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Solitary Confinement: Torture in Our Prisons

Robert King speaking in Pittsburgh Photo: AFSC

On Saturday June 22nd over 61 people, many from faith communities, gathered at East Liberty Presbyterian Church to learn more about solitary confinement in our prisons. The event was organized by the American Friends Service Committee PA (AFSC) and members of East Liberty Presbyterian Church and Community House Presbyterian Church.  

The primary sponsor for the event was the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). NRCAT and the AFSC together have made abuse of solitary confinement a focus of their anti-torture work. Over 25 local organizations, of which 13 were faith groups, supported the work with financial contributions or by provided outreach to their constituents. The outreach for the event was to the faith community, so we were especially pleased with this response. 

The day began with the short but powerful AFSC video on solitary confinement, followed by our keynote speaker Robert King. Robert, one of the Angola Three, who experienced 29 years in solitary in Angola prison as a result of his political activism. Angola is one of the most restrictive and historically brutal prisons in the country. Robert spoke of his personal experience in solitary and some of the practices and beliefs that helped him resist the mental and physical deterioration common to solitary confinement. The political focus of the Black Panther chapter, which he and others started in Angola, was an important support. He made the analogy between the prison system and slavery, describing prisoners as chattel of the system, and also spoke about the corruption and brokenness of the prison system. Robert described the system as too broken to fix, stating that it should be abolished. 

After an excellent potluck lunch a panel addressed the issue of what is happening in Pennsylvania and what we can do. 

Donna Hill spoke of her own experience as someone with family members in the prison system and being restricted from seeing her husband in solitary. She spoke about how it is really up to the discretion of the guards who get assigned to solitary whether a prisoner’s rights can be taken away. Donna’s husband was forced to go on a hunger strike to protest his lack of visitation rights. 

People who are on death row automatically are assigned to solitary confinement. and Martha Conley, Chair of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty–Pittsburgh, spoke  about the impact this has on people’s lives. 

The plight of those in solitary is becoming more visible. It was helpful for the audience to hear about actions nationally and in PA. Two major actions are the recent suit filed against the PA Department of Corrections by ACLU and Disability Rights Network on the incarceration in isolation of those mentally ill as well as the investigation by the Department of Justice on Pennsylvania’s use of isolation for those with mental illness. 

Some actions people could take consisted of: signing the NRCAT petition and the HR Coalition platform; showing the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s video on solitary; writing letters to the editor and joining the state wide PA Coalition against Solitary Confinement.

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