Prisoners across California -- and even other states -- went on a three-week hunger strike last month, protesting the prolonged solitary confinement for inmates, and a they resumed a second strike again last week. Reverend Richard Killmer, the executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, spoke with SF Weekly about Washington-based NRCAT's efforts to stop use of prolonged solitary confinement -- which most agree is 30 consecutive days or more. He also talks about why religious teachings suggest solitary confinement is wrong.
Tell us a bit about NRCAT's origins.
NRCAT was organized in January of 2006 to work to end U.S.-sponsored torture. We were originally concerned with happenings at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and we've been at that task for almost six years now. At the end of the year in 2009, our board voted to expand to work on a number of other topics, and one of them was torture at U.S. prisons -- especially concerns about prolonged solitary confinement.
This summer, we were very concerned about the hunger strike at Pelican Bay and elsewhere in California. We have done a variety of things including writing to Governor Brown, and we had a basic statement calling for an end to the use of prolonged solitary confinement sent to every member of state legislature. In the Assembly, the committee on criminal justice had hearings in August, and there were demonstrations in front of the state capitol calling for an end to prolonged solitary confinement.
We had a pastor named Will McGarvey give testimony at that hearing, and we've been trying to put pressure on the Assembly, trying to lobby them to say, "This has got to end." Now that the strike has begun again, we're really concerned, because I think the prisoners aren't gonna stop now. They're gonna keep going, and it would be an incredible tragedy if anybody died because of this.
What are conditions like in a solitary cell?
It varies -- they're usually about seven-feet long. That includes a bed, usually concrete with a mattress on top of it, and toilet and sink. The door is made of metal and has a slot in it where food tray can be put in and a thing on other side of the door that holds the tray while prisoners eat, and that's it. The most they ever see of anybody is the guard who brings the food. It kind of goes back to the Rabbinic teaching; there is something built into human beings that requires contact with others, and when that's denied of people, it's really playing not only with emotions and minds, but with bodies as well.
Plenty of nonreligious people also feel strongly against the use of prolonged solitary confinement. What's the religious angle to this?
There's a number of insights from religion about this issue. The basic one is that in all religions, we believe the creator endowed all beings with specialness, dignity, and worth, and that's to be respected. We believe solitary confinement does not respect the dignity of human beings.
Two evenings ago in Maine, we spent the evening interviewing ex-prisoners talking about the experience of being in solitary confinement and the harm it causes them emotionally. It's particularly tragic because a lot of people set into solitary confinement have mental illness anyhow, which gets exacerbated, and those who don't [have mental illness] have real challenges to their emotional well-being. It really is a very harmful method, and there's better ways to deal with ensuring discipline and ensuring growth and change and transformation with a prisoner. Solitary does not do that.
There's also a Rabbinic teaching within Judaisim that says, "Give me companionship or give me death." The importance of being together with people: When you're denied that, you're almost threatening someone's life. We take that very seriously. Compassion, visiting, the need to see others -- those are all important teachings within religious tradition.
What does NRCAT suggest prisons use instead of solitary confinement?
We've learned a lot from the man who's currently commissioner of corrections in Maine -- Joseph Ponte -- and what he believes is needed is a lot of programs where guards and others work with prisoners, help them see that their behavior is not helpful and find alternatives. There are gonna be people, especially those who are mentally ill, who are going to have trouble with that, but for those who are able to listen and change behavior, giving special attention to those who have engaged in counterproductive behavior makes all the sense in the world. So you don't try to punish them; you help them grow, help them conceive of and achieve an alternate vision of what kind of life they want to have.