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.

Advertisements

Ban the Box: When Do You Admit That You’re a Felon

There are around 70 million Americans with an arrest history or a criminal record. For that portion of the population—one in three adults, according to the National Employment Law Project—getting a job can be tough.

In some cases, private employers, such as Target, Home Depot, and Walmart, have chosen to make it a bit easier by not asking questions about criminal background on their applications. In some cases, cities, counties, and states have actually passed legislation prohibiting such questions. These so-called “Ban the Box” laws don’t mandate that employers must hire felons. They simply require that criminal background inquiries occur later in the hiring process, typically after an in-person interview or conditional offer of employment.Ban the Box

Among the county’s major employers, Ithaca College, Borg Warner, and Cayuga Medical Center all either declined to comment or failed to respond to questions about their policies regarding the hire of individuals with criminal backgrounds. Cornell University, Tompkins County, and the City of Ithaca all said that they do inquire about criminal background, but that it is not an automatic bar to employment.

Although neither Tompkins County nor any of its included municipalities has banned the box yet, nearby Syracuse has. Alan Rosenthal, an attorney with the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, helped see that law through. However, the Syracuse law does not apply to all employers, but only to the city and its contractors. He said, “As we’ve seen [Ban the Box] implemented around the country there have been basically three versions. The first is the one that is the most narrow, the one in which the governmental entity—city, county, or state—bans the box for government employees only. The second is the one which applies to government entities and any business that contracts with government entities. Then the third, the one that is the broadest and gives the best of protections, takes the two that I’ve already mentioned and adds to it any private business within the locality.”

While none of the Tompkins County businesses interviewed for this article were willing to comment on Ban the Box, in some areas business interests have vocally opposed it. In an article for Cleveland.com, Director of Labor and Human Resources Policy for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce Sean Chichelli wrote, “Businesses ask candidates about their criminal histories on job applications in order to reduce liability and costs. Preventing them from doing so at the point of application only delays the necessary information they need right away.” Typically, Ban the Box advocates argue that delaying those questions allows applicants to be judged on their skills and experience rather than being summarily rejected for their pasts.

Rosenthal said that those with criminal backgrounds are not the only ones to benefit from the passage of Ban the Box legislation: “The benefits that flow from that are that if a person [with a criminal background] gets a job they now are a taxpayer, so there’s a benefit to the municipal entity in which they live. Now they’re paying taxes, they’re no longer in need of public assistance. There is the additional benefit that employment reduces the recidivism rate.” He added, “The Koch brothers have banned the box. Liberals shouldn’t be running away from this.”

Mayor Svante Myrick said that the city has talked about Ban the Box legislation in the past, but the matter never came to a vote. However, he voiced his support for the concept, saying, “If we deny people meaningful employment, we’re all but guaranteeing that they’ll go back to prison.”

One group of Cornell students, the Prison Reform and Education Project (PREP), has been actively raising awareness on the issue in recent months and one of the group’s leaders, Garrison Lovely, said that PREP has plans to address the Common Council about it during their regular May meeting. Lovely said, “We believe if you are sentenced and serve your time, you should not be punished repeatedly. It contributes to high recidivism.”

Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne (D-Ithaca) said that, like the city, the county has briefly talked about Ban the Box legislation, but she did not recall where the conversation ended.

Legislator Dan Klein (D-Danby) said, “I think we should give serious consideration to this idea. The number of people in prison, and how they integrate back into society when they are out, is an issue that affects everyone. Ban the Box legislation could help with this problem without causing any difficulties for employers or restricting their rights.”

On the other side of the aisle, Legislator Dave McKenna (R-Newfield) said, “I’m not totally in favor of it, but I don’t know enough yet.”

Paula Ioanide, an Ithaca College professor who has been active regarding issues of incarceration and race, urged action on the issue. She said, “I keep wanting to hold Tompkins County accountable to their supposed promise to be at the forefront of alternatives to incarceration, and I think this county’s openness to reentry into formal labor markets would be a huge gesture in that direction. Less talk, more action.”

This article was originally published on ithaca.com. Photo and story by Keri Blakinger.

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.