June was Torture Awareness Month. During June, many Pax Christi groups around the country engaged in a variety of activities to honor this somber time. Pax Christi Metro New York (PCMNY) was one of those groups.
As a proud member of the Metro New York Religious Campaign against Torture (MNYRCAT), we hosted one of two MNYRCAT events to address this inhumane issue. On June 11th, four professional actors, including the PCMNY Board President, Margaret Flanagan, presented the play, If the SHU Fits, at St. Joseph’s Greenwich Village Church. SHU refers to Special (also Security) Housing Units where prison inmates are kept in solitary confinement. If the SHU Fits gives voice to several incarcerated men and women being held in isolation. They poignantly share the horrific impact of solitary confinement on their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Isolated confinement is being recognized more and more as torture by both civil and religious society, including the Catholic Church. It is also being recognized more and more as misused, ineffective, and actually harmful in many, if not most, cases. After the performance, Five Mualimm-ak, a former inmate who spent five years in isolation, spoke eloquently about the experience and the work being done by groups like the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. He encouraged us to visit www.nycaic.org for more information and action suggestions.
In addition to these two informative, heart-wrenching, and motivating events, there was one more that was at least as important. While not hosted by MNYRCAT, three of us who are members of the Steering Committee were privileged to attend an interfaith breakfast sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT). At this breakfast, the newly appointed Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction (DOC), Joseph Ponte, spoke. He came to NYC from the Maine Department of Correction where, as Commissioner, he significantly reduced the use of solitary confinement. Commissioner Ponte talked about his experience in Maine, his intimate knowledge and understanding of the prison system, and his hopes for the NYC DOC. He answered questions openly and honestly. Some of his key points follow.
Commissioner Ponte raised three fundamental questions for himself and all those involved in Correction: Why do we incarcerate? What do we do with the incarcerated? How do we keep them safe? He referred to safety as the main concern, along with care of juveniles.
He acknowledged that there was resistance to his reduction in the use of solitary confinement in Maine, but said that ultimately, due to its positive impact, resistance declined and support increased.
Commissioner Ponte went on to say that locking people up solves nothing. Blaming people is not constructive. Rehabilitation is critical. It is important to normalize life as much as possible. It is also important for outside support, like chaplains, to “show up.” And there must be sensitivity to diverse cultures and religions. Inmates need more programming to occupy their time and more positive reinforcement and incentives, rather than punishments for every little infraction.
Of course, there are some serious challenges. A primary one is the mentally ill. Some mentally ill inmates are dangerous, but not all. And, not all inmates are mentally ill. Distinguishing which is which and providing for their disparate needs is critical. A second major challenge is gangs. A third is women. Women are a challenge because they have different needs, but are generally treated the same as men. And most imprisoned women are not only criminals, but also victims. They are more likely to have mental illness, but less likely to be violent. Addressing all these variables requires tremendous skill and compassion.
Some of the attendees at this breakfast do prison ministry. To them, Commissioner Ponte advised: Communicate with the Correction Officers. Avoid being seen as an opponent or enemy.
Ultimately, Commissioner Ponte admitted that his approach to Correction in not cheap, easy, or quick. What it does seem to be is invaluable if incarcerated people are to be treated with dignity and hope for a better life outside the confines of jail or prison.