Brian Nelson spent 12 years of his life staring at four concrete walls. “Day after day, all I saw was gray walls,” he writes of his time in solitary confinement at Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois, “and over time my world became the gray box.” While in solitary, Nelson lost 41 pounds, developed severe psychological problems and prayed for death to end his suffering.
Nelson, who was convicted of robbery and murder at the age of 17, understands that crimes bring consequences. But solitary confinement, he says, is more than punishment—it is torture. It is designed to deny human fellowship and strip away human dignity. A devout Catholic, Nelson describes solitary confinement as “just plain cruel and completely against the Catholic Church.” He explains: “In solitary, you have no creation. You have some air, some water and maybe a bug or two. That’s it.”
Prisoners in solitary confinement spend 22 to 24 hours a day in an 8-foot by 10-foot cell in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation. Some, like Nelson, languish in these tomb-like cells for years or even decades. And in the United States, the practice is far from rare. Although solitary confinement is often thought of as a last resort for the most dangerous criminals, in fact 80,000 prisoners are held in isolation in state and federal prisons across the country on any given day. Many are placed in solitary confinement for nonviolent infractions like possession of contraband or failure to obey an order promptly.
During his years in isolation, Nelson suffered extreme insomnia, was unable to eat, developed blood blisters from his uncontrollable pacing and grew so depressed that at times he lost the will to live. “Every day…I got down on my knees and prayed that I would die in my sleep,” he writes, “yet God’s will was not mine.”
Nelson did what he could to keep sane. “I fought hard with my own mind, and I prayed,” he says. He copied the entire Bible by hand, read hundreds of books on Catholicism and followed the Trappist tradition of praying seven times a day. But it was a struggle to maintain his religious practice amid the isolation. “As Catholics, we should participate in the communion of saints with each other. We are not supposed to be alone.”
Nelson also faced frequent denials of his religious rights. He was unable to attend Mass and was often denied the chance to receive Communion. He was harassed and placed on suicide watch for fasting or abstaining from meat and sometimes was even denied his Bible, prayer book and rosary. “I did confession at my cell front,” he says. “An officer could hear it. There was a speaker in my cell. They wouldn’t give me privacy. But my soul is more important.”
The past decade has witnessed an increase in resistance to solitary confinement by human rights and civil liberties groups, mental health advocates, concerned citizens and people of faith, including Catholics.
In 2000 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement on crime and criminal justice, calling on Catholics to “insist that punishment has a constructive and rehabilitative purpose.” The bishops stated: “We oppose the increasing use of isolation units, especially in the absence of due process, and the monitoring and professional assessment of the effects of such confinement on the mental health of inmates.”
“We’re opposed to the inhumane treatment of other human beings,” explained Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y. He said that although individuals face incarceration because of their own actions, “Once they are in such a facility, we would expect them to be treated in a humane way.... If they are not, the entire community should be concerned with this, not only people whose friends and family members are affected.”
Bishop Hubbard was spurred to action in the late 1990s after speaking with prison chaplains who served isolated prisoners. The chaplains were very concerned about the effect this was having on the prisoners’ social and mental well-being. Bishop Hubbard brought the issue before other Albany-area religious leaders, who worked together to lobby for legislative change and to increase media attention on the issue.
He and his fellow New York bishops discussed solitary confinement in a pastoral statement on criminal justice in 2000, asserting: “The human dignity of inmates is compromised by extended confinement in such units. Rather than restoration and rehabilitation, such extended isolation threatens to inflict mental harm on inmates.”
The New York State Catholic Council continues to encourage lawmakers to reconsider the use of prolonged solitary confinement. “In relation to [Special Housing Units], we question the conditions under which they operate, the extent of their use, and the extended length of time of their use,” the group said in a statement. “Our chief concern is loss of human dignity, where punishment overrides concerns for public safety, rehabilitation or restitution.”
The Rev. Richard L. Killmer, a Presbyterian minister and executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, says the work of Catholic advocates is key to his organization’s mission. The campaign is an interfaith effort, with representatives from more than 300 religious groups, and aims to end U.S.-sponsored torture and the use of prolonged solitary confinement. Reverend Killmer says the Catholic Church is influential in anti-torture work because Catholics tend to be “very concerned with real pain and hurt and brokenness that occurs in the world.”
One of the campaign’s many collaborators is the Oratory Church of St. Boniface, a Catholic parish in Brooklyn, N.Y., that has an active social justice committee. Marion Defeis, C.S.J., one of the committee members, served as a chaplain for 23 years at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. There she saw firsthand the effects of solitary confinement. She says, “I felt it was inhumane, it was brutal, it was a terrible way to treat people.” Later, after reading an article distributed by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture that equated solitary confinement with torture, she realized, “I was witnessing torture without calling it that.”
Sister Marion brought her concerns to the social justice committee, which began hosting panels on solitary confinement and inviting experts and former prisoners to speak. After hearing firsthand accounts of solitary, she says, people began to understand that this was torture. Solitary confinement “is directly opposed to the way…we are supposed to treat one another,” says Sister Marian. “We are inflicting pain unnecessarily. If we believe we are children of God, how can we treat our brothers and sisters that way?”
The social justice committee at St. Boniface helped the campaign collect the 500 signatures needed to present a petition to the New York State legislature. But the parish also collaborates with Pax Christi, the Catholic peace organization, other faith communities and secular groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union. Similar collaborative efforts have sprung up in other states and on a national level.
In June 2012 this growing pool of activists had reason to celebrate. In a historic congressional hearing convened by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, a Senate subcommittee for the first time heard testimony on the effects of solitary confinement. Senator Durbin opened the hearing with a call to his senatorial colleagues to visit a prison. He described his own experience of doing so as “an eye opener.”
Senator Durbin explained that solitary confinement is no longer used only for the most dangerous prisoners, the “worst of the worst,” but for vulnerable groups like immigrants; children; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates. There has been “an alarming increase in isolation for those who don’t really need to be there,” he said.
Brian Nelson submitted written testimony for the hearing on the psychological impact of his time in solitary confinement. He described the lasting effects of such treatment. “I am a human being, and every day I still struggle with the trauma from being held in that gray box,” he said. “I wake screaming at night. I can’t get it out of my head some days. Solitary confinement, in my opinion, is worse than being beaten. That I spent 12 years in such conditions in America is appalling.”
Faith-based organizations showed their support for the hearing by holding a nationwide, 24-hour fast. At the end of the fast, Kathy McNeely, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, shared the experiences of Maryknoll priests and sisters who have undergone “great psychological and physical anguish” in solitary confinement around the world. “Catholic social thought is built on the dignity of the human person. And the person is not only sacred but social,” she explained. “According to church teaching all people have a right to and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all.... The practice of solitary confinement undermines this right and duty.”
Finally released from the “gray box” in 2010, Brian Nelson now works as a paralegal and is a major voice in the growing effort to eliminate prolonged solitary confinement. Along with other advocates, Nelson believes that despite some progress, solitary confinement has yet to take its place as a major domestic human rights concern.
The Rev. Michael Bryant, founder of Welcome Home, a program in Washington, D.C., that helps released individuals reintegrate into society by pairing them with compassionate volunteer mentors, concurs. “It’s not a particularly popular issue to the general public, as you might imagine,” he says. Father Bryant, who once served as a detention center chaplain, explains that criminal justice is unfortunately “generally not a standard bill of fare from the Sunday pulpit,” but this does not have to be the case. In an experiment he conducted for his doctoral thesis, Father Bryant found that when parishioners received just a half-hour overview on criminal justice from a Gospel perspective, their views on prisoners and criminal justice issues changed substantially.
Beyond solitary confinement, Father Bryant identifies many underlying problems in the criminal justice system. “The poor, people of color and low-level drug offenders are overwhelmingly represented in institutions throughout the United States,” he explains, and it is also the case that jails and prisons lack sufficient physical and mental support and skills training for inmates. This contributes to a “societal environment that grooms them for failure.”
Charlie Sullivan, co-director of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, agrees that the overall prison structure is at the root of the problem. Sullivan accounts for the rise of solitary confinement in terms of carrots and sticks. “Prisons used to use incentives to [encourage prisoners to] follow the rules, like good-time credits,” he explains. But over the years, things changed. “They instilled mandatory minimums, cut education, and paroles became rarely granted.” Because prisoners now have nothing to gain by following the rules, the authorities rely on sticks alone, and they “just keep building the stick bigger and bigger.”
Sullivan believes the practice of solitary confinement will wane when people embrace the full humanity of those in prison. Sullivan and other Catholic advocates are united by the desire to secure humane treatment for this group of people Christ included as “these least brothers of mine” (Mt 25:40). The more than two million Americans in prison are largely invisible to the rest of society, and those in the “gray box” are the most invisible of all. By bearing witness to these forgotten souls, advocates oppose a practice that damages not only those who endure it, but the larger society that allows it to continue.