A group of lawmakers gather Thursday to discuss proposals to change the use of solitary confinement in Rhode Island’s prison system.
Understanding what solitary confinement feels like can be difficult for people who’ve never been incarcerated, or know anyone who has. A new exhibit in Providence aims to shed some light on the experience.
A large plywood box takes up much of the gallery at Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities for its current exhibit. It’s a mock solitary confinement cell. The structure is about 10 feet tall, six feet wide, and nine feet deep, painted a dark gray.
“The first thing that I thought as we were putting it together is: you understand that it’s not a lot of space when you’re talking about it abstractly, but once you actually see how little space it is, and you can actually take a step inside of it – it feels very close,” said Thaddeus Gibson, a graduate student, who helped construct the mock cell. Spreading his arms, Gibson can touch both walls lengthwise.
Inside, a twin bed takes up one side of the cell; a combination sink and toilet sits in another corner. There’s little empty space left in the room.
Across the country, prisoners in solitary confinement can spend up to 23 hours a day in similar sized cells. The exhibit organizers allege that solitary confinement has a negative impact on a prisoner’s mental health.
“In some cases, some of the reasons why some people may be placed into solitary confinement are related to issues of mental health, and of course solitary confinement is not a cure for those types of things,” said Matt Branch who also helped work on the project.
In Rhode Island, prisoners can be segregated from the regular population for things ranging from theft to violence. The practice is used to punish rule-breaking or to protect others if the prisoner has been violent.
In some cases, said organizer Branch, prisoners are placed in solitary confinement for their own protection.
“It becomes this thing that’s not only that only that becomes a punishment for people that who are doing things that they shouldn’t be but also a quote unquote safe space for who are being harassed.”
Branch says this disproportionately affects gay, lesbian, and transgender inmates.
Next to the mock solitary confinement cell, letters from inmates who’ve been in solitary confinement are pasted to the wall. At one station you can listen to interviews with inmates who’ve been segregated at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institutions. One man, identified as Daniel Lee, said this about his time in solitary confinement.
“This building is not good for any mental health inmate in this system, because its 23-hour lockdown. Very little human contact. You’re only allowed two books and a radio. And when you go out to rec you’re in chains and leg shackles, into a very small rec area, like a dog cage.”
Further into the gallery, illustrations drawn by prisoners in solitary confinement from across the country hang from the wall. One inmate has almost entirely covered blank sheets of paper in dense black ink, leaving only ghostly blank faces, surrounded by darkness.
“It’s sort of almost like the terror you feel as a child, that you grow out of as a child, that you grow out of as you become an adult,” said Marissa Brown, the assistant director at the Center for Public Humanities, who helped oversee the project.
“You wouldn’t see this level of terror, unless you asked a five-year old who had had a nightmare to draw it. And there’s clearly something so menacing and clearly alive in these drawings.”
Last legislative session, Representative Aaron Regunberg, a progressive Democrat introduced a bill restricting the use of solitary confinement, which didn’t pass. The director of the State Department of Corrections went on the record opposing the legislation. At the time, he said solitary confinement serves an important function in prisons, and was mischaracterized as torturous.
Rep. Regunberg has convened a commission to study the use of solitary confinement in the state. The group will likely make legislative recommendations for changing the system soon.