With Loved Ones in Prison, Women Become Leaders in the Fight Against Solitary Confinement in New York

Jessica Casanova speaks in support of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act at a press conference in 2014.

Jessica Casanova’s nephew wrote her a letter: “I’m here in a steel coffin. I’m breathing but I’m dead.” Casanova recounted, “I didn’t know what that meant so I got on a bus and I found out.”

That was in 2012, and three years later, she’s still finding out. As it turned out, Casanova’s nephew, Juan, was in solitary confinement. He was spending 23 hours a day alone in a cell and deteriorating quickly.

Juan had entered the New York State prison system as a teenager with mental health issues. Casanova said, “He suffered from antisocial personality, borderline personality, severe depression, and addiction.”

His first trip to solitary was in 2001, for allegedly smoking a joint. Although Juan was only isolation for a matter of months, Casanova said, “He’s never been the same after that.” While his first stay was brief, at this point the 33-year-old has now spent a total of about 10 years in solitary. Casanova went on to explain that her nephew now suffers from extreme bouts of depression, paranoia, and mood swings. She added, “Sometimes in the letters it seems like he might be hallucinating.”

“Seeing someone in solitary confinement,” Casanova said, “is like you’re watching them die right in front of your eyes. … I have never in my life experienced another human being being reduced to nothingness.” She added, “I just don’t understand how this can happen in the world.”

Although her nephew’s experience opened Casanova’s eyes, the 43-years-old East Harlem resident is not the only one coming to such realizations. Nationwide, there are at least 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day – and most have families who watch them suffer.

Leah Gitter, a retired New York City schoolteacher, is another of those suffering relatives. Her godson, Robert, has spent time in solitary both in Attica and Green Haven, maximum security prisons in New York State.

Gitter said that, during the time Robert was in solitary confinement, “I saw him becoming more unstable and more isolated and sicker. It was like he was withdrawing.” She added, “You get into this mindset where you can’t function because of all that isolation and he wasn’t well to begin with.”

As is perhaps evident from Casanova’s and Gitter’s stories, despite the documented mental health impacts, individuals with existing mental health problems are routinely placed in solitary confinement, a practice which may be counterproductive to any perceived public safety goals. Gitter observed, “I don’t know who benefits from punishing people like that.”

Robin Goods can relate. Her son, George, has spent more than a decade in solitary confinement in California. She said, “I have been visiting with my son George E. Jacobs for the past 10 years behind a glass window. When I look into his eyes I can see the progression of the effects of torture. The first year George had a distance look in his eyes. After the second year in the SHU he had a vague look in his eyes. Now after ten years in the SHU, George has a hollow empty look in his eyes.  I am witnessing my son being slowly and deliberately tortured to the point of … devastating mental health deterioration.”

Initially, her son was isolated for a small infraction – Goods said she was told that he refused to take out his shoe laces before a visit. He was sentenced to two years in solitary, but prison officials gradually extended his stay longer and longer. She said, “When he goes for the review they say it’s small infractions like refusing to eat, sharing food.” Recently, George was let out of SHU, but instead of being moved to general population, he was just placed in another type of solitary confinement know as Administrative Segregation.

Goods said, “The deterioration is so profound that it almost affects me. You feel like you want to scream at the top of your lungs, because how can you help? What can you do?” Answering her own question, she continued, “I felt so depressed and helpless and anything I tried wasn’t going anywhere. Then I became angry and decided to stand back up and fight.”

That urge to fight is something Goods has in common with Casanova and Gitter. As a result of their family connections, all three women have become crusaders against solitary confinement.

Gitter said that, knowing about the conditions of her godson’s confinement, “I was so frustrated. This was the only way I could survive — to think that I could do something, to save his life.” She became active in Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (MHASC) and “fought like hell” to get the SHU Exclusion Law passed in 2008.  The law is meant to bar most people with serious mental illness from being placed in isolation in New York’s state prisons. Gitter said, “We had press conferences and lobby days. We were relentless, even though it took eight years – a human rights bill [took] eight years to get passed.”

Jennifer Parish, the director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, said, “Leah in some way is the godmother of the movement. She’s been a force for speaking to policy makers at all different levels … She had really done so much to gather people around addressing the problem of people with mental illness in our prison system and in solitary confinement.”

While Gitter has been involved in solitary confinement activism for over a decade, Casanova got into it more recently. In 2013, she joined the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) and in 2014 spoke at the first press conference announcing the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The HALT Act, which is graduallygaining momentum in both the Senate and the House, would ban solitary confinement in New York’s prisons and jails to 15 days, the limit suggested by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture. Individuals requiring more secure housing over the long term would be placed in new Residential Rehabilitation Units with increased therapy and programming.

Parish said of Casanova, “She’s a tremendous advocate. When she talks about what her nephew has gone through it’s just incredibly powerful.”

Though Goods lives in New Jersey, she’s also been active in CAIC, a New York-based group. Parish said, “Robin has a leadership role within CAIC she’s one of the co-chairs of the legislative committee. She’s been part of taking trips to communities upstate to help form branches of CAIC. She’s done presentations upstate. Her son is in California so the fact that she’s working so strongly here is amazing.”

Goods said that, if there’s one thing she’s learned through her activism, it’s that if you’re a family member of someone in solitary, “You are the extended voice on the outside and you should use it as loudly as you can. There’s nothing worse going to happen than what’s already happened.”

Although Casanova, Gitter, and Goods are all important figures in the movement against solitary, they aren’t the only ones – there are wives, girlfriends, parents, siblings, and children scattered throughout activist groups.

“I think,” Parish said, “one of the most important roles that family members play in the movement is reminding everyone who’s involved about the urgency of changing these policies. Because every day their family members are facing solitary or have the potential to face it, and it reminds us that this is not an abstract problem. I think that for people are in the movement it can sometimes be far away. Prisons are closed institutions. But the families constantly keep the fire burning in all of us to make the changes.”

Note: This article, by Keri Blakinger, originally appeared on Solitary Watch.

Me and My Mugshot

If there were awards for Worst Mug Shot Ever, mine would certainly be in the running. In 2010, while enrolled as a student at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, I was arrested with a large amount of heroin and sentenced to two and a half years in state prison. At the time of my arrest, I was using—as is pretty apparent from the picture—and also selling to support my habit. In my mug shot, my face is blotchy, my hair is all over the place, and I have scabs where I picked at my face while high. It’s pretty horrible.

When news outlets ran my mug shot in their coverage of my arrest, some of the comments that it inspired were pretty horrible, too. Certainly I did not expect sympathy, but even so, some of the comments surprised me. People called me a “whore” and “slut” and riffed on the “Ithaca is Gorgeous” slogan, writing, “Ithaca is Whoregeous.” These comments obviously did not stem from the fact that I actually looked like a prostitute; it should have been abundantly clear from the picture that absolutely no one would have paid to sleep with me at that point. The comments were intended as sexist, stigmatizing insults.

Part of that is due to a sexist nature of commonly used insults, and part of it is due to the nature of bad mug shots. But the most pernicious part of it is a reflection of the way our society generally views addicts.

When a man is arrested for drugs and has a horrible mug shot, people may insult his appearance but they usually won’t insult him sexually. That is, they’ll say he’s ugly, but they won’t say that he’s got a small penis. With a bad female mug shot, though, it seems OK to make the insults sexual in nature.

Mug shots like mine are dehumanizing. And when we see people as less than human, it becomes easy to lob insults with impunity.

Terrible mug shots are a dramatic appeal to our basest instincts. They’re fascinating in a sort of train-wreck-you-can’t-stop-watching way. The thing is, those mug shots are not of trains, they’re of real people. People who need help. You certainly don’t see that image of me and think, “Wow, we’re so much alike. That could have been me. That could have been my sister/mother/daughter. I hope that person gets help.” You think, “Eww, that’s gross! That would never be me or anyone I know.”

Some people commented that my picture was “the face of addiction.” Although my face clearly was the face of someone entrenched in an addiction, this should not be what we think of when we think of the face of addiction. Most addicts don’t look like this. The true face of addiction runs the gamut—there are beautiful models addicted to cocaine, mothers addicted to painkillers and mayors who smoke crack. And although none of them may have the dramatic “face of addiction” that I did, we are all struggling with the same demons.

Nonetheless, the “face of addiction” has become its own genre of image. Google the phrase and you will find thousands of faces like mine. The widespread “faces of meth” pictures are the most popular of the bunch. They’ve been used as the basis for fear-based prevention campaigns, and over time they’ve also come to do much harm as stigmatizing clickbait. Sometimes, these images come with a “before” and “after” picture so that viewers can marvel at how disfigured and inhuman a drug addict can become, almost as if addiction were a demonic possession. The truth is that the face of addiction can also be much more subtle, but no matter what it looks like we are all struggling with the same demons.

At the time of my arrest, it made sense that news outlets would run that picture. The thing is, five years later, it still appears in articles about me.

Since my release from prison in 2012, the Cornell Daily Sun, Mic News and, as recently as last week, the Washington Post have all published articles that included that mug shot. I’ve accepted that this picture is something that will continue to hold a somewhat morbid fascination for some people. I don’t hold it against the editors and writers who ask to use this picture. In fact, I get it. Most of the time, they have good intentions; they want to offer a visceral representation of how bad addiction can be. The problem is that they are unwittingly contributing to the stigmatization of addiction.

Usually, the picture is contrasted with a picture of me now. Although that comparison offers a moving comparison between how badly I was doing then and how much better I’m doing now, it also plays on a dramatic visual contrast between “normal person” and “ugly, addicted criminal.”

It’s true that addiction is ugly—but when we contribute to the stigmatization of people with addiction, we make it harder for them to seek help. For most people in an active addiction, it is difficult to admit to the seriousness of the problem. By stigmatizing addiction, we only make it more unlikely that addicts and their families will recognize the need for, and seek out, help. After all, nobody wants to admit that they or their loved ones are part of this seemingly reviled demographic.

Every time I see that mug shot, a part of me wilts. It brings back all the shame, remorse and regret I associate with who I was then. I have to constantly remind myself that that’s who I was then. To avoid obsessing over that image, I have to dissociate myself from the person it depicts.

Living with the shame of a past addiction is something that every recovering addict has to deal with—some more publicly than others. Although the continued use of that mug shot will probably always bother me on some level, one thing it has taught me is that I have a truly wonderful group of friends.

When people I know shared the column I wrote for the Washington Post on Facebook, they all—every single one—chose the “remove preview” option so that the picture doesn’t show in the post. I didn’t ask them to do this. They just did it. To them, I am a real person, not an abstract representation of the face of addiction. Consciously or not, they chose not to contribute to the stigmatization of one face of addiction—the face that they know personally. To them, it wasn’t that I could be their sister, daughter or friend; it’s that I am. Nothing helps defeat the stigma of addiction like actually knowing someone who’s overcome it.

Note: This article was originally published by substance.com on Jan. 28, 2015.  Also, the original refers to “arrest and trial.” I deleted that here, but the word “trial” was added in by an editor; since I took a plea my case did not go to trial. The vast majority of cases do not go to trial. 

 

Graduation Behind Bars

On Wednesday, Dec. 10, a group of 13 students looking much like any other group of graduates walked across the stage to accept their diplomas as the Class of 2014. Unlike most college graduates, though, this group was entirely comprised of prisoners, inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility, the state’s oldest prison.

The December ceremony was the second graduation ceremony ever held for the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP). Rob Scott, the program’s executive director, said that Cornell professors first began teaching prison classes back in 2001. Initially, though, it was not an official college program. There was no funding, and the courses were not offered for credit.

Cornell Prison Education Program Graduating Class of 2014
The Class of 2014

Then in 2008, Doris Buffett—the founder of the Sunshine Lady Foundation and sister of Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett—got involved and provided funding to create a program that would actually help inmates earn degrees. Now, the students earn Cornell credits. However, because Cornell does not offer a two-year degree program, the credits are transferred to Cayuga Community College so graduates are awarded liberal arts associate’s degrees. In the future, Scott hopes to see bachelor degrees become a part of the program as well.

Commencement speaker Ronald Day, who is both the current director of workforce development at the Osborne Association and also a former inmate himself, commented on the difficulty of making positive changes in prison. He said, “Few people are rehabilitated in prisons. Fewer still are rehabilitated by prisons. But a few rehabilitate themselves in spite of prison.”

Graduate Nathan Powell is one who has done much in spite of prison. Although he was living in New York City at the time of his arrest, Powell also has a local connection: he graduated from Ithaca High School in 1981. Now, in this month’s graduation, he was honored as the valedictorian. In his speech, Powell expressed his gratitude for the CPEP program: “The rest of the world had us tagged and bagged, and you came in here, and you cared, and we will never forget that.”

After Powell’s speech, salutatorian Lucas Whaley took the stage. “Prison’s a funny place,” he said. “Sure, it’s oppressive and depressing, but it’s also filled with amazing things you wouldn’t expect—like brilliance.”

Another graduate, Maurice McDowell, said, “This means a lot. I have had something positive to do with my   time here instead of doing idle time.” McDowell said he hopes to become a social worker after his release.

The other 40 or so inmates currently enrolled in college classes were allowed to attend the ceremony as well. They offered raucous and enthusiastic support at times, but they also offered sober reflection. Dale Allen said he found it inspiring to watch his classmates graduate. He added, “This is the greatest advantage that prison can offer.”

The inmates aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program. As Scott said, “It feeds me to do this work.”

It is perhaps in part because of that tendency to define inmates as “others” that prison education programs have sometimes drawn criticism, a fact to which Buffet alluded during her brief speech. However, Pete Wetherbee, a Cornell professor emeritus who helped launch CPEP, firmly averred the value of prison education. He said, “It’s enriching for the culture of the prison. Some of the best students of the program are lifers. Also, it decreases recidivism, which is a tremendous economic boon to taxpayers.”

I originally wrote this article for publication in The Ithaca Times.