May 2024 Newsletter

The May Newsletter includes promoting the interview with author Ben Austen on May 15, an update on our efforts to reach the grassroots in Maryland, an appeal to join the effort to end solitary at the DC Jail, the need for more pen pals, and an essay in the NY Times about the lack of care for the mentally ill in U.S. prisons. 

Notable about the NY Times essay is the connection it makes between solitary confinement and mental illness. Too often solitary becomes the only way that prisons deal with people who act out due to their illness. Placing a mentally ill person in solitary only makes that person more ill and more likely to become suicidal. The Times essay gives us more evidence of the urgent need to put an end to long-term isolation.

Interview with Ben Austen-May 15

Outreach to Marylanders

Ending Solitary at the DC Jail

Pen Pal Outreach

"When Prison and Mental Illness Amount to a Death Sentence

Interview with Ben Austen

On Wednesday, May 15, at noon, Rabbi Feinberg will interview Ben Austen, the author of Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility of Change.  

Ben Austen is a journalist from Chicago. He is the author of Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility of Change, named one of the best books of 2023 by the Washington Post. His book High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Nonfiction and named one of the best books of 2018 by Booklist, Mother Jones, and the public libraries of Chicago and St. Louis. A former editor at Harper’s Magazine, Ben teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Chicago. His feature writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Wired, and many other publications. He is the writer and host of the upcoming Audible Originals podcasts The Last Days of Cabrini-Green and The Parole Room, and he is the co-host, with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, of the podcast Some of My Best Friends Are….

The interview will be on Zoom on Wednesday, May 15 at noon. Please register for the talk by clicking here. Upon registering we will send you the Zoom link. 

Click here to read Rabbi Feinberg's review of Correction: Parole, Prison, and the Possibility of Change.

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Grassroots Organizing in Maryland


This May, Natasha White, IAHR’s Director of Community Engagement, will be  actively engaging with communities in Baltimore County and City. She plans to visit re-entry programs, probation offices, and neighborhoods directly affected by the criminal justice system. Her mission is to elevate the dialogue around the urgent need to end solitary confinement. In addition, Natasha will lead training sessions focused on legislative advocacy with our "Facts on Solitary" initiative, gearing up for the pivotal 2025 legislative session.

If your organization, school, or clergy supports humane practices for incarcerated individuals and you would like to contribute to our grassroots efforts, we warmly encourage you to get involved. Please contact IAHR or reach out to Natasha directly at [email protected] to see how you can help.

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Campaign To End Torture at the DC Jail

Washington, D.C.’s Department of Corrections uses solitary confinement three times more than the national average. The United Nations, through their Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, identified prolonged solitary confinement (isolation for longer than 15 days, 22 hours a day) as torture.

Solitary Cells in the DC Jail

On October 18, 2023, D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced the Eliminating Restrictive and Segregated Enclosures (“ERASE”) Solitary Confinement Act of 2023 to put an end to the use of solitary confinement in D.C.’s jails. The Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety now needs to hold a hearing on the bill and move it forward. There will be a budget oversight hearing of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services on Wednesday, April 10. During that hearing the "Erase Solitary Confinement Act of 2023 will be  To join us in pushing for passage of the ERASE bill in Council Period 25, you can write Council Members urging their support of the "Erase Act," by clicking here. 

Click here to send a message to each member of the DC Council. 

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A Call for Pen Pals   

Do You Enjoy Writing? Do You Like to Meet New People? Join Interfaith Action’s Pen Pal Progam

When prisoners lose connection to their family and community they are more likely to commit crimes after they are released. D.C. residents who are convicted of a felony serve their sentence in a federal prison. Over 3,000 D.C. residents are incarcerated in 122 prisons around the United States. D.C. residents are incarcerated in prisons from California to Florida to upstate New York. D.C. residents in prison often feel very isolated since they are often incarcerated so far from home.

  • You can save a Soul
  • Build new friendships
  • Learn about life behind prison walls
  • Enlighten people in the community about prison life

You can exchange letters once a month. Please write to us at [email protected] to let us know you are interested. Once you contact us, we can schedule an orientation that is convenient for you.

Become a pen pal, learn more about what goes on in prisons. Become a pen pal and make a friend!

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The downward spiral of one inmate, Markus Johnson, shows the larger failures of the nation’s prisons to care for the mentally ill.

Glenn Thrush spent more than a year reporting this article, interviewing close to 50 people, and reviewing court-obtained body-camera footage and more than 1,500 pages of documents.

May 5, 2024

Markus Johnson slumped naked against the wall of his cell, skin flecked with pepper spray, his face a mask of puzzlement, exhaustion and resignation. Four men in black tactical gear pinned him, his face to the concrete, to cuff his hands behind his back.

He did not resist. He couldn’t. He was so gravely dehydrated he would be dead by their next shift change.

“I didn’t do anything,” Mr. Johnson moaned as they pressed a shield between his shoulders.

It was 1:19 p.m. on Sept. 6, 2019, in the Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security prison a few hours south of Chicago. Mr. Johnson, 21 and serving a short sentence for gun possession, was in the throes of a mental collapse that had gone largely untreated, but hardly unwatched.

He had entered in good health, with hopes of using the time to gain work skills. But for the previous three weeks, Mr. Johnson, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had refused to eat or take his medication. Most dangerous of all, he had stealthily stopped drinking water, hastening the physical collapse that often accompanies full-scale mental crises.  A collage of baby and adolescent photos of Markus and his sisters.

Markus and his sisters shared a close bond. His family has dozens of snapshots of him as a child. Credit...via the Johnson Family

Mr. Johnson’s horrific downward spiral, which has not been previously reported, represents the larger failures of the nation’s prisons to care for the mentally ill. Many seriously ill people receive no treatment. For those who do, the outcome is often determined by the vigilance and commitment of individual supervisors and frontline staff, which vary greatly from system to system, prison to prison, and even shift to shift.

The country’s jails and prisons have become its largest provider of inpatient mental health treatment, with 10 times as many seriously mentally ill people now held behind bars as in hospitals. Estimating the population of incarcerated people with major psychological problems is difficult, but the number is likely 200,000 to 300,000, experts say.

Click here to read the rest of the essay.  

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