For 20 years, Monica Cosby had been placed in and out of solitary confinement for up to eight months at a time in an Illinois prison.
She didn’t realize how much those long stints really affected her until one day when she was in the prison’s yard and spotted a guard walking in her direction. As a reflex, Cosby recalls automatically standing and patting herself down out of fear that the prison guard would single her out and conjure up a reason to send her back to the hole.
Much like thousands of Black and brown incarcerated people across the country who have experienced this form of isolation, Cosby didn’t realize the short and long-term impact of solitary confinement.
There have been several research studies that found that any length of time in isolation while incarcerated has been linked to depression, suicide, and other forms of psychosis long after the person is released.
Inconsistent data provided to the federal government and nonprofit research groups makes it difficult to piece together how many people are in solitary confinement nationwide, according to a report released in May by watchdog group Solitary Watch and the advocacy coalition Unlock the Box. But the report found that in mid-2019 there were 122,840 people placed in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day within local, state, and federal correctional facilities.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has 11,150 people in restrictive housing, including over 2,000 who have been confined for more than 90 days, according to their online records.
Nonetheless, jail and prison officials continue to use the practice by creating a false narrative that those who receive the punishment are the worst of the worst, Cosby says.
“It is a myth,” says the 55-year-old abolitionist and activist, who was released in 2015.
Along with other formerly incarcerated women abolitionists, Cosby founded Acting OutSide Performance Art Crew shortly after her release. In collaboration with other grassroots organizations throughout Chicago, Acting OutSide seeks to “untell the myths of incarceration” at speaking engagements and community events.
Solitary confinement, Cosby says, has always been used as an oppression tool “to target and isolate prisoner rights activists, to keep people from organizing to change, challenge, better their conditions of confinement.”
Cosby says that she was placed into solitary confinement for nonsensical reasons such as “reckless eyeball rolling,” an action that a prison guard considered a type of “threat and intimidation” or “insolence, which as defined in the rulebook, says something along the line of anything that irritates or annoys staff.”
Missouri U.S. Rep. Cori Bush wants to put an end to the overuse of solitary confinement in federal jails, prisons, and detention centers by introducing legislation that will also incentivize local and state correctional facilities to do the same. She announced the End Solitary Confinement Act on July 27.
For decades, solitary confinement, also known as restrictive housing, has been used as a form of torturous punishment, disproportionately on Black and brown incarcerated people.
“Every day that solitary confinement and other perverse aspects of our broken criminal legal system continue to exist is another day we condone the torture of our own community members on a massive scale,” Bush said in an email statement to Capital B. “By introducing this legislation, we’re joining the medical, political, and moral consensus on this issue and saying we won’t tolerate this systemic hurt any longer.”
Incarcerated people are placed into solitary confinement for hours, days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years for various reasons, such as fighting or smuggling contraband. But in most cases, the person was most likely targeted because of their race, gender, and sexual identities, as well as their mental or physical disabilities, according to a National Inmate Survey study mentioned in a Prison Policy Initiative briefing.
Women would get sent to solitary confinement for declining a correction officer’s sexual advances but get written up under false pretenses, Cosby recalls. More than 80% of incarcerated women in prison said they were pressured by staff to engage in sexual activity, according to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ 2020 report.
The End Solitary Confinement Act aims to reform this practice into a tool for de-escalation rather than a regular form of punishment. The bill, in part, will allow solitary confinement to be used for emergency de-escalation incidents, for a maximum of four hours, and require guards or staff to check in on the person once an hour.
Johnny Perez, director of U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, also notes the bill’s significance because it addresses immigration detention centers. “A lot of inhumanity and atrocities happen in these facilities” that tend to get ignored, he said, because they “don’t have the same protections that the regular John Doe in America would have if they were to get incarcerated.”
If this bill passes, it will only address the federal prison system and provide incentives for local and state incarceration systems to follow suit. Either way, in 2019, more than half of the states in the country have introduced legislation, passed laws and implemented policies to limit or ban the use of solitary confinement.
Prior to this wave of reform, local jurisdictions such as in New York City banned the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds following the 2015 death of Kalief Browder. Browder died by suicide after he was wrongfully incarcerated in Rikers Island for three years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement.
“That system has harmed many others. Like the six people who have died in solitary confinement in immigration detention facilities since 2017,” Bush said in the statement. “And like the approximately 122,000 people in solitary at this very moment. As lawmakers, we have a moral responsibility to prevent this harm and fix our broken criminalization system, and that must include abolishing solitary confinement.”
Perez, 44, was in and out of Rikers Island jail from the age of 16 until he was sentenced at age 21 to 15 years in prison. For three of those years in an upstate prison, Perez says he spent one year in solitary confinement and was in and out for short bids for two years.
“Inside, if you have any sort of substance abuse or substance use, you go to a solitary” instead of receiving resources, Perez said.
Most of his infractions were for smoking marijuana — a habit that increased each time he was released from solitary confinement. As a young person, Perez says being in solitary impacted his self-esteem, and because of limited visibility inside the cell, his eyesight was ruined when he returned to the general population.
The End Solitary Confinement Act is in alignment with President Joe Biden’s 2020 pledge to end the practice of solitary confinement, but Perez says Biden has not made enough “meaningful efforts.” The president included in a May 2022 executive order for the Justice Department to create “steps to limit the use of restrictive housing and improve conditions of confinement.”
“This is one issue that he [Biden] just really fell behind on and has not made any meaningful efforts that reflect the needs of the community. As a campaign promise that is easy to keep, I think that this bill is definitely the blueprint to be able to do that,” Perez says.
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