and during that period, his mental health deteriorated rapidly to the point where he mutilated himself on a regular basis and even cut off his own testicle and hung it from a string on his cell door. Rather than provide the correct care for Anthony Gay, he was given a 99 year sentence for multiple assaults against guards. These assaults included throwing feces and urine which is a common occurrence for prisoners held in solitary confinement. Gay has since won the appeal to have his new sentence overturned and is eligible for release in August this year. Tamms Correctional Center closed in 2013.

In 2005, 70% of the forty-four prisoners who committed suicide in California state prisons were in solitary confinement and a 2007 study examining attempted suicide in prison showed solitary confinement is a major factor in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (Solitary Watch Fact Sheet 2011). Despite the proof, the response to mass incarceration and the violence that can ensue in prisons is to isolate prisoners perceived to be a problem and ignore them for as long as possible. While in solitary confinement, poor treatment towards inmates goes undetected. Prisoners can be starved of food and water, be repeatedly beaten and left to die by prison guards without anyone noticing.

In September 2013, Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill prisoner of Rikers Island, was kept in an isolated cell in the mental observation unit. During the week he spent alone in his cell, Ballard was denied medication and was ignored by the guards that walked passed his cell. When Ballard was finally acknowledged, he was found unconscious on the floor; he was naked, covered in his own feces and his swollen, infected genitals were tied in a rubber band. Bradley Ballard died in hospital a few hours after he was found.

Just a few months later, a homeless ex-marine Jerome Murdough was found slumped in his segregated cell also in Rikers Island. Carol Lackner, the guard on duty, had falsified reports to show she had been patrolling the area where Murdough was being held every 30 minutes. In reality, Lackner had not visited Murdough or other inmates for around 4 hours and during this period, an equipment malfunction caused Murdough’s cell to overheat. He suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and was on medication that made him more sensitive to heat. Murdough literally baked to death in his cell and his family weren’t informed of his death for 30 days.

While the use of solitary confinement in U.S prisons is rampant, President Obama took some steps to address the issue. In 2016, he passed an executive action that limits how long inmates can be held in solitary confinement for a first offence, stops juvenile offenders held in federal prison from being isolated and banned isolation as punishment for low-level infractions in the federal prison system. He also introduced new measures to provide better treatment for mentally ill prisoners; something that has the potential to help around 10,000 inmates. Despite the changes, solitary confinement is still being used for situations where medical intervention would be significantly more beneficial.

Although President Obama prohibited the use of solitary confinement in certain cases, his actions do not address segregating inmates in other situations. In Tennessee, the “safekeeping” law that has virtually gone unchallenged since 1858, allows inmates awaiting trial to be transferred from county jail to state prison where they can be held in solitary confinement before going to trial. The argument for this is county jails do not have the ability to provide appropriate care for inmates suffering from mental illnesses, contagious illnesses or are pregnant. Inmates suffering from mental illnesses are supposed to receive appropriate care after being sent to state prisons but they’re often left in solitary confinement and rarely, if ever, get to speak to a mental health professional. As of February this year, two Senate state committees will be looking into Tennessee’s safekeeping law; it is currently unknown what, if any, the changes will be.

Despite the majority of western countries taking steps to ensure solitary confinement is an extreme last resort, the United States is trailing behind. Earlier this year, the British Appeals Court refused to extradite accused hacker Lauri Love to the U.S after deciding the U.S prison system would not provide the appropriate medical care for Love’s physical and mental conditions. U.S prison officials had promised to place Love in solitary confinement should he begin to display any signs that he was contemplating suicide but this is ultimately the reason why the British Appeals Court refused to extradite Love. The court agreed that suicide prevention programs in the United States are more likely to increase the likelihood of suicide.

There is an overwhelming and ever-growing amount of evidence that proves solitary confinement does not work but we still allow the practice to continue. A prisoner with mental health issues should not be deemed “problematic” and hidden away, an infraction should not result in a prolonged trip to segregation. Depriving inmates of human contact, stimulation, appropriate medical attention and even their own medication is inhumane, ineffective and immoral. We cannot expect anyone who has experienced solitary confinement to integrate back into society without additional support; we cannot place anyone in isolation and expect them to reform. Solitary confinement is not, and will never be, the answer and it’s time we banned it completely.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Over the last few months, very few art exhibitions have caught my eye. As my taste in art twists into something completely unrecognisable from just a few years ago, I’m finding myself increasingly frustrated with the exhibitions that make it to Scotland. While I always appreciate talent when I see it, I long for something with significantly more substance than another gallery wall covered in large polka dots. When I find myself jaded with the selection of art on offer, I pay a visit to Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross and marvel at the level of talent and patience required to create such an extraordinary painting.

After all these years of staring at Christ of Saint John of the Cross, I’ve been oblivious to the fact Salvador Dali became a household name after creating textiles for New York based Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics. I’ve only ever known him as a painter but the Artist Textiles exhibition at the New Lanark Visitor Centre introduced me to a whole new world of his creations.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol

While the New Lanark World Heritage Site is home to recreations of millworkers’ homes from the 18th century, historical functioning machinery and incredible views of the River Clyde, it also features a wide variety of exhibitions all year round. Until April 29th, New Lanark is playing host to over 200 rare pieces from the likes of the aforementioned Salvador Dali, pop art pioneer Andy Warhol, Cubism co-founder Pablo Picasso and Fauvism frontrunner Henri Matisse. Despite my taste in art gravitating more towards politically inspired pieces, I will always welcome the chance to gaze upon the works of the masters.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol. Pablo Picasso Spanish Bullfighter jacket

As soon as you walk into the building containing the Artist Textiles exhibition, you’re met with a flood of colour courtesy of designs by artists such as Sonia Delaunay, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Alexander Calder. Printed material decorate the walls while mannequins model dresses, skirts and a rather fetching Pablo Picasso waterproof jacket that wouldn’t be out of place in the muddy fields of a music festival. The exhibition is perfectly laid out which allows you to view each piece without the intrusion of the bright and often busy work of art next to it. The designs are all accompanied by a few sentences about the history and creation of the work but chances are, you won’t be able to drag your eyes away from any of the displays to actually read the words.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol. Pablo Picasso monochromatic jumpsuit with textiles from the 1960s

While the exhibition is fairly small, my other half and I spent two hours fully immersing ourselves in each piece. We often found ourselves wandering around displays a few times before moving on to the next part to ensure we had really taken it all in. It was the Pablo Picasso display that continued to capture my other half’s attention; he’s always been a huge fan of Picasso's art but has never been blessed with the privilege of standing in front of original pieces. Picasso’s work features prominently throughout the entire exhibition. His monochromatic design adorns a jumpsuit placed in front of two of his prints from the 1960s; one bold and colourful, one understated and geometric.

It’s not difficult to pick out the rest of Picasso’s designs once you’ve familiarised yourself with just one of his creative explosions. The entire section dedicated to him follows a natural progression from designs that wouldn’t look out of place in a primary school classroom to more sophisticated yet simple drawings of bullfighters and art inspired by Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol. Andy Warhol ice cream and lollipop prints on clothing.

While my other half was engrossed in the large Picasso section, it was the Andy Warhol designs that drew me in. Admittedly, I’ve never been a huge fan of Warhol’s work. My first real introduction to his art was through studying art at college. Thanks to computer software, changing photos into a typical Andy Warhol style before tracing and painting them was just a little too easy for my class and was often encouraged by our lecturers. This gave me the impression that Warhol’s work, and the entire pop art movement, was based on simplistic, straightforward lines and colour but, when you really break things down and eliminate the technology we have today, things are not as basic as my younger mind would have had me believe. The Warhol designs featured in the Artist Textiles exhibition proves how wrong I was.

The Warhol prints on display are predominately brightly coloured and, dare I say, childlike. When I initially noticed the clothing behind the glass window, I assumed they were multi-coloured patterns made up of triangles, it wasn’t until I got closer that I realised that they were in fact, beautifully bold ice cream cones and lollipops that made me crave artificially flavoured food from my childhood. While the vast majority of the pieces in the exhibition feature an abundance of colour, Warhol tops them. Each design is instantly recognisable as the work of Warhol and has given me a whole new appreciation for not only his talent but the movement he played a huge role in.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol. Salvador Dali silk printed scarves.

While I came to the Artist Textiles exhibition expecting to pay a significant amount of attention to the Salvador Dali designs and learn more about a man I admire, I ended up walking away with a new found love of a style I once resented. Salvador Dali’s attention-grabbing silk scarf designs received my praise and admiration but it was Warhol who provided me with a new perspective. There are many highlights throughout the exhibition but ultimately, it was the bright colours and obscure patterns that won me over.

Disclaimer: This post is in collaboration with the New Lanark Visitor Centre.

Brexit: Did We Really Know It All?

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Brexit Bus

The bus. That big red bus with the words “we send £350 million to the EU every week, let’s fund our NHS instead” emblazoned on the side is the first thing I think of when Brexit is mentioned. It was the thing that made the biggest impact. It provoked rage in the Leave voters. It persuaded people on the fence that we need to leave the EU for the sake of our NHS. It ultimately became the biggest lie of Brexit.

That £350 million per week was an estimation of the UK’s full 2015 membership fee to the EU. This projected fee however, did not take into consideration the rebate Margaret Thatcher negotiated with the other EU member states in 1984. This rebate came into effect as the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy did not benefit the UK as much as other members of the EU. In addition to the rebate, the UK was the recipient of the fourth largest share of EU grants which were used for research, development and innovation purposes and we were the second largest recipients of funding awarded on a competitive basis during 2007 - 2013. On top of that, the UK public sector, including the NHS, received £2.8 billion from the EU between 2015 and 2016. Thanks to the rebate, grant and money pushed back into the UK government by the EU, our weekly bill is nowhere near as high as that bus made us all believe.

It’s easier to leave all of this information off of the side of a bus though. No one wins votes by making a bold statement with an asterisk but the Remain campaign didn’t do much to grab our attention or even counteract the Leave campaign’s points. The Remain side used scare tactics to encourage us to quiver in fear at the mere mention of Brexit; we were told our economy would collapse, Scotland would instantly have a second referendum and break away from the UK and British households would be £4300 a year worse off.

The value of the pound predictably dropped after it was announced the UK were officially leaving the EU but our economy is still growing (albeit at half the speed of the remaining EU nations), SNP actually lost seats to both Labour and Conservative during the snap election and no second referendum has happened and, while the rate of inflation has increased, it’s estimated that British households disposable income shrank by 1.1% per person which roughly works out to £800 for the average British home.

It’s difficult to not be frustrated with the Remain campaigns poor attempt at convincing people that staying with the EU was the best option for the UK. They had the luxury of facts on their side but decided scaremongering was the better way to fight their case. It’s possible that the politicians in charge of encouraging us to vote Remain used these tactics as they realised that the British public, particularly in areas hurt by deindustrialisation, were angry at the EU and were concerned that Britain was losing its identity. They may have believed it was better to tell us that our NHS would be thrown into disarray if we voted to leave as opposed to telling us that, in 2014, the EU accounted for 44.6% of our exports.

Unfortunately, the Leave campaign had the edge over the Remain campaign when it came to playing to British values. Putting on the side of a big red bus, a symbol synonymous with Britain, that our struggling NHS will receive a huge financial boost if we leave the EU is a much better argument than former Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell telling us that a failing economy caused by leaving the EU will cripple our NHS. A positive campaign that targets the general public’s concerns is and will more than likely always be, more effective than a negative campaign designed to scare us into submission.

The issue with both sides of the argument is the fact the majority of the debate was based on lies or exaggerations. Neither side could accurately predict what would happen if we chose to turn our backs on the EU and very few of the promises, both positive and negative, have actually happened. Politicians and mainstream news outlets took sides and manipulated the arguments to fit whichever stance they took. It made things difficult for voters, particularly people who consume content from only one outlet, to actually make an informed decision.

At no point during the lead-up to the vote did I feel like I was appropriately informed despite trying to read as much information as possible. There was a distinct lack of unbiased material for voters which is becoming a common trend especially in the age of the internet. Anyone can make up anything they want and disguise it as fact but should this privilege be extended to mainstream media outlets who give the majority of us our daily dose of current events and politics? Should politicians be allowed to go on the record with information that can easily be debunked to manipulate voters into sharing their views?

This blatant disregard for a fair democratic process in which voters can walk into a polling station knowing that they have the appropriate facts to make their decision is dangerous. The British general public are voting blindly and our inability and lack of desire to hold media outlets and politicians accountable for the exaggerated and false points they spread has sparked the “should we have another vote” debate. It’s not surprising that the Remain campaign has jumped on this and wants us to believe that a significant number of Leave voters are now complaining that they didn’t know what they were voting for and, while these people exist, it seems the majority of Leave voters still stand by their decision.

Much like during the campaign, very little information has really come out regarding Brexit as we are currently in the awkward stage of having one foot in the EU’s door and one foot firmly out but one thing that we should, as a nation, be concerned about is the affect Brexit is having on our NHS. Due to net migration by EU nationals falling to the lowest it’s been in 5 years, our NHS has taken a significant hit. There has been 96% drop in EU nurses and midwives registering to work in the UK and four in ten EU registered doctors are considering leaving the UK. We voted with the NHS in mind but what we failed to take into consideration were the EU nationals working tirelessly to save the lives of the British public for very little thanks.

With our NHS taking a huge hit due to EU nationals leaving the UK, immigration will be at the forefront of most Brexit negotiations and this will continue as we negotiate deals with non-EU member states. With the scaremongering tactics used by the Leave campaign - including a billboard featuring an image of refugees from the likes of Syria - to make us anti-immigration, it’s no wonder a lot of us have been left scratching our heads over immigration proposals. While some Remain voters want us to stay in the EU single market which means maintaning very little control over our borders, others want us to completely come out of everything EU related and put a stop to non-British citizens living and working in the UK.

There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to immigration and when the UK finally leaves the EU for good, we could be staring at a significant number of trade deals with non-EU countries that involve immigration of their citizens to our shores. India, for example, has already requested free movement of professionals such as doctors and engineers to the UK as part of a post-Brexit trade deal. This idea is a severe conflict with the anti-immigration stance members of the Leave campaign took and is one that will more than likely provoke the most outrage.

With an uncertain future ahead of us, the UK is in a grey area. We have the power to have a positive impact on the world so long as we negotiate carefully, compromise when necessary and bring a united front but we also possess the ability to fall flat on our faces and embarrass ourselves on a global platform. Maybe it will become apparent that the UK doesn’t need the EU and we’ll do perfectly fine on our own, maybe this post-Brexit glitch is a sign of worse things to come. All we can do as a nation is hope that we won’t have to knock on the door to the EU with our tail between our legs begging to be let back in because this Remain voter has a feeling they’re not going to welcome us back with open arms.

If you are concerned about the impact Brexit could have on you, please visit Talk Tax where you will find helpful information, help with visa applications and useful contact numbers.

Disclaimer: This post was written in collaboration with Talk Tax.
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