Around New England

Prison Officials Put Inmates In Solitary Confinement Because of Their Race, Sexuality, Disability, and Immigration Status, Ed Markey Says

August 5, 2020

U.S. Senator Ed Markey said prison officials in the United States tend to put prisoners in solitary confinement who are black, Latino, homosexual, disabled, or illegal immigrants because of those characteristics.

Markey made the comment during an online forum Tuesday, August 4 organized by people who were formerly incarcerated.

Markey drew a question about solitary confinement from a former prison inmate who opposes the practice. Markey said he opposes it, too, and he noted that many people in prison have problems with substance abuse.

Then Markey said:

“What happens operationally, however, is the prison system then looks at you and says, ‘Well, they’re black, they’re brown, they’re LGBTQ, they have disabilities — you know — they’re ICE prisoners, they’re immigrants, we’ll just put ‘em in solitary.’ That’s not realistic. You know?”

Markey is running for re-election against U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III in the September 1 Democratic primary.

Kennedy, who answered questions during the first half of the forum, also spoke briefly in favor of abolishing solitary confinement, but he did not suggest that prison officials use it on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability, or immigration status.

The forum, recorded by WGBH, was moderated by the founder of Families for Justice as Healing and co-hosted by the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk University and the Justice Reform Coalition.

Each candidate received a question about solitary confinement from Cassandra Bensahih, statewide coordinator of Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement and senior organizer of Unitarian Universalist Mass Action.

A transcript of the exchange between Bensahih and Markey follows:


Cassandra Bensahih:  Senator Markey, solitary confinement has been in practice in jails and prisons under various names, such as SHU – Segregated Housing Units; SMU – Special Management Units; DDU – the Department Disciplinary Unit; Administrative Segregation; and Restricted Housing.

Solitary confinement is disproportionately used against black and brown people, people with disabilities, LGBTQ-plus individuals, religious minorities, and people with mental illnesses, and ICE detainees.

Studies have shown, that regardless of what it’s called, short- and long-term isolation causes long-lasting physical and psychological harm to men, women, and children, on top of the trauma of being incarcerated.

Solitary confinement has been recognized as a form of torture by the United Nations. Senator Markey, would you author or co-sponsor legislation to end the torturous practice of solitary confinement?


Ed Markey:  Yes, I would, Cassandra. And thank you for that I think excellent question.

Because, as you point out, for the rest of the world, they consider solitary confinement to be torture. And here in the United States, it’s just a matter of practice.

And so, what we should be doing, is dealing with these issues from a health care perspective – from a mental health care perspective.

When people are put in solitary confinement, in many instances, it’s because they have issues that need treatment. And that’s what we should be funding. We should be funding the health care side of this issue.

We know that 85 percent of people who are incarcerated have some relationship with substance abuse. You know? And that’s almost always correlated with mental health issues.

What happens operationally, however, is the prison system then looks at you and says, ‘Well, they’re black, they’re brown, they’re LGBTQ, they have disabilities, you know? they’re ICE prisoners, they’re immigrants, we’ll just put ‘em in solitary.’

That’s not realistic. You know?

My wife is a psychiatrist. My wife was the chief of behavioral medicine at the National Institutes for Health. You know?

What we need to do is to ensure that we are providing the care. And I will just say this:  It’s one of the reasons why, you know, I’ve introduced legislation to make sure that people who don’t who can’t make bail, they keep their medical treatment. People who are in prison, they keep their medical treatment. And once people leave, they get it immediately, so that they’re able to stay inside the medical system the whole way.

So my answer to you is:  Yes, I will sponsor legislation to abolish solitary confinement. It’s wrong. The rest of the world has that conclusion already.

But again, I just keep coming back to that – that in our country, we believe, as a philosophy, in incarceration. And it’s proven the pathway to failure in our society. And solitary confinement is just the natural extension of this misguided thinking in our society.

So my answer to you is:  Yes, absolutely, it should be abolished. And I will support legislation to accomplish that goal. It is the only humane way for [inaudible] treatment resources …

So thank you so much.

It causes more problems, in my opinion. Mental health problems just accelerate, gets exacerbated, it’s even worse, after solitary confinement.

So let us, let’s just — We’ll do everything we can to abolish solitary confinement. Thank you so much.