Yesterday the ACLU released a new report, Worse Than Second-Class, on women prisoners held in solitary confinement. Through surveys of prison practices and testimony from women who have spent time in solitary, the report presents a picture of institutional violence not only perpetrated against women at skyrocketing rates but which harms them in unique ways. Our understanding of solitary has been based off men’s experiences of it, but expanding the range of narratives is necessary to understand the full extent of the cruelty. As ACLU senior staff attorney Amy Fettig told me, not only is solitary confinement often overlooked by its use against women has been rendered nearly invisible outside of prison walls.
The ACLU establishes five patterns of women’s experiences in solitary:
- Solitary confinement can exacerbate mental illness.
- Solitary confinement can re-traumatize victims of past abuse–and can render incarcerated women more vulnerable to abuse by correctional officers.
- Solitary confinement is sometimes used as retaliation against women who have reported sexual abuse or other harmful treatment while in prison.
- Solitary confinement can jeopardize the relationship between mother and child, harming children.
- Solitary confinement of pregnant women is harmful and internationally condemned
In the second half of the report the authors present their policy recommendations to address these patterns. The ACLU urges prisons to stop isolating altogether certain groups at great medical risk, like pregnant and mentally ill women, and warns against using solitary to “protect” trans women: “corrections officials must protect vulnerable prisoners without the use of damaging isolation.” However, as with many prison policies, implemented away from public view by officials with great discretion and little accountability, its hard to evaluate to what extent new guidelines will curtail abuse. lThe ACLU’s report recommends that solitary only be used for prisoners who pose a “current, continuing, and serious threat to their own safety or that of others. Further:
All prisons and jails should be required to have uniform written policies controlling solitary confinement practices and procedures. Such policies must be public and include a written notification process to inform prisoners of their
assignment to solitary confinement, the reason, duration, and review opportunities; processes by which the prisoner can earn privileges while in solitary, including access to commissary and visitation; and the process by which a prisoner may earn release from solitary itself.
Even though we may rather see an end to solitary altogether, that’s a real step in that direction. But, as always, there is also room for preservation of violence through transformation: we can imagine abuse continuing in a new, more structured way if those who evaluate the “reasons” for isolation and decide the “process by which a prisoner may earn release” can make those calls unchecked. What is a “current, continuing, and serious threat”? How can any answer not import popular conceptions of dangerous that code onto class, race, and gender performance? (What keeps you out of solitary under the new guidelines? Maternity and fragility.) How do you make sure better ideas on paper actually reduce violence when it’s so hard to see inside?
“That’s the million dollar question,” Fettig says. “The gulf between policy and practice in corrections institutions can be huge.” She and the ACLU report stress the importance of increased reporting by prisons: the public needs to know who is ending up in solitary, why, and for how long. Yet, Fettig explains, truthful accounts from prisons will require a major shift in how both prison administrators and we, as a country, understand incarcerated people.
That’s the inevitable obstacle of prison reform that leads many to the simultaneously energizing and paralyzing call of abolitionism: any attempt to reform an inherently violent system will be constrained by that same violence. There is no low-hanging fruit; any change requires shaking the whole tree.