Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) represents people of faith who live in Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland. IAHR's mission is to end policies and practices that promote torture in our society and to counter bigotry directed against vulnerable populations. In response to our faiths’ call to defend human dignity, our work focuses on ending abusive treatment in detention facilities and countering anti-Muslim bigotry.
IAHR brings action, education and advocacy to eliminate the practice of prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners in state facilities in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia Jail.
Through pastoral outreach, educational efforts and legislative advocacy, IAHR engages and mobilizes faith communities, families, the media, elected and appointed officials, and the general public.
Guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the wisdom of our respective faiths, IAHR advocates for more just and compassionate laws and policies.
Why We Need to End Prolonged Isolation
Solitary confinement (also known as segregation or restrictive housing) is defined as confining an incarcerated person to his or her cell for at least 22 or 23 hours a day. During that time all meals are brought to the cell. A person is let out of the cell at the most only for an hour a day of isolated recreation in a closed cage and for a shower. When the person is transferred to the recreation cage or the shower, he or she is shackled.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture determined that placing a person in isolation for more than 15 consecutive days is an act of torture. Moreover, psychologists, Dr. Craig Haney and Dr. Stuart Grassian who have conducted extensive research on the effects of solitary, concluded that isolation longer than 15 days can cause deleterious mental and physical symptoms. These symptoms can include hypersensitivity to external stimuli; perceptual disturbances, hallucinations, affective disturbances, such as anxiety and panic attacks; difficulties with thinking, memory and concentration; the emergence of fantasies such as of revenge and torture of the guards; paranoia; and problems with impulse control.
According to statistics published by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, 50% of inmates in state prisons were placed into segregation at least once during 2018. The average length of stay ranges from 44 to 50 days depending on the kind of segregation. Interfaith Action for Human Rights has accumulated anecdotal evidence that some inmates languish in segregation for many months and even years. Two hundred thirty inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness were placed in restrictive housing in 2018; two hundred eighty-seven inmates were released from restrictive housing directly to the community in 2018. Over the past three years, close to 900 inmates were released directly to the community from restrictive housing. Such releases are a threat to public housing.
Due to the efforts of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary which IAHR organized and leads, the State of Virginia published in October 2019 for the first-time statistics on how restrictive housing (solitary confinement) is used throughout its 43 prisons. For the past three years IAHR has engaged in extensive correspondence with inmates in Virginia’s two maximum prisons. That correspondence has exposed rampant human rights abuses in these two prisons. These abuses include inmates being placed in solitary for many months and years, excessive use of force including the deployment of dogs, lack of medical care for serious medical illnesses, and the capricious use of solitary for relatively minor breaking of the rules.
In the District of Columbia Jail in fiscal year 2018, there were 1,781 individuals held in restrictive housing (Administrative,
Overview of Solitary Cell
Disciplinary or Protective Custody housing unit) out of a total of 12,000 admissions.
In fiscal year 2018, approximately eight percent of total days housed for all individuals who were in custody at the Central Detention Facility (CDF) and the Central Treatment Facility (CTF) were in restrictive housing units; 15 percent of all bookings resulted in restrictive housing unit placement; and 17 percent of unique individuals were in a restrictive housing unit at some point during their stay.
The average length of stay in restrictive housing units in fiscal year 2018 was 16.6 days.
Because of our faith traditions, IAHR also believes that each human being is worthy of respect no matter what he or she may have done. We believe that if we want incarcerated people to respect others then we must treat them with respect. Human beings were created to be social with other people. If people are denied that opportunity through prolonged isolation, then their spirit will shrivel, they will lose their minds, and they will leave prison angrier and more embittered. Upon release, they will have even more difficulty re-integrating into the community; the reality is that 95% of those incarcerated will be released from prison.
Program and Accomplishments
Our strategy to end the abuse of solitary confinement in regional prisons and jails is threefold.
- First, we needed to find out how widely solitary (prolonged isolation) was used and to what extent. Corrections officials in both states and the District routinely refused to give out this information.
- Second, we needed to educate religious communities and community groups about the issue and why and how prolonged isolation in area prisons is a serious human rights abuse.
- Third, we needed to write legislation and seek sponsors in area legislatures to put an end to the human rights abuses.
In 2016, we were successful in having the Maryland legislature pass a "reporting bill" which mandated the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to publish statistics on the use of solitary in January each year. We now have three years of reports which have revealed that 50% of the state prison population are in solitary at least once during a calendar year. The average length of stay is 44 to 50 days. Each year close to 300 people are released from solitary directly to the community.
In Virginia, we were successful in organizing a coalition of human rights groups to end the abuse of solitary confinement. In 2019, the coalition was successful in getting a "reporting" bill passed in the Virginia
Signing of Reporting Bill in Annapolis in 2016
legislature. The first report was released in October 2019. From the report, we learned that over 7000 inmates had been in solitary (restrictive housing) during the 2019 fiscal year. About 30% of those placed in solitary (restrictive housing) stayed there for more than a month.
District of Columbia
In the District of Columbia, IAHR was successful in persuading the DC Council Judiciary Committee to have the DC Director of Corrections release statistics on how solitary is used in the DC Jail in June of 2019.
Over the past four years, IAHR has organized over 20 community forums on solitary in Virginia, the District, and Maryland. Moreover, we were successful in getting both the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun to write strong editorials against the abuse of solitary in state prisons. IAHR was able to get a number of news articles, op-eds, and letters to the editor to appear in Baltimore, Richmond, and Washington.
Pastoral Care: Pen Pal Program
In order to fulfill the pastoral part of its mission, IAHR established a pen pal project for DC residents who are incarcerated the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In 1997, DC residents who are convicted of a felony serve their sentence in a federal prison. Currently, we have approximately 4500 residents in 120 prisons around the country. Most are isolated from family, friends, and community. In 2017, IAHR launched a pen pal project to reach out to DC residents in the BOP. At this time, 160 people on the outside are writing to 160 incarcerated people. In addition, one of our board members established a pen pal project for those incarcerated in the two-maximum security
Pen Pals at Meeting in December 2019
prisons in Virginia: Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. Over 100 inmates have been involved in this project. The correspondence has yielded much anecdotal evidence of human rights abuses.
Finally, IAHR has intervened in some cases of flagrant human rights abuses when prisoners have been in solitary for months and/or years and when prisoners have not been told why they are in solitary. IAHR has intervened through letter writing campaigns to wardens and corrections administrators.
IAHR has a database of 4000 people who primarily live in the mid-Atlantic region: Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. In addition, we have been active on regional television, radio, social media, and print media with op-eds and letters to the editor. We also rely on over a hundred volunteers in Maryland, DC, and Virginia. IAHR has presented programs at and engaged members of over 20 faith-based communities in DC and MD during the past year.
IAHR’s Plans for 2020
IAHR advocates ending prolonged isolation by limiting solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days. Solitary confinement for the mentally ill should be banned and inmates should not be released from solitary directly to the community.
IAHR has a four-pronged strategy to address the abuse of solitary confinement in the mid-Atlantic region.
- First, we do outreach to religious communities and other community organizations to educate them about the abuse of solitary confinement in Maryland, DC, and Virginia. We organize forums that include a returning citizen who has been in solitary, one or two experts who have studied the issue in our region, and another person to demonstrate how treatment of prisoners is a spiritual/religious issue. The experts may include representatives from Disability Rights Maryland, Law Enforcement Action Partnership (L.E.A.P.), ACLU-MD, ACLU-VA, Social Action Linking Together (S.A.L.T.), NAMI-VA, Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC), and Out for Justice.
- Second, IAHR in coordination with its coalition partners writes legislation for the Maryland and Virginia Legislatures and the DC Council. IAHR then identifies legislators to become sponsors of the legislation. In both legislatures, IAHR then organizes meetings with legislators and IAHR supporters. In 2016, IAHR was instrumental in getting a “reporting bill” passed in Maryland which mandates the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to report statistics on how restrictive housing (solitary confinement) is used in the previous year. In 2019, IAHR was instrumental in getting a reporting bill passed in Virginia.
In 2020, IAHR in coordination with its coalition partners has written legislation in both Maryland and Virginia to put limits on how solitary can be deployed in Maryland and Virginia state prisons. We have identified legislators in both states who are willing and eager to sponsor the legislation.
- Third, we plan to embark on a media and social media campaign to educate the public about the abuse of solitary confinement in Maryland, Virginia, and DC. This campaign will include robust postings on Facebook, twitter, and Instagram. We will also engage in writing letters to the editor in local newspapers in both states and the District, writing op-eds, and inviting the media to report on our forums.
Advocacy Day 2019
- Finally, IAHR has two different pen pal projects. One is led by Gay Gardner, IAHR secretary, who over the last four years has been in correspondence with over 100 prisoners in both of Virginia’s maximum security prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. This correspondence has revealed many human rights abuses in both prisons, especially the abuse of prolonged isolation in restrictive housing. The other pen pal project, led by vice-chair John List, engages people in our area to correspond with DC residents who are incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons. Over 160 people are pen pals.
IAHR’s Board of Directors
During 2019, IAHR welcomed five new board members, Sue Borchardt, Karen Dickson-Morrison, David Smith, Davion Percy, and Nikki Thompson. We also welcomed Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass as the Board chairperson, John List, as the vice-chairperson, and Mardi Mellon as the secretary. Click here to view all their biographies.
During 2019, Diamonté Brown resigned from the board after she was elected the President of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union. In addition, the terms of Suzanne O’Hatnick, Gay Gardner, and Jack Lahr came to an end. The board honored their contribution by presenting them with commemorative gifts.
IAHR’s Financial Statement
IAHR’s fiscal year is the same as the calendar year. At year end (December 31, 2019), IAHR had $28,568.68 in operating funds and typically operates on a break even or positive cash basis each year. At its January 2020 meeting, the IAHR Board approved a budget for 2020 whose planned income will be $111,500 and whose planned expenditures will be $108,549.