On this episode of Human Rights Chat, New Tactics staff interview advocates for prison reform in the US state of Michigan. These individuals and organizations are fighting to put an end to the practice of solitary confinement in their state.
This episode includes references to violence and torture inside US prisons and jails. Please take care while listening.
Full Transcription of the Episode
On this episode of Human Rights Chat, I talk to advocates and activists working for prison reform in the US state of Michigan. I met these amazing individuals through documenting a tactic called The Silenced Project. Silenced is a collection of letters and art that was produced in collaboration with people inside solitary confinement. The letters are publicly available in a digital archive at silenced.in. They describe the treatment, conditions and mental health effects of solitary confinement, which include anxiety, depression, paranoia, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, sensory deprivation, neglect, exposure to excessive heat or cold, and more. Upon viewing these letters, it’s not difficult to see how the physical and mental health effects of prolonged isolation are detrimental and often result in severe long-lasting PTSD.
Despite international standards such as the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the Nelson Mandela Rules, which obligate states to treat incarcerated individuals with respect for human dignity, Solitary Watch estimates that 120,000 people in the US are living in solitary confinement. These individuals are isolated in small, closed cells with no meaningful human contact for 22-24 hours per day.
You’re listening to the Human Rights Chat podcast by New Tactics in Human Rights. New Tactics is a program of the Center for Victims of Torture. I’m your host, Melissa McNeilly, and together with our special guests, we’ll be exploring innovative tactics for change through the voices of activists and human rights defenders around the world. We’re here to amplify the work of real people on the ground, advocating to ensure all human beings are treated “free and equal in dignity and rights."
Let’s start with a clip from Jaqueline Williams or Jacq, whose voice you heard at the beginning of this episode. Jacq is an organizer, mother, doula, abolitionist, and homesteader who works in solidarity with people inside and outside of prisons to build resilient solutions to the existential problems these communities face. She is the Regional and Prison Program Director of Zealous, a social justice media and storytelling initiative that created The Silenced Project.
Very quickly after going inside of our prisons in Michigan, going into the housing units and the infirmary, seeing people in the places that they live, and especially pregnant people and people in vulnerable populations, I was overwhelmed in the most awful way. And I recognized that a lot of the societal ills that I was fighting at large are magnified in quantum time inside of our prison facilities. And so every disparity, every injustice, everything that we see happen in the free world, happens times 25, inside of prisons and jails.
I took a job with an organization that advocates for people who are incarcerated. And that was the American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program. When I started there as a volunteer in 2016-2017, one of my main areas of focus, you know, was solitary confinement. People write from solitary confinement with more frequency sometimes than other people because of the conditions, because of how stark it is, because of the desperation. And so, we did a project from that organization, which identified mostly black men who were held past their earliest release dates, and they were still inside of segregation. So they were just getting slapped by the parole board or denied by the parole board because they were in segregation, but there was no meaningful path for their release whatsoever. Nobody was trying to help people work their way down. So throughout that project, I started also working alongside Citizens for Prison Reform, who were really leading the charge on segregation inside Michigan at the time, and working with the affiliate Unlock the Box, which is a national affiliate run by Jessica Sandoval, an amazing organization. And so I was working as the sort of liaison communicating with most of the people inside from AFSC. CPR was doing a lot of the legislative pushes, the lobbying, working with the senators to try to develop legislation. And, you know, we were sort of trying to marry all those things together and make sure that we were taking direction from people who were most impacted, people who are currently inside solitary confinement and utilizing all of that information in their own advocacy in their own organizing in service of what was happening in the in the legislature and in the in the free world organizing push.
I think one of the main things that I focus on and one of the main things that create successful campaigns is that inside-outside organizing, we cannot overstate how important it is to not just take, you know, sort of commentary from, but to really take leadership from the people who are living it because they know best what the problem is, how it could possibly be solved and what it's going to take to get there. And so, you know, really, in the most holistic way, I kind of hate that word, but in the most non extractive way possible, to work with people inside to say, like, What do we do? How do we do it better? What is sort of the North Star? Like, what's the guiding light? Like, where do we need to be? Where are we now? And where do we need to be?
And so, what we, what we did, what we sort of came up with is I was getting all these letters, you know, from people in solitary confinement, they were coming into my office, and essentially, I would write people back, I would initiate advocacy, you know, addressing advocacy requests, I would send books, I would do, you know, things, but I felt like, I shouldn't be the only one reading all of this, first of all, I just, like, consume these things. And then they sort of die on my desk, and a little piece of my soul dies with them every time. And secondly, people need to know, like, people have to know what we're doing here. And what we're doing on a mass scale, and what it's doing to people to human beings, to their brains, to their bodies, to their souls to their spirits, like, people have to understand this in a visceral way. Because once you know, it's hard to unknow, it's hard to look away, it's hard to figure “I'm just gonna carry on with, you know what I've been doing.” You can change the minds of people who you never thought you could if you tell them the truth. And if you show them the truth of what it really looks like.
And so there was this organization, I was still working for AFSC. But a national organization that did this sort of narrative and storytelling work, and it is Zealous who is the organization I now work for. And at this point, COVID had just started. And so, I’m not on any social media, but I started an anonymous Twitter account to just get information from inside the Michigan Department of Corrections into the public sphere. I had a prison line from AFSC, that is on that universal pin. Anybody inside the Michigan Department of Corrections can call it for free. And so I had that line with me when we started work from home, and I was getting 20-30 calls a day from people who were really scared. And it was really hard to hear from people who were really scared because that was a new thing. Like people will call and feel pissed off or desperate or despondent, but scared was a new thing. And it was really, really hard to stomach that sort of fear. And again, to like, need the public to know what was happening.
So we started, you know, that Twitter account, I sort of tweeted at the person from Zealous who I saw speaking about somebody inside of the Michigan Department of Corrections. He wrote me back and said, “What do you like working on? What do you need?,” basically and I said, “I'm working on solitary confinement.” Because Michigan has no limit on the length of time we have for solitary confinement, we have arbitrary rules, we have rubber stamps, you know, classification screens, we have very little oversight, we have very little recourse, and we have thousands of people inside of solitary confinement every day. We also have these extremely skewed numbers, because they don't count being locked in a level five for 23 hours a day, and getting out maybe for your shower three days a week as solitary confinement, because you go onto a joint yard, sometimes for 45 minutes. International, national, and frankly, every other standard meets the definition of solitary confinement; even our level fours meet the definition of solitary confinement, because they're locked down for 22 hours a day. But by Michigan standards, unless you're actually in segregation, you're not in solitary confinement. You don't count.
And we have entire prisons dedicated to level fives which are absolutely solitary confinement and absolutely just as damaging. You know, there are some very, very minor different aspects, but for the most part, we have thousands of people inside of these conditions in Michigan. And we have, in my mind, one of the most egregious amounts of length of time. Our longest serving person, his name is Richard Goodard. And he has been in solitary confinement for 46 years. Since the 70s. Clarence Herndon, who is a dear friend of mine, just passed away last month. He was in solitary confinement for 36 years. I mean, it's difficult to imagine I'm 36 years old. To spend my whole life in a cell, the size of a parking space: three feet forward, three feet back, three feet forward, three feet back. People are not meant to live that way, no matter what has happened, no matter what we've done. Frankly, you know, we have a lot of really strict carceral policies in Michigan. We have the longest length of sentence of any state by about 40%, because we have no good time, no disciplinary credits, no productivity credits, we have 100% truth in sentencing. We're one of only two states that provides no things like that. So if 10% of your population is serving life or life without parole, it's nothing to have somebody inside of a concrete box that big for 10 years. And so, Michigan at its very root started a lot of these carceral policies, because we were one of the first to abolish the death penalty. So we abolished the death penalty, and we replaced it with mandatory life without parole for up to 57 different charges. You can get life for a million different things, frankly, anything if we're using supplementals and enhancements, which we do constantly. And so, you know, we have the highest number of long and indeterminate sentences, the highest number of lifers, the second highest number of juvenile lifers, the longest length of sentence of any state, and our conditions are egregious, egregious inside. These facilities: Chippewa, Baraga, Marquette, Ionia Max. I mean, these are places of torture. That's what they are. Staffing capacities at around 60%. People aren't even getting out for their single yard. The problem seems so overwhelming in Michigan, because we have so many of these other things that we're fighting at the same time. But we're talking about torture here. And segregation is torture. It is absolute torture. Torture of the mind, body, spirit, soul torture of the family. And such an incredibly high number of the suicides and incidents of self harm that we have take place inside of segregation. So many people die.
You mentioned it was Scott from Zealous that reached out to you and Zealous kind of did the media production part of pulling the Silenced campaign together. I hadn't heard about Zealous at all before I started researching into the Silenced campaign. I was like, wow, like what a cool organization. It's like social justice media. Can you tell us a little bit more about the mission of Zealous and the kinds of projects that you guys do?
It is also organizing as well. So Zealous is a national media education advocacy initiative. We started as an offshoot of a public defender project. So our, you know, our two founders, Crystal and Scott were public defenders, Scott for close to a decade in New York. And he was super frustrated every single day going into court and seeing the same injustice play out every single solitary day, especially for Black, Brown and poor people. And there's only so much you can do as a defender, you know, you can't advocate in the way you'd want to. You can't educate in the way you want to. And so they created an offshoot project, which was essentially working with public defenders to engage in advocacy outside of the courtroom. So media advocacy, but also sort of campaign pushes, local organizing, you know, joining up with “know your rights” workshops, and doing really tangible things that allowed their reach to go further than the courtroom. And it was sort of just beginning and had been around for about a year before Scott and I talked, but at the time, there was a lot of like training courses with public defender offices, but also sort of understanding like nuanced issues and local jurisdictions and like through the leadership of the people running it on the ground, saying exactly what Scott said to me, “What are you working on? And what do you need, you know, like, tell us. We have national capacity, we have designers, you know, we have people who have large social media presences.” And so when he posed that question to me, it was like, “I need somebody to tell everybody what we're doing to people in the solitary cells in Michigan,” like, somebody's got to know, beyond me, how do we do that? And he's like, Well, what do you have? And I'm like letters, hundreds of them, you know, hundreds of them, literally, I still have hundreds of them. These are all letters from solitary confinement. They just sit on my desk every day. And I go through them, and I answer them, and I try to do the requests and get the books and all the things, but like it can't be just me who knows. It can't be just my name on the front of the envelope. More people have to know.
More people have to know, which is why I wanted to document this tactic and record this episode. Before we get into the process of collecting and publishing letters for the Silenced project archive, I first want to zoom out to where it all began… Jacq mentioned a nonprofit organization called Citizens for Prison Reform, which we refer to throughout this episode as CPR. CPR is a grass-roots, family-led initiative that engages, educates and empowers families and those affected by crime and punishment to advance their constitutional, civil and human rights.
I spoke with the founder and executive director of this organization, Lois Pullano. Lois founded CPR after her 15-year-old son with mental illness was sentenced to the adult prison system and placed in solitary confinement in Michigan. Through a 2014 Soros Fellowship, Lois worked within prisons to establish a Family Participation Program, connecting families to critical resources. In 2015, she implemented a Family Advisory Board to Corrections. Her work with CPR has focused on family inclusion and human dignity for all inside, as well as for their families. In 2019 CPR established the Open MI Door campaign, Open capital M I door, as in the state of Michigan. This campaign aims to end solitary confinement in MI prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities, bringing the state into full compliance with the UN’s Mandela Rules. Its work is focused on culture shift, corrections oversight and ending the use of solitary confinement, replacing it with a rehabilitative model.
We also had CPR’s Family Participation Program Coordinator, Tiffany Walker, on the call. Tiffany’s passion for prison reform was also born out of her own personal experience. Her brother was incarcerated for over 17 years, and she saw firsthand the devastating consequences of isolation and incarceration.
The other new voice you’ll hear in this section is New Tactics intern, Laszlo, who jumps in on the call to ask about the goals and successes in policy advocacy for CPR.
I'm Lois Pullano, and when I began my work was really back in 2007. I attended a rally at the Capitol and met Teresa Vaughn, the mother of Timothy Sauders. My son at that point, had been in the system just a matter of months. He was 15 years old with a known mental illness, and was sentenced into the Department of Corrections. And I came to the rally August 6, 2007, where I met Teresa. Her son had died just a year previously in solitary confinement. And I just realized how alone families are, when they are thrust into this system, and how they don't just have the very basic information they need, and feel so alone and isolated. And so that really was what began my work. We did not become a nonprofit until 2012. So Citizens for Prison Reform really was born out of a letter writing campaign around those that were being held and tortured, both juveniles and those with mental illness inside of our prison system.
Thank you for sharing that. Tiffany, do you want to jump in as well? And tell us a little bit about what brought you into this work?
Yeah, my name is Tiffany Walker, and I work with Citizens for Prison Reform as a communications specialist and a family organizer and advocate. My brother was incarcerated for over 17 years. He went many, many years without visits, and also many years in solitary confinement. And now I get to work with families and be there to pick up the call and help them navigate the challenges of their loved ones’ incarceration, and provide advocacy for those who are, you know, going through situations like solitary confinement.
Wow, you guys are doing really incredible work. So this is Human Rights Chat. So I kind of want to start by also framing solitary confinement in the context of human rights. Can you talk about some of the ways in which this practice violates human rights and is especially detrimental for the most vulnerable populations, you know, children, like your son, or people that might be marginalized?
Yes, so honestly, I believe it is a human rights violation for anyone who's placed in this space. We go by the 15 day rule. We know, inside of our prisons in Michigan, especially since COVID, we're finding that even those in general population are often being held in a space 22+ hours a day. And so when individuals are held for that amount of time, and then on top of it, so many of them are on loss of privileges, which means that they have their property withheld. So they have often nothing in their cell. They are isolated from family connection, they lose phone contact, they lose the ability to JPay, which is the secure system of emailing, which is the fastest way to have contact with people outside. When all of those things are stripped away, even if it is an individual who we consider to be healthy, without medical or mental health degradation, I mean, it leads to mental health issues, it leads to people becoming unstable. And, you know, it's just a practice that really marginalizes the health of everyone involved, even the staff and officers that are working in these spaces.
And, Tiffany, I know you do a lot of work with families, you know, the mental health risks of solitary confinement are well documented. And there are needs that need to be addressed not only with incarcerated individuals, but with their loved ones as well. Can you tell us a little bit about the resources that CPR offers to both incarcerated individuals and their loved ones?
CPR offers a virtual support meeting for families who have a loved one incarcerated in the system. We also offer direct advocacy. So if someone reaches out to us and their loved one has been experiencing some of the symptoms of solitary confinement, whether it be hallucinations, anxiety, they're losing weight, their behaviors are changing, they're having suicidal thoughts; We'll reach out and provide direct advocacy for those individuals requesting mental health support. We’ll get their families set up so they kind of understand how the system works. Many families do not know or understand that there is a certain form that must be filed for the MDOC to be able to share information about medical or mental health. So we help get them connected to the resources and information they need to be stronger advocates for their loved one.
Some of the other resources that we utilize are Disability Rights. So every single state has a disability rights organization that is in part, federally funded. And that's one of the first things we ask and we look at. Do they have a disability of any kind? And if so, then we connect with Disability Rights and loop them in and get them involved. In Michigan, we also have a corrections ombudsman. So if the individual does not have some form of disability, we then will bring in the ombudsman and frequently asked for them to do an investigation. We have individuals who maybe have been placed on security threat group and have been on that status for 10 or more years. We've had individuals that we've been able to get off that have been held wrongfully on that status. And when they're on that status, I think this is one of our greatest concerns is that there are areas like this, where they may be looked at as a level two or a level four, yet they're being held in their cell 22 plus hours a day. They are not able to even get their GED. They're not able to have any kind of employment. They're not able to go to any classes or groups. Therefore they can’t even proceed with a parole hearing, because of this status. And so finding these individuals, working with their families, and working with them, and helping them to take action, and to apply to get off this status. These are all things that we can do to assist people. And we've been able to get, you know, numerous people off from these types of status, that then allows them to get out of their cell, to become employed, if you can call it that. Often, they're only working, you know, an hour or less a day, but at least it's getting them out. It's getting them so that they're not so isolated. And we've seen people move to having a parole hearing and being released, getting the classes that they need to be able to, to get parole.
Yeah, it's great to hear about the individual successes that you guys have been able to get. Could you expand a little bit and talk about maybe some of the milestones or policy changes that you've achieved at like the state level in Michigan?
One of the biggest victories that I'm most proud of, of our organization being able to accomplish was getting a permanent Family Advisory Board established through policy and legislation, which requires the MDOC to bring families together to the table for the first time and have a voice in, you know, looking at programming, changing policies and doing more things that support family connection.
I would say, when we started this work, the Michigan Department of Corrections didn't even have a resource guide for families, you had to dig into policy to figure out how to send money, how to set up an account, or your phone account. It was a wake up call for us as an organization and for families, that we were able to ask, went to legislators, and they mandated that the Department of Corrections create a resource guide. And so I think that just empowered us and helped us to understand that families’ voices matter, that together we can bring change. And if you don't ask it definitely will not occur. So that was kind of one of the first things that we were able to do. And then the following year, created the Family Advisory Board. We began meeting with the Department of Corrections quarterly, and we would come together with other family members that we brought onto the board and also some formerly incarcerated to really address the need for greater family connection, to look at the barriers, but also to look at the inhumane treatment, the conditions of incarceration in general, not just solitary. And that board has been meeting since 2015. And then in 2019, we had a Senator who put together a family reunification bill. And that bill permanently establishes the Family Advisory Board. So that is now permanently established. And I think one of the pieces of the family reunification bill is that within a week of arriving within the Department of Corrections, an orientation packet will now be sent out to an outside contact. And that will really give families on the outside or loved ones on the outside immediate access to the information they need to assist and support and advocate for their loved one that's incarcerated, rather than it taking years to find the resources and the help that they need.
That's a huge success. I wasn't expecting to feel so hopeful on this call, like, amazing that you guys have done all of that and taken your experience of not feeling supported and not knowing how to navigate these systems and making that experience of navigating all of the challenges a little bit easier for families who are now experiencing the incarceration of a loved one.
Yeah, I think there are many more things in the reunification policy that the department has implemented, that honestly, is going to take a lot of push on our end to get those pieces fully implemented. So programming for families, programming for children. And it states that when families reach out and call to check on their loved ones that they must be responded to. That is something that we see currently does not happen. And so it's something that I think there are many pieces in this policy that we're going to have to really push up against, and make sure that they get implemented. But it is a great start. It's great to have a policy in place that recognizes family reunification as something that needs to occur. And that, you know, we really have to have families deeply involved and advocating for their loved ones inside. That's really the best way that we can learn when there are violations, we can learn of instances of individuals, like John Lancaster, who lost his life inside solitary confinement. And that is not an isolated case, it happens over and over and over again. And often, you know, families become aware first. They are the ones that really recognize when there is something wrong with their loved one, whether it's mental health or medical. And frequently, they think there's nothing that they can do or they don't know what to do. And so in really connecting with all of these families, teaching them and all of us together, standing up together, organizing and saying this is not good enough for us. families deserve better, human beings inside deserve better. And we are just going to continue pushing for further change.
There are so many things that we've been able to do. Some of them, I think, seem small. But in the grand scheme of things, for instance, the form that has to be signed by the individual inside giving permission for their medical or mental health information to be shared on the outside. Back in 2007, when my son went into the system, that form was not good from prison to prison. It was subjective, whether it was good for a month or three months or six months. And so through again, working with legislators, we were able to get that where it is now good for one year. It's good from prison to prison. And it is supposed to be provided upon intake. Again, those are policies that we have to continue to push and make sure that that is occurring. But we have many things like that, that for us, it's a huge deal, for families. And if they don't have access to their loved one inside and they can't know what's going on. That is often when we see the greatest human rights violations occurring. And it is what has led to the death of numerous individuals inside this system.
Yeah, because it seems like if that's the case, then there's no accountability. There's no one unveiling these wrongs that are happening behind closed doors.
And with that in mind, the collaborative community that you're describing here is really amazing. Are there any other specific policy changes or initiatives that you're currently working on or planning to pursue, or things that you might want to shed some light on now that people could keep an eye out [for]?
Yes, we definitely have several issues that we are working on. One was requesting and getting body cams inside this system. And we actually were just successful with that measure. It took quite a fight. Amazingly enough, the Department of Corrections and our governor wanted the body cams, we understand due to the number of lawsuits, not due to the loss of life that we know occurs inside, but they were concerned about the money being spent. And unfortunately, our legislators had taken the body cams out of the budget. So, we really had to rally to educate them, and to share the truths about what goes on inside the system. So we were able to get the body cams back into the budget. And those will be implemented in the fall of 2024. We are working on a segregation bill, with Senator Chang. And that bill will limit the number of days and the number of hours that individuals can be held in segregation, or what we call solitary confinement. It also will limit who can be held. So individuals who are vulnerable individuals with mental or chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, there's a whole host of individuals that we believe should never be placed in segregation. So we are working on that bill.
In addition, we are wanting to get further data. The Department of Corrections does not report out the number of individuals held in like security threat group, there's a Classification Notice of Intent. We have no clue how many people are held in these different types of segregation. They're not considered administrative segregation, yet these people are held 22 plus hours a day. And so we really don't have a true count on the number of individuals being held.
And then we also are going to be working to establish a corrections oversight commission. This is something that we believe truly needs to occur, in order to address the issues of transparency and oversight here in Michigan. Even with the ombudsmans, we find that there still is just not the level of investigative work or reporting that should be going on, and as well giving access to professionals, and to directly impacted individuals to go in and to investigate and tour and interview individuals inside, to learn really where things stand and truly what's going on inside this system. It's very difficult for us to glean information on the horrors that are occurring inside.
And then one of the other things that we have been working on is in Michigan, there is a legislative law that allows the director to take visits permanently. And so in 2019, the Marshall Project did a story on this. And they found Michigan to be one of the harshest states. At that time, that particular year, there were around 1,100 individuals inside who lost their visits indefinitely. In part, this is due to a rule that if you receive two substance use tickets, your visits are restricted, and then you have to stay ticket-free in order to gain your visits back. So we have right now a whole group of families that we are gathering together. And we are really hoping to elevate this new campaign and asking our legislators to change this law that allows the director to take visits permanently. We think it's harmful. It's wrong. And we have families that have not had their visits for up to 10 years. And if you envision 1,100 individuals inside, and you think about all of the visitors on their list, some of them even children. We've met some of those children who haven't been able to see or visit their parents. They also will not allow video calls for these families. So even though video calls were implemented during COVID, these families are supposably not being punished, yet, they cannot even receive or participate in the video calls. So they have not seen their loved ones face, for some of them, you know, again, up to 10 years, and it's just horrific.
I think that's a good segue to talking about The Silenced Project, you talked about being able to share those stories of the wrongs that are happening. And I imagine that that's kind of how The Silenced Project, which is a collection of letters from incarcerated individuals, detailing some of the horrors of living in isolation in solitary confinement, the mental health effects, the deprivation and abuses that they suffered at the hands of staff. Can you talk a little bit about The Silenced Project specifically, and how that came together?
Yes, so in 2019, we were asked if we would like to start a campaign to address the use of solitary confinement. And so we established the Open MI Door campaign. And we sent in through a newsletter asking for individuals inside to share their story. And so Silenced is really a culmination of the first 100 letters that the Open MI Door campaign received. And that was in collaboration with American Friends Service Committee at that time and Zealous, who created the amazing space. And I think to me, the amazing thing is that we have continued. We have continued to receive these letters, and I believe now we received around 700 letters, which we are utilizing, and taking to higher agencies. We are advocating for these individuals, sharing their stories. And this is where we learn of the truths.
Through the Silenced website, readers link to resources where they can sign petitions or contact their legislators. Open MI Door has collected more than 10,000 signatures on a change.org petition to end solitary confinement in Michigan. The campaign has garnered the support of more than 50 local organizations including The Center for Victims of Torture. The campaign also includes a mental wellness toolkit for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones. And the site also offers to connect users with attorneys and advocates working on this issue.
Jacq Williams talks more about the process of collecting the Silenced Project letters in a non-extractive way that honor the informed and continuing consent and security of individuals on the inside:
So essentially, what we did was, took a newsletter that had a really high circulation rate inside, so we put out a little blurb in there that said, “Have you ever experienced solitary confinement? Are you in there now? Do you have any desire to tell your story to the public?” And these are different sort of like ways that can be used: media could see it, or other people can see it, or whatever. And if you do, you know, write to us, essentially. And so, that was sort of the initial layer of consent was like, this is a public facing thing. If you have, you know, any desire to engage, please just write us. It wasn't sort of targeted or directed. So people didn't feel pressure, it was just like responding to a call, essentially. And pretty quickly, we got about 100 letters of people who were just like, “This is what has happened. This is what I've experienced.” Everyone that responded, got a letter back, that was like a sort of a secondary request for consent of like, these are really all the things that this could be used for. Because at the time, we didn't know, it could be a website, it could be posted on Twitter, it could be used for a campaign push, it could be put into a magazine, it could be like all of these things: “Do you still want anything in there? And if you do, do you want anything redacted?” And so once we had all those, we had this sort of like two layers of consent, everyone was also told at any time, your things can be removed. If your situation changes, if your parole changes, if anything changes, like you can, you know, things can be removed from the website. But we wanted the letters to be front and center. And we wanted people to be able to navigate through them and code through them. So you if you want to hear about someone's, you know, suicidal ideation, you can click that. And you know, it's really helpful, you know, for instance, for mental health researchers and for, you know, people who need firsthand direct evidence of what happens, what happens to people.
That’s the thing that's so powerful about it, to me is that the letters are right there in people's own handwriting, in their own voices. And then you click on anxiety, or depression or suicidal thoughts, and just dozens of letters with that theme populate right there on your screen. And it's like, you're getting a glimpse into kind of like the minds of, of these people and their experiences.
I'm just curious, from what you mentioned, like a Do No Harm kind of perspective and security, like, what the potential risks are for receiving this kind of information from someone who might be on the inside and receive some kind of retaliation because of that.
Yep. Retaliation is a huge theme and a huge thing to think about, and something we spent, you know, sort of hours discussing with the people inside. And so through this work, I have really strong relationships with people who have been in solitary confinement for a very long time. I took a lot of direction from them in addressing the retaliation piece. What exactly does it look like? How do we mitigate it? Do we have any allies in there, any people watching? If this person is writing from this tier, is there somebody else in that tier who could very quickly tell us if something happens? And actually at the time because I worked for the advocacy organization, it was one of the reasons I felt more comfortable doing the project was because having the relationships with the administration, MDOC as a whole, with the ombudsman, who's the legislative oversight person, those relationships are absolutely necessary if you're engaging in a project like this, because you can quickly say, to the person whose name you know, in the administration, they wrote me a letter, and then this happened. And then they happen one day after each other and like, you need to go look and, and so there's like, you know, immediate sort of response.
We received letters from 99% of people who were currently incarcerated, many of them currently inside solitary confinement. Only one letter actually came from outside, and it's a very heartbreaking letter about what it feels like to come essentially straight from segregation back into the world. He said that he felt like a ship lost in the dark, like, it makes me cry every time I think about it, and he was asking us to help him locate a winter coat. And like, just couldn't even begin to navigate how to talk to people to do that, because he couldn't talk to anybody. It was a really, really stark transition, which is again, another thing that we do.
And you're never ever going to ensure that someone will not be retaliated against, let me say that very clearly. They absolutely 100% could be harmed in some way. And we need to think about that. We need to sit with it and understand it and think about power and think about free-world people versus incarcerated people and what that power dynamic looks like. And how we even begin to have these conversations around consent when retaliation and retribution are involved.
And to be perfectly honest, a lot of the conversation centered around, “What worse are they going to do to me, I live in the worst conditions you can possibly imagine. I live in a concrete box the size of a parking space, and they control my food slot, and they control my water, and they gaffe me, and they beat me and they hogtie me, and they take me on a chain out to the yard, and I sit in a dog cage. And sometimes I can see the sun come overhead, and sometimes I can't. I have to speak about this because what more can they do. And even if there is more they can do, I at least know I'm fighting for myself. Like that's what a lot of it's centered around.
And so when I say non-extractive, I don't want people to be confused and think paternal or like paternalistic because that's not the point either, like people do have their own agency and they can make their own decisions to fight for themselves. We just have to make sure that we are in mutual communicative relationship. It's relationship. Like that you trust me, and I trust you. And that's how you build projects. Like that's how you make things that make change, because these people trusted us with their letters. And they trust that if something happens, I'm going to be up there calling, I'm going to be writing emails to admin, I'm going to be doing something. It's not just going to be considered a byproduct of the work. And then we never follow up and we never carry on. And that really is like the heart of it. That's the heart of any of these projects like this, is relationship.
I wanted to ask, we've talked a lot about the letters so far. But Zealous has sort of said that the use of arts is a really integral part of the work and the process and reaching people. And I wondered, with The Silenced Project there’s this online art gallery that has these beautiful pieces that kind of go beyond the words and capture the essence of these experiences, distilled into all of these images. And I wondered if you could talk about kind of how art contributes to the advocacy work and what the process was like with incorporating that into the Silenced Project?
Yeah, absolutely. Art is the tool of the revolution. You know, it is what moves people, way more than data, way more than, you know, some kind of well crafted congressional speech. What moves people is art. Like viscerally, seeing it, hearing the poetry and the story and the narrative. There's the poetry and the spoken word that has like come from individuals. There's the beautiful paintings and drawings. Shout-out to Prison Creative Arts Project, who we worked with to purchase, not just use those paintings. And then there's the actual art through the coding, which was something really new to me. And really beautiful the way when you scroll down the page, the sketches come out. And this sort of story is told, and it builds on itself without being overwhelming. There was so much intentionality and thought put into that piece. Paola Vidaga, who's our design and experiences manager, she did, you know, sort of all of those sketchings. And then John Emerson, who is doesn't work results, but is an incredible coder, especially for social justice, you know, issues, they worked together to develop that like scrolling story piece, and then how it could link to the digital archive of letters through different entry points, through description through, you know, words of what has happened. And that in itself was art, you know, in a way that I've never really thought of, of coding and being able to create digital pieces of art. So there's so many different aspects of the art that came together, that were really here, folks inside who are incredible artists, in a way not just to humanize people, but to actually showcase the immense talent that we keep locked away behind walls at all times. Here are people who are leaning into their own story in their own words and experience as a form of like contributive art. And then here are these sort of free world coders and designers that are also like utilizing their art forms in order to like make change and be impactful. And that interplay was Silenced. Like, that's how it resulted. And frankly, it's a lot of Zealous’ projects, actually. When it's working correctly, it's being led by the people most impacted, interpreted by people who are taking leadership but who are free-world, you know, advocates and media personalities. And then more and more context is being added by people who are connected, who've been impacted, who are family members of people who are inside, or who are, you know, have experienced it and are now out fighting it, or who are currently there right now. It's an extremely collaborative thing. And then there's also the idea of, what other forms can it take? Digital archives are really important, but it also those things can be overwhelming for people, especially people who are not super online folks, who are more tactile and want to read things differently. So we made a zine. You can order them from the website. And we did this, you know, in a collaboration with the project, but it takes some of these things, and distills them in like a really tactile format. So there's letters in there, there's information, there's art again, but then always, we want the audience to actually like become engaged. And so there's these prompt questions like, write on here. You are part of this. This is a conversation that's continuing to happen. And so like, what does that piece look like too? We're always like passing them out. Because it allows people to really walk away and hold something that that might feel different than the like archive itself. And then we created PDFs of some things and tried to send them inside so people could see what the end results of the website looked like and stuff.
Do you know what that feedback or impact or any outcomes that you've seen from The Silence Project? Like how has it resonated with people when they view it? Are you tracking any of those responses?
Yeah. So there's very tangible things like mainstream media articles, like a Rolling Stone article that, you know, that wrote about and highlighted the issue of solitary and Michigan through the vehicle of the Silenced site. It was utilized to give an educational, educational advocacy talk to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and was actually the the impetus behind the Director of the Office of Drugs and Crime from the UN speaking on a panel for the first time ever speaking live on a panel about solitary confinement and their view and their position on the practice around the world and on the Mandela Rules. And, you know, the agreements that internationally folks have come to, and really like alongside myself as moderator who was always obviously trying to focus on Michigan and other like places that I know really well. So I'm speaking about things I know, but really put it into a much, much broader context. And you know, thousands of people will see and consume something that comes from the UN. And that they were motivated enough by the sight and seeing the actual handwriting to say, “Oh, this is definitely something the UN has a position on.” And so there are those like really tangible things. There's, of course, people who are drawn to the site through the artwork and archival piece, but there's direct action tied to it. And so we can monitor how many, you know, letters get sent to legislators, or people signing the petition or things like that, you know, when we have a big event, and we pass out a bunch of Silenced zines, we'll see like spikes of hundreds go up the, you know, in the petition, so we can like, you know, immediately kind of monitor those things. What feels most important to me is the way that people who have been there and family members and you know, other people who are fighting for this, who are impacted, you know, throughout the state in one way or another, throughout the country in one way or another, by this just like absolutely egregious torturous practice, are seeing it as a cathartic experience.
Yeah, I think that's why we're like interested in getting it out there and getting more eyes on it, because I think so many people may have kind of have a cursory knowledge of like this is happening, but I don't think people realize, this is something that falls under the UN definition of torture. And this is happening here in the United States every day in so many prisons across the country.
And not just prisons and jails across the country in detention facilities, immigration detention facilities across the country, juvenile facilities. There are on any given day that the new numbers just came out from the Unlock the Box report: 120,000 people inside solitary confinement on any given day across the country, in juvenile facilities, detention centers, jails and prisons. And it is so veiled. It's one of those things that we are so good at hiding. And it has more impact than any single practice I've ever seen throughout 30 years of organizing. Solitary confinement is torture. It kills people's spirits, like it takes people and makes them into something that they themselves cannot recognize. And we do it on such a wide scale, and we do it to kids. And we do it to people who are seeking asylum. And we certainly do it across state prisons and across federal prisons. We have whole prisons dedicated to this practice, prisons that are built for the deprivation, the sensory and social deprivation of human beings. And so many people, you you have this imagination that it's it's only serial killers and ax murderers. Go on to the Silenced website, and see what people are in solitary confinement for: for sneaking an extra piece of chicken from their tray into the into their pocket to eat it later, for swearing in the hallway, for knocking over a cup of water, for knocking shoulders with somebody, for walking down the wrong hallway. People get an idea that it's like “there's the worst of the worst in there,” and there are teenagers across the country for months and years at a time. And then we wonder why it's not working? “Why aren't people healing?” You know, this is the Department of Corrections, right. People aren't being corrected? All we have to do is look at the actual conditions. And the conditions are abhorrent, abhorrent.
I was reading an article about the mental health effects of solitary confinement. And it said that prolonged solitary confinement is considered anything longer than 15 days, and that there's research that shows that the the trauma that's done to your brain at that point in time is irreversible. So I can't even imagine, years and years. And people so often assume that this is only something that happens outside of the United States. And that, these are not problems that we're seeing here at home. And I think it's so important to just bring, bring light and like unveil this issue.
Oh, no, this is a very American thing that we do. Incarceration in and of itself could be, you know, argued to be torture. Solitary confinement is inarguably, inarguably torture to everyone. And 15 days, absolutely. Like, that's what the Mandela Rules state, but research has shown that within 48 hours, people start to deteriorate very, very rapidly. I mean, lock yourself in your bathroom for 48 hours and see what happens. You know, like this is a challenge that we don't expect people to take up. But what do you think will happen to your brain, as a person who probably went in with a sound mind. We’re talking about a population of people who have very, very high rates of post traumatic stress disorder, other severe and persistent mental illnesses and there is no rule in Michigan and other places around the country that says if you have severe and persistent mental illness, you cannot be locked in a small concrete box with a food slot. There's no rules that say that. There are rules around shelter animals, how long they can be locked down in conditions like that, but there are no rules for human beings around it. No federal standard. State prisons are where the vast majority of prisoners are. The vast majority of people who are incarcerated are incarcerated in state prisons, and we really have to be addressing on a state by state level, in whatever way we can, legislatively, organizing wise, digital archives, all these other you know… This is a by any means necessary sort of fight.
You kind of touched on this initially. But given kind of the heaviness of the work.You've got issues with human rights defenders like compassion fatigue and secondary trauma, like do you have any tips for taking care of your wellness or prioritizing, like your mental health so that you can keep doing the work? Without kind of destroying yourself in the process?
This is to me, the most foundational thing to this work. And it's not just to this work, it's to any revolutionary work. Any sort of organizing work, advocacy, work, anything that you're engaged in. If I teach organizing workshops, the first two days are personal fortification. You absolutely have to fortify yourself personally, not just for your own self and your own mental health, but so you don't show up like shit in other spaces, or show up in really sort of dire straits, that then starts to utilize the resources meant for whatever issue you're fighting towards you. And that's, that's not to say that you shouldn't be centered and prioritized. You should be centered and prioritized. But it is up to us as advocates and as organizers to do those sorts of things really on our own time. You can't do it alone, you can't do it without community. But it is so necessary to do it every single solitary day. So that you can, you can keep fighting.
Drugs and alcohol don't help. And I'm speaking from personal experience here, like you can get real down deep into that stuff to try to make it go away. To try to turn down the volume on how bad everything is. But if you are doing the work of healing, it is so so so important that you address that sort of thing head on. There's a lot of advocates and activists who use substances. We do it because it hurts so bad, it hurts so bad. But if we're hurting ourselves, we also are not going to show up, right.
The second thing is some kind of practice. I know it sounds so cliche, but like a yoga, meditation, breathing, drink enough water, like connect with your body, go outside. All these things that are available to us really no matter where we are, because everything I just listed you can do inside of the cell too.
The next thing is some kind of community. You can't do it alone. You can't. And if you start thinking that all of this is on you, that mass incarceration has begun and will end when you entered the world… You're in trouble. You really have to see yourselves as one of many, many people who are working toward the same end and who will be here to support you. And if you're going through it, like you can absolutely step back and we'll fill in that gap. And then we'll move aside when you need to step forward again, like that's, the community is so so, so important.
It is about resiliency, we need to have resilient selves so that we can build resilient communities.
And the thing is, is like, we are going to have to learn new ways of living not just with ourselves but together and as resilient as each of us are, our communities are going to be more resilient to it and more capable of…Oh, shoot. I do have a jail call coming in. Just one sec.
Okay. Yeah, take it.
During our full interview with Jacq, I was struck by her dedication to her work. We paused a few times so she could answer calls coming from inside Michigan jails and prisons, a true testament to her commitment to this work.
Okay, thanks. People in jail can call back. People in solitary confinement can't.
One thing that’s really important is relationships. And how you do that is you continue to show up, you continue to answer the phone, and you continue to answer letters. Every call I've gotten since we've been on here is from inside, because I continue to answer the phone. And that is where also the personal fortification comes in. Burnout is real. It is so hard to continue to answer the phone and feel like you're not doing enough. You are. You are. If you're doing whatever you can, and still taking care of yourself, you are doing enough.
What can people do to support your work whether that be at Zealous or in continuing to support and promote awareness around The Silenced Project? Let's start with that one.
Zealous is an organization that supports local campaigns in what they need. That's why as a very grassroots local organizer for my whole life, I feel comfortable working in a national organization because some do it wrong, some come in and say, “here's your problem. And here's what you need to fix it.” Zealous does not do that. We really do take the leadership of locals, say, “What do you need? What is the issue?”
So for people to get involved and for people to support is just, find what's right next to you that you can continue to show up for and support the the work that's happening around the things that you care about. That truly is supporting in my mind, the wider movement. As a whole, this is this is gonna take all of us. This is the collective conscious shift and so, you know, to support our work like, obviously go to our website look at our things like, you know, I would love for you to you know, sign the petition for solitary confinement. But if you live in, wherever it is you live, if you live in Florida where there's still no temperature controls in the prison facilities even though you know the heat waves are killing people in the free world with like extreme consistency, same as Texas. Think about that and who's doing work on that, and what Miriame Kaba says she's, you know, an incredible organizer. She always says, if you're, if you're mad about something, if you're outraged about some kind of injustice, I promise you there somebody else is, and they are already working on it, identify the people in your area who are working on those things, identify your own capacity to help and get involved. Be serious with yourself about that before you jump in. And then volunteer your time, your money, your efforts, your connections, your friends, for whatever that local organization is doing and needs support with.
Yeah, it's so important. I think Mariame Kaba was the one that said “hope is a discipline.” We don't all have to do everything, but we can all do something to make a difference. And then lastly, you know, just want to give you the opportunity to talk about anything that we did not cover today that you feel is important that you would want people to know.
So there's a lot of themes around this kind of thing in the toolkit. It is essentially going to be like a super interactive, really beautifully designed toolkit for people who are building inside-outside projects, and how to, do direct advocacy with people who are currently incarcerated or under some sort of oppressive regime that are under, sort of governmental control. And all of these steps that we can take to center people, to be non extractive, to be mutual to, to move toward consent, to understand dynamics of power. And it's going to be coming out soon. And I don't know how much I can say about it. Other than that, I'm really excited about this tool. It was built with a ton of people inside people who have been outside and then you know, free world advocates like myself, and hundreds of interviews, like it's just a really beautiful thing that is super interactive, and that can be utilized in curriculum teaching as well.
Yeah, for sure. Seems like an incredible organization to work for. And we appreciate so much you lending your perspective to us today. Really excited to continue to follow the work of all of these interconnected organizations and see that toolkit when it comes out and we'll be sure to share and help promote that from New Tactics.
We also spoke with Lois and Tiffany from Citizens for Prison Reform about the difficulties the movement faces and how listeners of this podcast can support their work.
None of this would be possible without volunteers. We are a very small grassroots organization. And so this is really how we've been able to continue corresponding with, helping individuals inside to take action, creating action steps that they can take, connecting with their families on the outside teaching them how to become strong advocates. It's just a really beautiful thing that we can do to create strength and to stand up against what we know is occurring inside.
And I think that the difficulties really become finding ways that you can highlight these individual cases, to get someone to take action that has the power to take action. And so I think that's one of the things that we would love to see is some type of a wellbeing check program in place where we could find either retired or volunteer attorneys that would be able to go in and actually meet with some of these individuals that either their families or they themselves are reporting, psychosis. They are reporting abuses occurring that we're concerned about. It's very difficult when often all you have is their letters. However, you know, we have been working and we've been able to get segregation review reports. We have individuals who have sent their reviews, they were how they just completed one entire year in solitary confinement with no ticket, yet now, they've been told they're going to continue on for a second year in solitary confinement, when all of their reports state they're doing great. Asking them, you know, what should they do differently? It says nothing. And then the recommendation is to continue solitary.
And I think that even more so troubling is the fact that a lot of these people never see these segregation review reports; they're supposed to sign them. And the officers just simply write on it that they refused. And this happened to my own son for nine months. And individuals, some of them don't know they're supposed to be getting these monthly reviews; other ones do know. But there is no voice for them. So it's us really being able to connect with these individuals that are experiencing this. And figuring out, how do we stop these types of things?
But there's so much work to do, and I think given the fact that journalists are not allowed in. So journalism is kept out, media, and even clergy. We’re finding in Michigan, every prison sets their own rules on which clergy can get in. And also now in Michigan, the Department of Corrections changed their policy back in January, and now legislators have to ask for a visit 72 hours in advance. And it is up to the warden whether or not they will allow them in. That is new. Prior to that legislators could get in unannounced; they could show up at a prison to visit unannounced. So that right has also been stripped away. So I think our big concern is just how do we actually get access to and truly know what's going on in some of these darkest spaces. These places where people have been locked down and held, some of them for many years, up to 30, 40 years, we have individuals that have been held in solitary confinement. And it's bringing change to that closed off system that has to occur in order for us to really, truly break the silence and be able to bring change.
Yeah, wow. I'm sure it sometimes feels like two steps forward one step back with policies like that, that just seem to be going in the wrong direction. So what can people do to support your work? We have an audience of human rights defenders, activists, advocates who are really global. What can your kind of average civically minded citizen be doing to support the work that you guys are doing in Michigan?
We're always welcoming, of course, volunteers to the organization to support. If anyone would like to donate to the organization, donations are helpful and help us carry out this work. We still do have a petition online, we have over 10,000 signatures to end solitary confinement in Michigan. We did present that to the governor's office, but we would still love to have people signing that. And yeah, just anything that you can do. If you share social media posts, just anything you can do to raise the issue to elevate the issue. Also let families know about our resources. If you know someone that has an incarcerated loved one, please share our information with them so we can be of support and service to them as well.
Yes, so if you go to openMIdoor.org that is where you can actually take action. There are letters that will go to the governor, that will go to the legislators, asking them to create oversight. But I think in addition to that, we definitely are looking for volunteers, individuals who may specialize in mental health in particular. Frequently we are told “well, you don't have a mental health degree. How can you know that this person needs a higher level of care or needs to be reassessed?” And so I think sometimes just having professionals on board, or attorneys who might be able to assist us in strategies of how we can get more people inside and really begin to break down the walls and to bring transparency and accountability would be very helpful.
In this next section, Lois mentions the case of John Lancaster and how his unfortunate death has become the catalyst for much needed change in the Michigan prison system. John Lancaster was a 38 year old incarcerated man who died in 2019 as a result of medical neglect. In the weeks leading up to his death, he struggled with mental illness and was placed in solitary confinement, sometimes in restraints. He stopped eating and drinking and rapidly lost more than 50 pounds. Just recently, eight current and former prison employees were finally charged with involuntary manslaughter and other felony charges in his death.
I think for me, it's really troubling, the narrative that the Michigan Department of Corrections puts out. For instance, hog-tying, hog-tying is something that is still utilized inside our prisons. We have individuals who write and share about it. My son went through it. He was hogtied for 18 hours. In Ionia. And the window was propped open. It was in the middle of winter, January, very cold. And he had no clue how long he was going to be held in that position. He was hogtied to the point where he was not able to even get up on the toilet. And to know that these are things that we still practice in our state. But yet, when we ask the department, they will not admit those practices are still occurring. And I think it's been one of the biggest struggles we've had with our elected officials, with our governor, with our legislators is that they are told one thing by the department, and it's even shared in black and white. So for instance, the department has on their website and states during committee hearings that reentry begins day one, programming begins day one. Yet what we know is most people inside do not get programming until their last six months or a year. Prior to that there really isn't programming available for them. There may be a few voluntary programs. But there is a real need for rehabilitative programming day one for every single person entering the system. And those kinds of things aren't happening. And our leaders are believing what they're told. And so it has really had to become our job to educate them, and to put facts in front of them. And that is the one thing that I think John Lancaster's case has brought forward. So the death of John Lancaster, and for us to be able to have, through his sister who's very involved in our campaign, the black and white documents from inside the Department of Corrections. And so when they say, “Well, no, these things don't happen,” yet we have it in black and white. We know what occurred, we know their practices. And I think that is one of the biggest struggles, is how do we get our elected officials to truly understand and care about the system, where often it's seen or considered “Well, you know, people are getting what they deserved. They need to be further punished.” And we've got to change that mindset. Understanding that when people come out after this is how they're treated, they are coming back to our communities in worse shape than what they went in. And it's not bettering any of us.
So we continue just to work to educate and to bring them on board. And I feel like we've seen some real movement forward and a wake up call of our legislators. It's unfortunate that it has taken the charging of staff in a case where someone died. But I think that really became a pivotal moment for us, and for them, to recognize the lack of treatment and care, the conditions inside and just how much the system really needs to change and the culture needs to shift.
I'm very hopeful that you guys are seeing some forward momentum. It's unfortunate that in these situations where it really should be the state's responsibility to protect people that it is again, the most marginalized people, the onus is falling on them to advocate for the changes that should just be basic respect for human rights.
And you brought up a really important point that we talked about in our conversation with Jacq as well, which is, we're the Center for Victims of Torture. People often think that this is not something that's happening right here in the US in our jails, prisons, juvenile facilities, etc. And just bringing light and like awareness to the fact that this is happening is the first step.
I think through our work with the Unlock the Box and the campaigns across the United States that are also carrying out work on solitary confinement. We have absolutely learned that this is a very widespread issue happening in every prison across the country, likely. And you know, it's also important that people understand that this is not only a form of torture that's harmful for mental and physical health, but it is ineffective as a tool for rehabilitation. It does not work and there are humane alternatives.
Solitary confinement is a practice deeply instilled in the US criminal legal system. National reform remains challenging. If you would like to get involved with any of the organizations mentioned on today’s episode, including Michigan Citizens for Prison Reform, the Open MI Door campaign, or in multimedia storytelling initiatives like the Silenced Project by Zealous, check out the resources and links in the show notes.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Human Rights Chat by New Tactics in Human Rights, where we inspire and equip activists to change the world. This episode is dedicated to those who are experiencing the horrors of solitary confinement in the US and around the world. Please know that there are many advocates inside and outside working to uphold human dignity and respect for human rights.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of our special guests, Lois Pullano, Jacqueline Williams, and Tiffany Walker. Thank you as well to New Tactics student intern, Laszlo Jentes for interview support and transcription. We invite you to check out other episodes of Human Rights Chat on Apple, Spotify, Google, or Soundcloud as well as the New Tactics library of more than 260 innovative human rights tactics for change at newtactics.org.