Get Out! Of Solitary Confinement
We are at the end of a heated primary race. I know all of the candidates for Sheriff in Mecklenburg County and many of their volunteers. I can endorse none. The Internal Revenue Service prohibits 501c3s from endorsing political candidates. Even if it were permissible, it would be unwise. The residents of the jail are our primary concern. Our conscience led us to announce two days ago that we will put all collaboration with the jail on hold until proper safeguards and radical change is adopted, namely a process to end solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is defined as 23 hours in isolation with 1 hour to roam and stretch large muscles. I could save this article for after the election, but to do so would be to supplant what is politic with what is right. I could publish this article now and face accusations of supplanting what is right with what is politic. There is no simple solution—except to sleep well tonight. After months of phone tag, on Tuesday, January 30, 2018, a volunteer and I were graciously welcomed by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office to tour solitary confinement at Jail North where women and youth are contained after they are captured. I use the term capture to be clear in the connotation that the slave plantation evolved into mass incarceration. Arrested individuals are treated much like runaway slaves. In other words, as people of color, our citizenship is still contested as is our humanity. Our bodies and families are poorly valued animal property. That is why video visitation and solitary confinement make sense. Animals do not need regular human contact. One would need to read The New Jim Crow or view the documentary 13th to grasp the appropriateness of the analogy. As we walked through Jail North for youthful captives, we were warmly greeted by white male correction officers and a warm maternal African-American Sergeant. We were informed of the benefits of solitary to jail security, the implementation of a point system to earn time outside of the cage to call family or to order from the commissary and the daily jail staff check-ins were explained as sufficient human contact. In stark contrast were the sullen despairing faces of the young black men (our sons) in those small cement block cells with metal toilets and sinks roughly the size of what we find in an airplane. They spoke of how they needed space to breath; yet solitary “makes you go crazy.” One of our sons said that he had been in solitary for about 18 days. Another said he was midway through a 60 day stint. The Humane Society says 4-8 hours is too long a time in the cage, and it causes mental health problems…for a dog. The United Nations says solitary is human torture. As our guide smiled and said “You can tell them what you really think,” that feeling began to sink in. They looked at her as if to say “Really?” Something was out of place. Something was not right in this monstrosity of human misery where the jail staff were at ease either straight faced or smiling, nodding and agreeing with the Sergeant. The maligned former Program Director and solitary confinement whistleblower, Karen Simon, who had asked me for help to raise awareness over a year ago wanted to know what I thought about the tour. I had no way to describe what patently did not fit together. It was like a puzzle. I had all the pieces, but how do I connect them? Deception from people who are convinced by the narratives they tell themselves and others is the most difficult to process---until you call it what it is---self deception. For the past three months, I have felt like the character Chris in the blockbuster psychological thriller Get Out. Chris was in an interracial relationship. When he visited his white lover’s family, his girlfriend Rose betrayed him. Implicit racial bias turned into a fight for his life. In my case, I had been working with the jail, and I was going to meet the family now at Jail North. It was an intersectional connection: the jail and the anti-incarceration expert. The family welcomed me in, and yet it was not until after I witnessed an interaction between the jail and a formerly incarcerated community activist at the Black Presbyterian Clergy forum last Sunday that I finished processing my tour and realized, the foundation needed to GET OUT. Many will recall how the black help in Get Out had been brainwashed; actually, their brains had been substituted by the brains of white people. The grounds keeper and maid were no longer capable of assessing their role in a white racist family that held them captive. After all, the family was their meal ticket. They had become obsequious, servile, defenders of their white benefactors whose outward friendly demeanor camaflouged the AR-15 power of their racialized violence against people of color. I noticed this when I asked the Sergeant if Exodus Foundation.org could assist the jail in ending solitary, and the response was a sudden cold stare, like that of Georgina when Chris asked her to leave his phone alone. Institutional racism was not the barrier to conversation with this dedicated employee, I was entering an area of conversation for which the carceral logic mind had no response. Metaphorically speaking, last Sunday all the pieces came together, like Chris, I stood at the door, “Rose, get the keys. We have to go.” A community activist came to the microphone, “Sheriff, I spoke to ten people in jail right now, and they say that solitary exists. Are you willing to say that there is solitary confinement?” “We do not have solitary confinement, we have disciplinary detention units.” Now, I’m thinking. “Rose, get the keys.” “I’m sorry Chris. You know I cannot do that.” The gaze of the camera narrows to Chris’s startled and betrayed countenance. He was bamboozled. Implicit racial bias had stalked him, and it is ready to take over his mind and convince him that a rose is not a rose. Extremely limited human contact and limited physical movement is good. All of us have been brainwashed to greater or lesser degrees by the dripping faucet of irreverence for poor and black bodies and families in our prison plantation nation. The United Nations calls solitary confinement torture. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office calls it disciplinary detention. Solitary confinement by any other name is still a disgrace to the 21st century, a degradation of a mind, the violation of a body, the assault on a soul, a cruel and unusual punishment. A rose by any other name is still a rose. My eyes did not deceive me on our tour. Karen Simon should have the last word here, “What if they were all white children and adults Madeline? Where is the black community on this?” We had to Get Out of our intersectional connection with the jail until the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office transforms its logic and gets out of brainwashing the entire county. Otherwise, the consequences will be deadly and costly to us all.