State officials in New York are reforming their policy of keeping people convicted of non-violent offenses in solitary confinement. Some hail the decision; others, including corrections officers, object, saying that solitary confinement is necessary to maintain control, and they say that keeping an individual in solitary confinement is not inhumane.
Tell that, though, to innocent people in prison, wrongly convicted, who find themselves in solitary confinement without hope of ever getting out.
Sojourners, an evangelical organization committed to work for social justice, gathered over 50 faith leaders this week to a retreat held at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Among the subjects discussed was mass incarceration, and within that, the phenomenon of people, primarily black, brown and poor, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death or to life without parole. EJI, founded and headed by Bryan Stevenson, has worked for many years to get the wrongfully convicted out of prison.
The faith leaders were privileged to hear first-hand the story of one Anthony Ray Hinton, a black man who was wrongfully convicted of capital first degree murder 30 years ago. The crime occurred near Birmingham, Alabama, and in spite of his verified and substantiated alibi of having been at work at the time of the murders, he was arrested. When he was told that he was being arrested for murder, he protested and refuted the charge, but the police officer told him that he "probably didn't do it" but that he, the police officer, "didn't care."
The officer, who was white, told Hinton that he was being arrested on five counts, including two of capital first-degree murder, and that he was going to be convicted on all five. The reasons were, Hinton recalled the officer saying, that 1) he was black; 2) he was accused by a white person; 3) the prosecutor was white; 4) the judge was white, and 5) the jury would be all-white.(three of the counts were thrown out).
Hinton was in fact convicted and was sentenced to death. He spent 30 years on Death Row, in Solitary Confinement. Fifteen years into his sentence, he met Stevenson, who agreed to take his case. He needed a ballistics expert, he said, to prove that the gun that was said to be the murder weapon could not have been; the gun was his mother's, and neither he nor she had used it in any crime. He asked Stevenson to find three ballistics experts to verify the truth that the accusation of that particular gun being the murder weapon had been erroneous; he said he needed Stevenson to make sure the experts were 1) white men, 2) from the South, and 3) in favor of the death penalty. Stevenson found three experts, two from Texas and one from Virginia and they did in fact corroborate the claim that the gun said to be the murder weapon was indeed not. Hinton was elated and thought he was slated for a new trial in the near future, but instead, he sat on Death Row, in solitary confinement, for another 16 years while Stevenson tried unsuccessfully to get the courts in Alabama to order a new trial. It didn't happen; Stevenson and EJI ended up taking the case to the United States Supreme Court, which overturned Hinton's conviction and said there needed to be a new trial. In the end, Alabama ultimately decided to drop the case, and Hinton walked out of prison in April of this year. (http://www.eji.org/deathpenalty/innocence/hinton)
But it was after 30 long years of sitting in solitary confinement, on Death Row.
Mass incarceration is a major issue in this country, with far too many people in prison for non-violent offenses. Recent reports, brought to attention by Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, indicate that over 1 million people are incarcerated in this country for non-violent offenses. (http://www.november.org/razorwire/rzold/12/1201.html) A report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) indicates that about 65 percent of incarcerated, non-violent offenders, are Black (https://www.aclu.org/report/living-death-life-without-parole-nonviolent-offenses) and it is safe to say that a good number of them endure solitary confinement.
How Anthony Ray Hinton kept his sanity after his long and unjust incarceration is nothing short of miraculous; he says that while in prison, he prayed continually, developed his imagination, used his sense of humor and recited what became his favorite Bible verse: Mark 11:24, which says that "whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
It is not a given, however, that many to most people in solitary confinement have such developed coping skills; many are ill, either physically, mentally, or both. Many have no solid family structures or support systems to help them fight the feeling of despair and hopelessness for being incarcerated for life for relatively minor offenses.
To be in prison for something minor or for something you did not do is bad enough. To be in solitary confinement is ...cruel and unusual.
Hopefully, more states will move away from solitary confinement, and hopefully, America will begin to seriously deal with its shameful practice of mass incarceration.