November 2015


On Tuesday Oct. 20, IAHR sponsored an author’s book talk with Mary Buser at Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Baltimore and on October 21 at Busboys and Poets in Takoma Park.  Over 90 people attended the Baltimore talk while 60 people attended the Takoma Park program.   Ms. Buser examined problems with the American prison system, especially solitary confinement.   The event mainly focused on Ms. Buser’s recently published book, Lockdown on Rikers, Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York City’s Notorious Jail.  Ms. Buser worked on the infamous Rikers Island run by the New York City Department of Correction.  It is the second-largest jail in the country and has been regarded as one of the most notorious municipal jails in the United States for its history of abuse towards prisoners. 

After working as assistant chief at the Mental Health Department on Rikers, Buser became a social advocate on behalf of the incarcerated and mentally ill, who are often lack appropriate care in U.S. jails. She spoke about the frustration of working with solitary confinement cases in her inability to provide for their emotional and psychological needs during her time at Rikers by reading excerpts from her recently published book.  

Buser started her work in mental health in the New York prison system as a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. But she explained her quick disillusionment with the environment of neglect that the correction officers and mental health professions maintained in the jail. To make a clear distinction, while prisons hold people who are convicted of a crime, a jail like Rikers holds pre-trial detainees, or people who are not yet convicted but awaiting trial. Of the 11,000 inmates at Rikers Island, nearly 40% have been diagnosed with a mental illness, according to The New York Times.

“What brought me in was I was assigned to an internship at Rikers Island. I was on the clinical track to become a therapist. Early on, when I was younger, I did work on a suicide hotline in Boston and I worked at a jail in Boston and that was my first encounter with the incarcerated,” she said.

She has come to believe throughout her experiences that life in solitary confinement exacerbates the severity of mental illnesses, despite the efforts of prison health workers.

 “There is a large population of the jail that receives mental health services. The stress of incarceration, the uncertainty of what will happen...and tremendous separation from family really takes a toll. There’s a lot of the general population in jail who receive anti-depressants or therapy,” she said.

Two former inmates who experienced solitary confinement followed up her speech. Duane "Shorty" Davis spent jail time in Illinois and New York for drug charges and spoke about the relationship between the broken jail system and social injustices.

“Across from central booking, there’s a ballpark. You are conditioning our youth to accept prison as a way of life. They see their loved ones coming out of central booking…. It’s a social experiment because they enslave the same type, the same race of people…. You designed the prison industry in no different way than you designed the slave trade. We need to start fighting this war on drugs, because it’s a war on people,” Davis said.

He echoed Buser’s statements that the injustices in the American prison system are overwhelmingly applied to the disadvantaged.

“Rikers cannot be seen from roads, but from flying into LaGuardia, it looks like an industrial building with lots of barbed wire,” Buser said. “It holds those who are waiting for their day in court but cannot pay bail, and thus, it is a prison for the poor.”

She also deflected the idea that jail guards use solitary confinement solely on inmates who pose a danger to others. She believes that it is often unjustly used, especially to those with mental illnesses. Overall, she thinks that society’s treatment of those with mental illnesses has deteriorated over the past twenty years. According to Buser, many of the mentally ill on Rikers are being held on minor charges that usually would not constitute a jail sentence for other citizens. In this way, the prison system has taken a prominent yet inappropriate role in mental healthcare following the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals throughout the late twentieth century.

“It went from big hospitals to the promise of outside community housing, but it never materialized. It’s a disgrace to society because their charges are loitering and trespassing. Not that the mentally ill are not capable of doing crimes, but that there is a far greater proportion of them in jail,” she said.

Rabbi Charles Feinberg, Executive Director of IAHR later emphasized the need to not only reduce using solitary confinement as the sole disciplinary measure, but to eliminate the use of administrative segregation. The term refers to moving inmates into solitary only because guards perceive inmates to be a threat, even if little evidence exists to support that assumption. For example, another former inmate at the event spoke about being placed in solitary because guards feared that he might lash out after the murder of his sister while he was in jail.

“People must here the stories first; the statistics come later. First, we have to change hearts, and then, we can change minds,” Feinberg said in a follow-up address to the crowd. “Eight percent of prisoners in Maryland are in solitary confinement. The national average is four percent. The average length of stay is 125 to 130 days. Studies say that after 15 days, it has detrimental effects on a person’s psychology. There’s a lot of work we have to do in Maryland to reduce the number of people in solitary.”

Attendees struggled with how they can personally become involved in rectifying the problems in the American prison system.  Margie Roswell, a resident of Baltimore for 30 years, thinks that she will be more engaged in the issue.  “There’s been activity in the Maryland legislature, but I’m committed after tonight to be more engaged. I did not know that a person could be committed to solitary confinement for administrative reasons, like if your sister was murdered,” she said.


Safe Alternatives to Solitary Confinement: U.S. Leaders Share Progress and Insights

On September 29, 2015, the Vera Institute of Justice convened a short meeting to explore what a few states are learning about how to end over-reliance on extended solitary confinement in correctional systems.  Researcher Craig Haney reminded attendees why this is essential. He noted that a robust literature on mental and physical harms of the practice shows it can lead to despair and anger, destabilization of the sense of self, and a loss of ability to relate to others. It can also amplify symptoms of mental illness. Shaka Senhor, who spent a total of 7 years in solitary confinement, vividly evoked the experience and pointed out that the damaged people subjected to it may one day be “somebody’s neighbor.” He stressed that “we have every tool available to make the right decision” and challenged policy makers to move toward change. 

What does Germany Do?

 To help people think “outside the box,” Jorg Jesse, the Director General of Prison and Probation Administration in Mecklenburg, Germany, described how his country sees the experience of incarceration. In Germany, the maximum period for solitary confinement is 3 months, and the warden must have the consent of a higher authority to impose this extreme punishment. Instead, the country sees the aim of incarceration as resocialization. Only 5 percent of course cases result in prison sentences (in the U.S., it is 65 percent), and correctional officers must have years of training to become effective problem solvers who can further the country’s aim of reducing recidivism. Their aim is to help people who are incarcerated prepare to live a life without crime, a life with “no more victims.” To encourage positive behavior, the system emphasizes the use of incentives as well as deterrents.  Sanctions in response to inappropriate behavior might include reducing leisure or work time, reducing the money a person can make, or removing something the person values, such as a radio or TV.

U.S. Leaders are on the Move!

Some states and communities are leading positive change in the U.S. We heard from executives in Colorado, Washington, and New Mexico, as well as the Hampden County Correctional Center, that it is possible to reduce over-reliance on solitary confinement, advance the interests of public safety, and make prison settings safer.

Policy Changes in Colorado Reduce Assaults and Advance Public Safety

Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, was appointed to his position to fulfill the vision of the previous director, who was assassinated by a person who had spent years in solitary confinement. He has gained the cooperation of staff by emphasizing the public safety mission of correctional facilities: “When you send someone back to the community in worse shape than they came in, you have failed.”  People in solitary confinement in Colorado represented 7 percent of the prison population in 2011, but less than 1 percent today. Assaults on inmates and staff are the lowest since 2006, a change the Director attributes to new policies that decrease the time people spend in solitary confinement. One year is now an absolute maximum and is imposed only in extreme cases such as assault and rape. Policies also emphasize the need to identify and treat mental illness when it is the underlying cause of a behavioral problem.

Staff Involvement Helps Guide Change in Maine

The Hampden County Correctional Center describes itself on its web site as a “a model of safe, secure, orderly, lawful, humane, and productive corrections, where inmates are challenged to pick up the tools and directions to build a law-abiding life in an atmosphere free from violence.” Assistant Superintendent Richard McCarthy explained that the Massachusetts facility took the path of reform in 2008, asking staff to identify alternatives to solitary confinement. Changes emphasized positive reinforcement for people on the right track who had previously been in solitary confinement. They could earn the right to time in an exercise cell and were eligible for good time. Many “stepped down” to the general population, and the facility now has 68 percent fewer people in segregation. There has been no increase in violence, and the changed climate of the facility has benefitted both staff and the people held there.

Cognitive-Behavioral Programs Work in Washington

Bernie Warner, Secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, said the state is working to move to an evidence-based approach to corrections and has launched promising initiatives to end long-term segregation. The state began with a study of who was in segregation and why, learning that people with mental health issues and gang members were overrepresented. Washington is seeking to create programs that seek to help people in these populations change their behavior. Cognitive-behavioral programs seek to change the thinking and behavior of gang members, and an Intensive Transition Program to help people prepare to return to their communities has had an 80 percent success rate. Like Hampden County, Washington engaged corrections staff in creating its promising programs. The state also trained them to communicate more effectively with people experiencing serious mental illness. The Secretary noted that as the more costly units that rely on solitary confinement are closed (three times as many staff are needed to run these restrictive facilities), resources are freed to support more effective alternatives.

New Mexico Offers Gang Members a Way Out

 Gregg Marcantel, the Secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department, reported that the state “stole” Washington’s innovative approach to “managing offender change” and ran with it. They distinguished between predators in gangs and people who were simply gang members and might want out. The state created a special management unit for people who wanted to leave gangs and created a step-down program leading to transition and release. He noted that people tend to “fall or rise to expectations,” and creating an expectation of change has helped people change their behavior – and with those changes, altered the state’s reliance on solitary confinement.



Several social workers attended Mary Buser's presentation on her book Lockdown on Rikers: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York's Notorious Jail,   Ms.Buser, other social workers, and leaders within the anti-torture movement are among those leading Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC).  SWASC has been in existence for a little over a year. The group meets monthly by phone and communicates through its listserv.

Currently, SWASC is working to increase involvement with social workers, retired social workers, faculty and students, members or former members of the National Association of Social Workers, the Council on Social Work Education and groups specializing in the abolition of solitary confinement around the country.  Click here to read the rest of the article. 

Members of SWASC recognize that incarcerating prisoners in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day for months and years under inhumane, cruel and degrading conditions violates The Social Worker Code of Ethics, and is antithetical to the treatment of all human beings, but especially youth, elderly and those with mental illness.

SWASC is also exploring ways to protect social workers who work in prisons where they are vulnerable to abuse, including termination due to their dual loyalties to their employers and their ethical concerns. 

SWASC invites you to check out its website and to sign the Memorandum to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).   The National Association of Social Workers’ Board of Directors will meet on January 21, 2016 to discuss SWASC’s requests for involvement. For more information, please e-mail  Moya Atkinson or at 703-941-3707.



A dehumanizing prison and what Obama can do

  By Bonnie Tamres-Moore

In January 2002, the United States began sending prisoners to Guantánamo Bay. That same month, President Bush said that prisoners from the war in Afghanistan would not be afforded all protections of the Geneva Conventions. They would be treated “humanely,” he said, in the “spirit” of the Geneva Conventions. “We’re adhering to the spirit of the Geneva Convention…. It’s a very important principle,” Bush said.  To read the rest of the article click here.



On October 22, Zainab Chaudry, board member of IAHR and director of communications at CAIR (The Council for Islamic-American Relations) and Rabbi Charles Feinberg, IAHR Executive Director protested the published remarks of Carroll County Commissioner, Richard Rothschild.  Writing in the Carroll County Times, Mr. Rothschild argued that Muslims were not fit to hold public office because Islamic beliefs are antithetical to American values.   

Rabbi Feinberg and Ms. Chaudry, along with Howard Morrison, from Jewish Voice for Peace held a press conference in front of the Carroll County Courthouse.   In addition to representatives of the press, supporters of Mr. Rothschild gathered there.  Rabbi Feinberg and Ms. Chaudry engaged Mr. Rothschild’s supporters in a spirited debate.   Rabbi Feinberg argued that the American Muslim community is peaceful, obeys the laws of the country, and abides by the Constitution.   Feinberg also stated that the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran contain passages that can be interpreted maliciously and destructively.   The holy books of the Abrahamic faiths contain passages that are open to multiple interpretations.   It is up to religious leaders, Feinberg argued, to interpret their respective texts peacefully and compassionately.  

To read more about IAHR’s protest please see these links to press accounts: Carrol County Times;  You Tube; WBALTV; Jewish Times