Al Tony Simon, an organizer for Release Aging People in Prison, speaks at Amnesty International's "Voices of Solitary" panel on Monday, Nov. 16. Julia Press / The Tufts Daily

Tufts Amnesty International hosts discussion of solitary confinement

Tufts Amnesty International hosted a keynote and panel discussion about solitary confinement and human rights in Barnum Hall Monday evening.

The event, entitled “Voices from Solitary: Think Outside the Box,” was presented in partnership with the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora, the Department of Peace and Justice Studies and the Tufts American Civil Liberties Union chapter.

According to its Facebook page, the event aimed to “present a discussion of the different facets and experiences of solitary [confinement],” as well as address the current movement to make solitary confinement illegal.

Stina Stannik, president of Tufts Amnesty International, explained why the organization decided to put together the panel.

“My vision for it was to build a network of people working on similar issues,” Stannik, a senior, said. “We tried to pull in other organizations at Tufts who are working on these issues, who are concerned about these things. We wanted to bring [in] speakers who are not only former prisoners but [who are] also actively involved in trying to create change. [Our hope was that] they could bring ideas and actions [to] audience members.”

The keynote speaker for the event was John Artis, co-founder of Innocence International and co-defendant in the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an American middleweight boxer wrongfully convicted of murder in 1967.

Innocence International, according to Stannik, was founded by Artis and Carter in order to build a network between groups working on issues in the American criminal justice system. According to its website, “the IGL is in the process of establishing a research and internship program with Innocence International.”

In Artis’ keynote address, he discussed his experience with incarceration.

Artis explained that he and his friend Carter were both convicted of three counts of first-degree murder at the age of 20, despite a lack of evidence. In prison, Artis said he faced traumatic experiences, including witnessing murders. He also spoke about his experience in solitary confinement — also known as administrative segregation but colloquially dubbed “the hole.”

Artis explained that solitary confinement meant that an inmate would be locked up alone in a room, sometimes without windows, for 24 hours a day. Inmates could be given an hour for recreation and 15 minutes to bathe, meaning that a year of solitary confinement could result in around 12.5 combined days outside of the cell, he said.

“I had problems just doing 15 days in ‘the hole,’” Artis said. “I can’t begin to imagine what a guy went through having to be on death row or in solitary confinement for years. I cannot imagine that at all.”

Artis went on parole after 15 years in jail, but Carter was not freed until after 19 years of imprisonment when he received a writ of habeas corpus, or a court summons to review his conviction in federal court. The presiding judge claimed that the case had “at its basis an appeal to racism, rather than reason; concealment, rather than disclosure.”

Artis said that race issues from his youth persist today, citing the protests that took place in Ferguson, Mo. last summer as evidence of this. He added that racism has led to the high rate of convictions of African-Americans, which he referred to as “assembly-line justice.”

“Untold men and women are in prison…simply because they’re black,” he said.

After Artis spoke, the event’s panelists were asked to introduce themselves, according to Stannik.

Panelists included Five Omar Mualimm-ak, activist and founder of The Incarcerated Nation Corporation, a non-profit seeking to reform incarceration methods and help integrate ex-convicts into society; Al Tony Simon, an organizer for Release Aging People in Prison, a group which aims to release elderly and infirm people from New York state prisons; Dr. Kirk A. James, a writer and a co-founder of EVOLVE, an organization working to end mass incarceration through education; and Douglas Rogers and Ashley Diamond, members of LGBTQI prisoners’ rights organization Black and Pink. All of the speakers had served sentences in prison, and all except Artis had spent time in solitary confinement.

Each panelist had a short period of time to talk about their experience with prisons and the criminal justice system, according to Stannik. The next part of the discussion was guided by questions prepared in advance by Tufts Amnesty members and shared with the panelists, but Stannik said that the panelists were free to talk about whatever they found most important.

“We had proposed questions, but we left it up to them whether they wanted to follow the questions or expand on what they had started [to talk about] in their intros,” Stannik said. “We [explicitly] said in front of the audience [that] we [did] want this [conversation] to be somewhat organic. Obviously our questions and our perspectives would be different from the panelists. They have a better sense of what is most important and what should be talked about … We had formulated questions, but they…determined the conversation.”

The panelists broached various topics during the panel and during the question and answer session that followed, including mass incarceration and its connection to American slavery, the psychological effects of solitary confinement, the significance of the television series “Orange is the New Black” (2013 – present) and mistreatment of LGBTQI prisoners.

The panelists agreed that America’s prison system, as well as said prisons’ disciplinary measures, were in need of substantial reform. Drawing a connection between mass incarceration and America’s slaveholding past, James said that the most effective way to solve the injustices caused by the modern prison system would be to abolish it entirely.

“Solitary confinement doesn’t work,” James said. “It isn’t based in any empirical data. How can we leave this room a little more informed? For people who are for solitary confinement, ask them why. You know, for people who can’t imagine a world without prisons, why? The idea of abolishing prisons, the idea of abolishing solitary confinement has become a radical idea. Abolishing slavery was once considered a radical idea. If, for you, the abolishment of a racial caste system is a radical idea, you should look in a mirror.”

Although the rest of the panelists spoke in person, Diamond participated in the discussion over Skype from her home in Georgia. According to Stannik, Diamond was released from prison for two months and is still under parole and therefore unable to leave the state. Diamond said that she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I am so grateful that I am free,” Diamond said. “But I am still haunted every single solitary day by everything that has happened.”

Stannik said that it is important for former prisoners to have a forum in which they are able to share their experiences.

“Solitary seeks to repress these voices and to make it harder for people to work together to change the system,” she said. “I think events like this…facilitate a way for people who are working on these issues throughout the country in very disparate ways to come together.”

Lancy Downs contributed reporting to this article. 

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