Episcopalians are urged to learn more about and work to end solitary confinement

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Oct 31, 2023

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations Director Rebecca Linder Blachly moderates a webinar on solitary confinement on Oct. 30 with speakers Laura Markle Downton and Johnny Perez from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Perez experienced three years in solitary confinement while he was incarcerated. Photo: Screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations is encouraging Episcopalians to support proposed federal legislation that would end solitary confinement in prisons, jails and other detention settings with limited exceptions, including a four-hour maximum for emergency de-escalation.

The Office of Government Relations hosted a webinar on solitary confinement moderated by director Rebecca Linder Blachly on Oct. 30. It featured two people with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture – Laura Markle Downton, the director of faith and community engagement; and Johnny Perez, director of the organization’s U.S. Prisons Program, who experienced three years in solitary confinement while he was incarcerated.

Downton said The Episcopal Church was one of the founding members of her organization, which was created in 2006 and aims to end torture, which includes the use of solitary confinement, in United States policies, practices and culture.

In 2018 the 79th General Convention adopted a resolution that reaffirmed the church’s condemnation of  torture and condemned the use of prolonged solitary confinement anywhere in the world. It also urged Episcopalians to call for the end of such confinement.

Perez called solitary confinement “a prison inside a prison” and said at any given time in the United States more than 120,000 people are in solitary confinement, with most of them held in state prisons and county jails. Some also are in federal prisons and detention facilities. About 80% of those held in solitary confinement are people of color.

That latter statistic makes working to end the use of solitary confinement a racial justice issue, Downton said. “What does it mean for people of color to disproportionately be impacted not only by our sentencing laws but all the way through the system, and to ultimately be facing some of the most horrific conditions once they are inside?” she asked.

Solitary confinement may be known by a variety of terms, including “administrative segregation,” “disciplinary segregation” and “restrictive housing,” but the conditions are generally the same: 22 to 24 hours a day spent alone in a cell the size of a small bathroom. The harm people suffer while in solitary confinement has been documented and includes shorter life expectancy even after they leave incarceration, and lasting and sometimes severe mental health issues.

In 2011, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez concluded that indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and should be prohibited. In response, in 2015 the U.N. adopted the Mandela Rules, named for former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for more than 27 years. Those rules restrict the use of solitary confinement as a measure of last resort, to be used only in exceptional circumstances.

Perez said many people incorrectly believe that those in solitary confinement are there for committing violent acts in prison, but most are confined for reasons like drug use, missing a prison program or using the phone when they shouldn’t. He was placed in solitary confinement for marijuana use, he said.

He suffers lasting effects from being in a room so small he could stand in the middle and touch every wall with his outstretched arms. He now must wear glasses, because he can only clearly see six feet in front of him. Calling for restrictions on this practice doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, he said, but rather that they be treated as human beings.

The Episcopal Public Policy Network issued an action alert that assists Episcopalians in efforts to encourage their members of Congress to co-sponsor the proposed legislation to end solitary confinement. “Please get involved, advocate, learn more and stay connected,” Linder Blachly said.

 –Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.