Elected officials are finally acknowledging the demands for justice by Black Americans seeking an end to centuries of systemic oppression and violence from our nation’s police. After years of inaction, Gov. Tom Wolf promised to take action on the issue, and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced 13 proposed reforms to the city’s Police Department. These are steps in the right direction, but we cannot ignore the injustice happening inside jails and prisons.
Corrections officers have greater authority than police, but the public cannot see what is happening inside their facilities. This includes the use of prolonged solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations has said can amount to torture, and which remains pervasive throughout Pennsylvania.
Until an American Civil Liberties Union victory finalized earlier this year, every person on Pennsylvania’s death row was held in permanent solitary confinement — placed in small, filthy cells, with very little sunlight, and no opportunity for meaningful physical or mental activity for 22 hours a day. This is both inhumane and at odds with running a safe, well-functioning prison.
The pain and suffering caused by solitary confinement — including hallucinations, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, heart disease, and other debilitating conditions — can be shattering, which is why half of all suicides occurring in U.S. jails and prisons take place in solitary units.
People of color are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, which is often assigned as punishment for small violations, or for arbitrary or unfair reasons. Sandra Bland, who died in solitary confinement following a routine traffic stop, is a prime example. Pennsylvania is no exception. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 85% of Pennsylvanians held in solitary confinement in 2015 were there for “failing to obey an order.”
One such instance occurred in February, when corrections officers in the Lebanon County Correctional Facility placed Eric McGill, a Black American and practicing Rastafarian, in solitary confinement for failing to cut his dreadlocks — an act that would violate his religious beliefs. In 2018, The Inquirer found that more than 11% of Philadelphia’s jail population was in solitary confinement. Infractions like “creating a disturbance,” smoking, or possessing contraband were among the most common reasons for this punishment.
The American public is catching on to how police officers can use small offenses to justify disproportionate or deadly responses against people of color, and what happens behind bars is no different. The racial disparities in our jails and prisons only worsen this problem. Despite making up just 11% of Pennsylvania’s population, Black people account for 37% of its jail population, and 47% of its prison population. Black people also represent just 44% of Philadelphia County residents, but 73% of its jail population. Brutal, racial injustice pervades our correctional institutions — but we have an opportunity to change that.
States like Colorado and New Jersey have either ended or significantly restricted solitary confinement, which is as ineffective as it is inhumane. Nevertheless, solitary reform is opposed by most corrections unions, and elected officials like Gov. Wolf and Mayor Kenney appear unwilling to upset them. Instead, the state is accelerating the use of this practice.
Beginning on March 13, every incarcerated person in the state’s prison system has been held in lockdown — a form of solitary confinement — in response to COVID-19. The same is true for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons system. This is part of an estimated 500% increase in the nationwide use of solitary in recent months, according to a new report from Unlock the Box, a coalition of organizations and movement leaders that includes the ACLU.
Unfortunately, the widespread use of solitary confinement in response to COVID-19 is not only ineffective in slowing the virus’s spread, it also causes fear, mistrust, and trauma for incarcerated people. It is a hallmark of a system that dehumanizes and degrades the people it is supposed to rehabilitate and protect. For justice to prevail, this practice must end.
David C. Fathi is the director and Amy Fettig is the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.