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A virtual reality tour of solitary confinement helps religious groups rally for a ban

People experience a sample of life in solitary confinement with the help of virtual reality glasses and headphones presented by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days on April 22, 2018, in Washington. Photo courtesy of NRCAT

(RNS) — At a one-day conference on torture later this week, the Rev. Ron Stief, a United Church of Christ minister, will display his latest educational tool to dramatize what it’s like to live in solitary confinement.

Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, will encourage participants at a daylong gathering to put on virtual reality glasses and a pair of headphones and experience for nine minutes what it’s like to live in a 6-by-9-foot cell.

“It does an amazing job of educating you,” said Stief, who’s been campaigning about this for more than a decade. “Nobody can put those on for those nine minutes and walk away with any thought that this is not torture.”

Stief is on a mission to take the glasses around to various religious groups. He’s headed to an Islamic Circle of North America conference in April and to the United Church of Christ General Synod in June.

On Saturday (March 9), he’ll be the keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by the North Carolina Council of Churches called to examine the state’s role in torture.

Stief’s many commitments are an indication of how the issue of solitary confinement has become a growing concern for religious groups in North Carolina and across the country that have come to adopt the now common nomenclature for the practice: torture.

The Rev. Ron Stief. Photo courtesy of NRCAT

In North Carolina, the topic of torture has been a sore spot since September, when a citizen-led commission concluded that Aero Contractors, based in Smithfield, N.C., worked with the CIA to fly suspected terrorists to torture facilities abroad under the now-defunct Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

But there is also a growing awareness about solitary confinement, a practice affecting 60,000 to 100,000 people in U.S. prisons.

Policymakers, criminal justice experts and the public now cite research showing that extreme isolation decreases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region related to learning and memory, and leads to a loss of hippocampal plasticity.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Mandela Rules, which, among other things, called for a ban on solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days.

Last year, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill signed by President Trump included a provision banning the practice of putting juveniles in solitary confinement.

Some states have also begun curtailing the practice, but Stief said that even as the federal prisons use it less often, states, counties and local jails still rely on it.

Stief’s organization is working with 11 states to pass legislation banning solitary confinement or work directly with prison administrators to eliminate it.

In New York state, opponents of torture, including faith leaders, are pushing for the passage of one of the most comprehensive state legislations on solitary confinement.

In North Carolina, lawmakers limited solitary confinement to 30 days after a study showed prisons routinely put inmates in solitary confinement for minor offenses and often kept them there for years.

North Carolina Stop Torture Now, a small but powerful grassroots coalition made up of people of faith and human rights activists, has also rallied against extraordinary rendition. The group is best known for helping launch the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture.

An individual experiences solitary confinement through virtual reality glasses at a National Religious Campaign Against Torture informational station. Photo courtesy of NRCAT

“We want to seek accountability for what happened and make people aware that North Carolina taxpayer dollars and public facilities were used to support an unlawful regime of kidnapping people from various countries, transporting them for the purpose of torturing them to find information and not going through a legal process to do any of that,” said Frank Goldsmith, a mediator and arbitrator who co-chaired the commission.

Stief also wants to push North Carolina congregations to tackle solitary confinement.

“We’ve realized torture is happening in our prison systems,” Stief said. “Now it’s up to the religious communities and families to work on policy that will end the practice.”

A new book may help.

The memoir by Albert Woodfox, who spent more than four decades in Louisiana’s Angola prison, tells the story of his 23-hour-a-day lockdown in cells no bigger than most parking spaces: no phone calls, no books, no fans, no hot water, and rats that would climb out of the shower drains.

The book, “Solitary,” has been lauded as powerful and painful.

Solitary confinement is inherently a religious issue, said Johnny Perez, who directs the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s prison program.

“How we treat others says a lot about us,” said Perez, a former convict who spent three years in solitary confinement, none of it for violent offenses.

Perez is campaigning to help New York state pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. The acronym stands for Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement, and the legislation would mandate that prisons reduce the isolation of prisoners and create alternative options.

“There’s a way we can hold people accountable without treating them inhumanely in the process,” he said. “Faith leaders are uniquely positioned to hold state legislatures morally accountable around compassion, decency and second chances.”

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

36 Comments

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  • There are some situations where you either have to have solitary confinement or the death penalty. Otherwise, when a prisoner kills a corrections officer or another prisoner, there’s nothing left as a deterrent and no other way to remove the danger. What other options are there? Yes, we should treat offenders as humanely as practical, but I only have so much patience and empathy for rapists and murderers.

  • Well they could equip these folks with virtual reality glasses and a pair of headphones, plus neurological implants into pain sensors, and let them experience what it’s like to be brutally killed by a psychopath with his bare hands.

  • The solution, of course, is to retain solitary confinement but issue the inmates virtual reality glasses and a pair of headphones.

  • Keep them locked in a cell within the general population so that they have access to social interaction of some sort. Have 24/7 guard interaction with the inmate. There are other options besides the torture of total isolation.

  • Or simply have 5 minutes of interaction with Old Sparky. Sparky knows how to rehabilitate ALL of them!!

  • Noooo!
    Make them listen to the brilliant mind of Alexandra Ocasio Cortez…
    They’ll be asking for the needle.

  • It is not as though your options are solitary confinement or freedom. Your options are solitary confinement or gen pop. Given those two choices I would far prefer solitary confinement.

  • They are probably checked every 20 minutes by a correctional officer and depending on how lonely they are getting, will have time for a short chat every check. It is hardly torture, unless you consider living with yourself 24/7 to be torture

  • Apparently you’ve never dealt with prison populations in the real world.

    Given their budgets they cannot provide 24/7 nanny service for bad actors with a track record of harming/killing other prisoners and guards, nor can they sufficiently protect prisoner targets such as snitches.

  • There was an Outer Limits episode where they did something similar and were able to compress 20 years of prison life in a short period of time. Virtual reality prison.

  • No, they dont. That is the point of solitary. And it is psychological torture. It would be a war crime to use it on a pow.

  • Oooh I remember that one. David Hyde Pierce starred in it. The victim was the scientist who invented the system.

  • I don’t think you quite understand the problem. Many prisoners in solitary are there because they have influence GP such that they can do things like order hits on other prisoners. Further, most prisoners in solitary get interaction with guards, but to increase that interaction requires increasing the number of guards and their training, which increases costs.

  • That isn’t the reality. Solitary is used for compliance, and used too often. Its rarely got anything to do with some prisoner who can pull strings in any kind of way.

    There are cases of prisoners going days without anymore interaction than receiving lunch. If we don’t want to use torture, then we hire guards to stay with them or don’t use solitary.

  • baloney. When someone is in solitary – the institution is responsible for their life and they keep a good look on their inmates

  • Not true. Most prisoners are in solitary because they are a gang risk (administrative), particilarly long-term solitary. Solitary as punishment is for the short term.

    http://apps.frontline.org/solitary-by-the-numbers/

    I’m not going to support using public money to babysit rapists and murderers. Don’t use it when not necessary, of course, but there’s no need to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid making criminals uncomfortable.

  • As the article points out, that is only one reason, and not one of the main ones. Also, almost all uses are long enough to cause mental damage.

    It is torture. It violates our Constitution and our nation’s decency. Leave it to regimes like North Korea.

  • So you are completely aware of everything that happens in an institution? Here we go with psychics again!

  • So you are completely aware of everything that happens in an institution? Here we go with psychics again!

  • The mental damage is being alone with themselves, kronzy. They get to look at themselves. That is the punishment of segregation.
    When inmates are placed in seg for their own good, they are allowed books, etc.
    When they are placed in seg as punishment, they get a Bible with the hope that they’ll look for the Lord.

  • The article argues that is not one of the main ones.

    Nothing in the article supports the conclusion that the folks in solitary are being punished to cause “mental damage”.

    ALL imprisonment causes psychological stress. That is why it is called punishment rather than vacation.

    As the law stands now prisons have to have a security reason for solitary confinement, and the courts are neither equipped nor wont to second guess those reasons.

  • Yes. Being left in isolation does cause mental damage. That is true for anyone, not just inmates.

  • And you know everything that goes on in there? We have professionals who have confirmed that the practice is abusive and tortuous. I’ll believe them, and call for change since this isn’t some backwater dictatorship like North Korea.

  • If its a garbage system, then it needs bucking. That isn’t a liberal/conservative thing.

  • Who says it is a garbage system? You know nothing about segregation unless it is most likely a liberal source, kronzy.

  • Half of all SC is “administrative” (read the article). Of the long-term solitary confinement, the majority are in for “administrative”. (14 per 25 long-term solitary prisoners, or 56%).

    I’m not too concerned about causing mental damage; any form of incarceration causes mental damage. I’m concerned about causing mental damage unnecessarily. If someone demonstrates they are capable of inflicting harm while in GP, then they go to solitary. It’s as simple as that.

    And it’s certainly not torture by any traditional use of that term in most circumstances.

  • Incarceration is already a punishment. Solitary confinement while incacerated is a double punishment so to speak. I recently read in our local paper that convicted cardinal George Pell would be kept in solitary confinment in a Melbourne jail for 23 hours a day. That is real cruel in this day and age. Our animals in the zoo are given more outdoor time. Unless the prisoner’s behaviour/safety is such that merits confinement within a confinement our authorities should revisit this inhuman torture and provide a reasonable outdoor time to the inmates.

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