There was not a cloud in the sky as the JustPeace and Campus Ministry and Social Action organizations took to the quadrangle on Feb. 21 to shed light on a very serious topic: solitary confinement practices in the United States.
In a collaboration with the Urban Justice Center, the hosts of the event were hoping to raise awareness of malpractices within America’s criminal justice system, specifically concerning those within solitary confinement, colloquially known by names such as “the box” and “the hole.”
“We want to wake the young people up as to what’s going on [with the] conditions in solitary confinement in the criminal justice system,” said Jack Davis, one of the hosts of the tabling event.
“Not only that, we’re trying to change the mindset of people that think of criminal justice as it should happen. We should worry about that. You have to worry about people because they’re human,” Davis said. “We’re all human, some people make more tragic mistakes than others.”
Manhattan College students were also present at the event. Carly Brownell, secretary of JustPeace, felt she was ignorant of solitary confinement practices before she met people from the Urban Justice Center who had experienced it.
“Solitary confinement is worse than you think it is. There’s a lot more to it than you think there is. Even just today, talking to the two people here, I didn’t know that sometimes people don’t even choose to take their rec hours because of circumstances like whether or not you like the guard that’s on duty, or whether or not you think that the guard is going to assault you while you’re out there,” Brownell said.
According to information from the Prison Policy Initiative and information distributed by the event, out of 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, more than 80,000 people, including children, are currently in solitary confinement. Out of these 80,000 individuals, there are 4,000 people in solitary confinement in New York State alone.
“This practice is ineffective, unsafe, and inhumane,” a pamphlet distributed at the event said. “It causes people detained in terrible conditions to deteriorate psychologically, physically, and also harms their families and communities.”
Davis himself was incarcerated for 30 years, and expressed his personal disdain with solitary confinement practices.
“You got pregnant women that [are] placed in the box, you got men [that are] over 50 and 60 years old, you got kids that [are] mentally incompetent going to the box, and you got kids that [are] 16 and 17 years old going to the box. So what we’re trying to do is change the conditions of the box, not take it away, but change it,” Davis said.
Davis, along with the Urban Justice Center, are trying to make reforms for the practice of solitary confinement. The State of New York has altered the practice so it is not instituted on inmates under the age of 18. The center is hoping to extend this prohibition to inmates who are pregnant, elderly or mentally ill.
These reforms are currently enumerated in a bill known as the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which the Urban Justice Center are hoping will be signed into law soon.
The event also advertised a rally known as Advocacy Day, which will take place on Mar. 13. The event will be hosted by the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, where participants will “meet with legislators, learn [and] rally to get the [HALT] Solitary Confinement Act (A. 3080/S. 4784) passed.”
Though legislative practices tend to be slow, MC students can still educate themselves on the criminal justice system and its moral and theological implications. The college offers a 300-level religious studies course titled “Criminal Justice Ethics,” which is taught by religious studies professor Andrew Skotnicki, Ph.D.
According to Skotnicki, the course came to fruition about seven years ago, but his research on criminal justice ethics began long before the course was designed. He began working in the criminal justice system while he was in college, and has not stopped since.
“The idea of doing [the Criminal Justice Ethics class] at the jail actually brings together three of the most important foci of my life: to serve the incarcerated, to do scholarly work on the nature of criminal justice and its relations to our theological systems and to be a professor,” Skotnicki said.
While Davis believes certain aspects of the practice of solitary confinement should be reformed, Skotnicki believes it should be outlawed altogether.
“We’re social beings. We need to communicate with others. It takes an enormous toll. It’s really an act of violence against people,” he said.
Senior philosophy and English major Lucas DeBono is one of the students in Skotnicki’s Criminal Justice Ethics class this semester.
DeBono hopes to educate himself about the complexities of the criminal justice system during the remainder of his time in the class.
“I really want to know the criminal justice system inside and out, and not just theory-wise,” he said.” I want to know the experience of the guys at Rikers, I think the theory is kind of vapid unless I really understand their experience.”