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Saying yes to solitary confinement for Paul Manafort means saying yes to it for tens of thousands of people


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Saying yes to solitary confinement for Paul Manafort means saying yes to it for tens of thousands of people

  • Virginia teen was detained and prosecuted for saying ‘oink oink’ to cop

  • A close look at Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens DA

  • Video shows Ohio jail guard walking away from a dying man

  • St. Louis police force investigating its officers racist and anti-Muslim Facebook posts

In the Spotlight

Saying yes to solitary confinement for Paul Manafort means saying yes to it for tens of thousands of people

Yesterday the news broke that Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign head who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on federal charges, will now face criminal charges in state court in Manhattan. The New York Times reports that Manafort will most likely be held at Rikers Island, segregated from the general population. Though it is not clear that Manafort would be confined to his cell even if he is isolated, many reports have said he will be in “solitary confinement.”

Tens of thousands of people, by conservative estimates, spend their days in solitary confinement cells in jails and prisons across the United States.  (An oft-cited estimate of 61,000 people in isolation nationwide is understood, including by those who arrived at it, to be a substantial undercount.) But it made news that Manafort was expected to be sent to Rikers and isolated.

Some responded with satisfaction to the report that a previously powerful rich white man, closely associated with the president, would be subjected to the same abuse as masses of poor Black and brown people. But that response is an example of how ending injustice can seem so impossible that our hopes warp into a desire to expand injustice. 

The problem is not that the Manaforts of the world don’t usually spend time in solitary, or in prison. The problem is that tens of thousands of people around the country sit in what are, effectively, torture chambers.

In his memoir published this year, Albert Woodfox recounted how, over his 40-plus years in solitary confinement, Louisiana prison authorities tried to break him, but he survived. Until laws like those now under consideration in New York and New Jersey are passed, we still permit corrections officers and prison officials the power to break people.

In a comprehensive portrait of the ravages of solitary and the opportunities for ending it, Stephanie Wykstra wrote in April for Vox: “Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years. Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.” Supporting solitary for Manafort at Rikers ignores the suffering of thousands of others, held in New York state prisons and local jails in extreme isolation, sometimes for decades, as Joshua Manson described in The Appeal this week.

It also ignores the most promising effort to end prolonged solitary, currently underway, that the state has seen. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act incorporates the limits and protections long-recommended by human rights experts and now commands the support of a majority of New York’s lawmakers in both chambers. It would eliminate the use of solitary for groups who are especially vulnerable to the psychological and physical effects of isolation, and place an absolute limit of 15 days on isolation for anyone. Crucially, it would mandate the creation of rehabilitative units where people who need to be separated from the general population for extended periods of time would be placed (subject to periodic review) with a guarantee of seven hours out of cells each day and the chance to participate in programming and receive services more conducive to rehabilitation.

New York would not be the first state to make sizable reductions to the number of people in isolation and the length of time in solitary. Colorado and North Dakota have implemented substantial reforms, though not through legislation. Colorado limits time in solitary to 15 days. New Jersey lawmakers are considering the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, which is similar to New York’s bill and passed in 2016 before it was vetoed by former governor Chris Christie.

With only two weeks left in New York’s legislative session, it remains to be seen whether the “blue wave” that swept Democrats to control will translate into action against solitary, action that has the support of human rights organizations, city councils, and faith leaders, among others. The state previously enacted modest reforms, as part of a settlement. But as the New York Civil Liberties Union, which negotiated the settlement, has pointed out, those reforms were a first step and prolonged isolation is still a reality. If the HALT Solitary Confinement bill becomes law, it would take those reforms much further and apply to prisons and jails across New York, including Rikers.

In 2009, Atul Gawande investigated solitary confinement and its consequences for the New Yorker in what is still one of the most wide-ranging and compelling examinations of the practice.

Gawande recognized that the punitive impulse runs deep in the U.S.

“The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it,” he wrote. “This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.”

Stories From The Appeal

Arlington County Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos of Virginia [Flickr/Arlington County]

Virginia Teen Was Detained and Prosecuted for Saying ‘Oink Oink’ to Cop. Critics say that Arlington County Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos, who is being challenged in a June primary, has a pattern of treating children too harshly. [Kira Lerner]

Stories From Around the Country

A close look at Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens DA: As the Democratic primary on June 25 approaches, Jennifer Gonnerman writes about Tiffany Cabán, the former public defender running to be the Queens district attorney. Cabán,a self-described “proud queer Latina born and raised in Richmond Hill, Queens,” recently secured U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement. Cabán describes her ambition to be a “decarceral prosecutor” and has pledged to “decline to prosecute not only marijuana cases, turnstile jumping, and prostitution but also trespassing, disorderly conduct, loitering, drug possession, and welfare fraud.” Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, has the benefit of borough-wide recognition and hefty fundraising. But the Queens Daily Eagle pointed to Cabán’s strength among small donors—“more individual donations than the other six candidates combined”—2,545, compared with Katz’s 300. [Jennifer Gonnerman / New Yorker]

Video shows jail guard walking away from a dying man: Cleveland.com reports on video obtained from the Cuyahoga County jail in Ohio that shows Joseph Arquillo lying “motionless on a mat” for more than two hours “before anyone bothered to check on him.” When an officer did approach him it was only to kick the mat and walk away. It was another hour before another officer, flagged down by someone else held at the jail, responded. By the time Arquillo was transported to a hospital, he was dead. The former warden and the corrections officer who ignored Arquillo are both facing criminal charges. Eight people died at the Cuyahoga jail last year. The warden and eight officers have been indicted on corruption charges, and the federal Justice Department is investigating the jail for alleged civil rights violations. [Adam Ferrise / Cleveland.com]

St. Louis police force investigating its officers’ racist and anti-Muslim Facebook posts: The Plain View Project investigated the public Facebook accounts of more than 5,000 people identified as police officers from eight departments around the country and created a database of racist, violent, and anti-Muslim posts and comments that seemed likely to create distrust of police officers. Forty-three of the accounts were associated with current and former St. Louis police officers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the department’s Internal Affairs Division has begun an investigation. A social media policy adopted by the city last year deals with employees’ use of social media. It prohibits employees from posting content “that disparages a person or group of persons” based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and several other factors. The policy also says employees should not post content “that threatens violence.” [Mark Schlinkmann and Rachel Rice / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

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