"Do Not Forget to Show Hospitality to Strangers"
(Editor's Note) Jeanne Marcus is an IAHR pen pal and recently delivered the following sermon on solitary confinement at a Christian worship service. We are honored to publish it for her and you.
September 22, 2022
This article is adapted from a worship sharing given within a small Christian community on September 8, 2022, based on a portion of the Bible appointed to be read for that week1
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
This scriptural advice to Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, was like an alert light asking me to pay attention. For the last 2 ½ years, I have been writing to several incarcerated men, mostly in Maryland state prisons. Each person has had different experiences and will have different outcomes. One is back home on parole, and is thriving—taking classes at the university, and with a job paying a fair wage. Another will be heading home just after the new year after decades away. I have valued each of these correspondences, and have been blessed by them.
Earlier this year, at the beginning of March, I first wrote to Tyrone. Tyrone is imprisoned at a Maryland correctional facility located in Allegany County in rural Western Maryland. The facility is 135 miles from downtown Silver Spring or midtown Baltimore City, longer to most points in Prince George’s County. It is just a few blocks from a point on Maryland’s border with West Virginia. Allegheny County is 88 % White, 9% Black.
In my second letter, I invited Tyrone to write about anything that was on his mind. He started his next letter to me: He needed to get help to get out of his situation. He is in solitary confinement in that prison.
Since reading this letter, I’ve given a lot of attention to learning about Tyrone’s situation: about the facility in Western Maryland, and about solitary confinement. The scriptural instruction I quoted urged me to remember Tyrone as if I were together with him in prison: it made all I’d learned much more personal—taking it from being cerebral to being more visceral.
The institution where Tyrone is being held has been described proudly as a "hyper-max prison." At the time construction was finished in 2007, it was said to be one of the most technologically advanced prisons in the world.
If I were coming onto the grounds, I would first pass through the outer fence, 15 miles of fence covered with rolls upon rolls upon rolls of razor wire rising out of the flat land. I’d see the master control tower in the middle of the complex. I have read that the control tower has an unobstructed view of every point on the entire grounds, as well as complete surveillance over CCTV of every area accessed by inmates. The tower has control over all security doors, cameras, and even the flow of water into individual cells.
If I were sitting with Tyrone in his cell, we would be in a space that is 60 square feet. This is the size of a very small parking space. That small amount of space is made more claustrophobic by the fact that the cell door is not made of bars: it is made of solid steel. It has a window of bullet-proof glass. There is a slot in the door to pass meals through; or through which guards can shackle a person’s hands.
There is one short wide window to the outside that lets in light but does not allow views of the outside. The concrete cells are constructed offsite so that there are no seams or imperfections that, in theory, could conceivably hide contraband. The concrete is coated with a strong epoxy paint that, it is said, even acid couldn’t break through.
The beds are bolted directly into the concrete and the bolts are rounded down so they cannot be removed. Storage is a space under the bed. The toilet/sink is stainless steel; there is a steel shelf that serves as a table.2
Even imagining that I’m hearing the steel door with the bullet-proof window clanging closed behind me creates anxiety. Not only is there no physical escape, but it feels like the space also seeks to allow no mental escape.
But the horrific thing is: this is the space that Tyrone must remain in for 23 hours a day, each and every day.
1Letter to the Hebrews 13:2-3
2Physical description: Big, Bigger, Biggest. Season 3, Episode 4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRJM0uMljpA
There is increasing data that shows that a person in solitary confinement begins to show signs of significant mental and emotional harm beginning as early as 15 days after beginning such confinement. Solitary confinement has been repeatedly shown to cause serious, often permanent psychological trauma, especially in people who already experience mental health challenges. It leads to increased risk of depression, anxiety and psychosis, that escalates over time.
Fifteen Days: Tyrone writes that he has been in isolated confinement (solitary) for over 3½ years. That’s about 1,300 mornings in a row of waking up in this really small, deliberately harsh space, knowing that what you’re seeing is pretty much what you’re going to see all day; pretty much where you’re going to be able to move around all day, pretty much where you are going to be alone all day. I try to imagine how that would be for just one day: how long the minutes of that day would be. Just that one day.
Honestly, I can’t make sense of what it would be to have this experience every day for even one month without serious psychological or emotional breakdown. I know that some do snap under the pressure, begin screaming all day, or self-harming, but the staff doesn’t show signs of caring.
Here’s something infuriating: Tyrone is being subjected to this experience under the label of Administrative Segregation—Ad Seg for short. Ad Seg means that the state is not naming this prolonged isolation as a punishment; they are doing this under the semblance that the arrangement is for Tyrone’s protection, from alleged enemies who would cause him harm if he were released into the general population.
His is not an isolated situation. Tyrone has sent me accounts from three other people who are in Ad Seg near him. Two of these individuals have been in Ad Seg confinement for over 5 years; another has been in this status off and on, but adding up to more than 7 years.
This is a regimen of extreme isolation that is said not to be a punishment. Yet in this status, the men are unfairly deprived of any program offerings that exist in the facility. Nor can they work jobs for which they could earn amounts of money, however paltry, that would allow them to purchase for themselves even basic hygiene necessities. And while they are in Ad Seg, the possibility of earning “good time” from their sentences is unavailable.
One of the things that the men find most aggravating is the monthly Administrative Segregation Review. As one of the men in Ad Seg puts it: “Every 30 days, you go to a sort of kangaroo court where a room full of white people stare at you and say, “No Change’! FOR 5 ½ YEARS! It is infuriating and undignified.”
So at some point, someone put a provision in place to try to create accountability--or at least the appearance of accountability, for the continuation of a person’s stay in Ad Seg. That provision has failed to do anything more than create a small monthly event that no one believes is about anything real.
In early September, the Washington Post ran a piece by its Editorial Board favorably reviewing the findings of an important study that had just been released by the Yale Law School’s Center for Public Interest Law on the use of solitary confinement. In this strong editorial statement, the editors named solitary confinement for what it is:
“This grotesque practice is a form of torture — one that is too common in the United States.”
There is the beginning of a major shift in policy around the use of prolonged isolated confinement. More people in the U.S. are becoming aware of what’s happening, and its harms. New York and New Jersey have passed very significant changes in state law around solitary confinement. In June of this year, Connecticut passed a law that limits the number of days a person can spend in isolated confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days or 30 total days within any 60-day period.
For Tyrone, this information might provide a sort of weak reassurance that help may well be coming but is still a good ways off. Remembering Tyrone as if I were sitting next to him in his cell, I find it impossible not to try to do something about this.
What I knew to do was to learn about the efforts of the Interfaith Action for Human Rights. I knew of IAHR through its prison pen-pal training. I learned that the Maryland Task Force on Solitary Confinement is readying to introduce a bill in Maryland’s next legislature that will build on the provisions of the new Connecticut law. I’ve made early steps in getting involved, and still have a lot to learn.
As the Washington Post editorial rightly names it, prolonged isolated incarceration is a grotesque form of torture. Where it exists in the United States, we have to own that it is being done in our names. Enough: it is immoral that anyone continues to be subjected to this practice.