Across the nation, Americans are waking up to the fact that our prisons’ and jails’ reliance on solitary confinement does not make sense. The practice is inhumane, costly, and ineffective – and the damage caused by 23 or more hours per day in isolation affects not only the men, women, and children who experience it firsthand, but also their home communities. That’s why people nationwide are coming together to voice their opposition. Coordinated actions to end solitary confinement, spearheaded in California and hosted on the 23rd of each month, are quickly spreading across the country as communities rise up to demand fair and humane treatment for their incarcerated citizens.
Sustained monthly organizing requires boundless passion, energy, and creativity—and few have risen to this challenge as well as the Massachusetts-based Coalition for Effective Public Safety (CEPS). CEPS, a coalition of advocates, parolees, family members, formerly incarcerated individuals and more, brought the campaign of coordinated action to Massachusetts in June 2015. Some of the most active organizations within CEPS include Prisoners’ Legal Services and the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition.
Activists in Massachusetts certainly have their work cut out for them: the state has one of the harshest policies around long-term solitary confinement in the nation, allowing sentences of up to 10 years in isolation for just one internal disciplinary infraction. They also benefit, however, from the momentum of small victories. In 2012, Massachusetts rewrote its mental health care policies to exclude prisoners with severe mental illness from long-term segregation; and in the last legislative session, the state passed legislation codifying these changes.
Since bringing 23rd events to Massachusetts, CEPS and its coalition partners have demonstrated out-of-the box organizing strategies to achieve this goal. The coalition kicked off its 23rd events with a “Chalk Walk” in Boston this summer, inviting volunteers to write facts and quotes about solitary confinement in sidewalk chalk around the city. Through this action, the public was forced to confront the unpleasant reality of solitary confinement on their after-work commute.
In September 2015, CEPS took advantage of Cambridge’s annual PARK(ing) Day, during which parking spots are turned into “something else” for the day. Through the program, CEPS was assigned a parking spot inside which they chalked the dimensions of a typical solitary cell. More than 2 solitary cells fit in each parking lot, with the long-term segregation units in Massachusetts measuring 7’ by 9’ and other segregation cells throughout the state measuring 8’ by 10’. Volunteers prepared signs and banners, and distributed information to passersby.
A well-attended November 23rd event brought a documentary screening and panel discussion about solitary confinement in Massachusetts to Harvard Law School. This month, CEPS wrote holiday cards to over 100 people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons, some in solitary confinement.
Through these monthly actions, Massachusetts activists aim to educate the public about the prevalence and consequences of solitary confinement in Massachusetts and to motivate citizens to voice their support for reforms to the state’s solitary confinement practices. This fall, the coalition urged residents to call their legislators in support of Massachusetts’ H.1475/S.1255, An Act to Reduce Recidivism, Curb Unnecessary Spending, and Ensure Appropriate Use of Segregation, which would dramatically reduce the amount of time a prisoner could spend in disciplinary segregation and prohibit it altogether for certain populations including children and pregnant people.
Thus far, events have mostly taken place around the Boston area. However, with the release of its Action Toolkit in June, CEPS has provided the means for actions to spread across the state. The toolkit is full of ideas and inspiration for other organizations to start their own 23rd actions, many of which can be used not only in Massachusetts but around the country. The toolkit has specific ideas for creative organizing, including instructions or suggestions for:
- Holding a Chalk Walk
- Lobbying for legislative reforms
- Organizing candlelight vigils
- Hosting community discussions or activities
- Inviting speakers to address the community
- Performing dramatic readings of plays such as If the SHU Fits
- Screening a documentary
- “Tabling” in busy areas
Thanks to the support of many community and prisoners’ rights organizations, the excitement of out-of-the-box organizing strategies, and the energy of local activists, Massachusetts’ 23rd events are gaining momentum. In the coming months, these events will continue to expose the harms of solitary confinement and, each month, bring the state closer to real reform.