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A Solitary Fight

ARIEL: The United Nations says any time in solitary beyond 15 days is torture. And the Vera Institute — a justice policy nonprofit — says it’s just inhumane.

CHARLOTTE: As my co-host Ariel Ritchin reports, the institute is launching a new initiative to reduce solitary confinement use in New York City.


On 163rd Street in the Bronx, Five Mualimm-ak is opening the door to his his studio apartment.

AMBI: Door Open

Mualimm-ak: This is my humble abode.

It’s subsidized and it’s… really small.

Mualimm-ak: I’m never really here that much because I try to avoid the small space. And no matter how much you change it up, in my mind it’ll still be the measurements of a cell, you know?

In 1999 Mualimm-ak was sentenced to 32 years for tax evasion, drug trafficking, extortion and weapons possession . He served 12 years and spent almost half of his time, six years,

Mualimm-ak: Uh. Over 49,000 hours.

in solitary confinement. In New York, when a corrections officer thinks you should be punished, you get something called a ticket. He got a lot of tickets. For things that seem to him like pretty small time stuff – possession of sharp weapons – his drawing pencils, hoarding materials – extra stamps, and misappropriating resources – sharing dinner. Even cutting his hand on a food tray.

Mualimm Ak: Course I got another ticket, which was destruction of state property. Because I cut myself. And I’m state property.

In solitary, the idea is total deprivation. He wasn’t allowed any visitors. Not even photos on the wall.

Today, his apartment is messy. But he knows exactly where his most valuable possessions are. He takes out a worn envelope –

AMBI: Taking out art

Mualimm-ak: This is one of the portraits I did

To cope, he spent hours drawing on the two sheets of paper he got each month. People he met. People he missed.

Mualimm-ak: I knew when I was in prison I had a daughter, but I never seen her. I didn’t know what she looked like. And that was one of my estimates of what my daughter would look like if I seen her.

He knew the cracks on the wall of his cell. Even numbered them. A single bulb hung from the ceiling like an eternal sun.

Mualimm-ak: The light has been on for so long. Humming. Toilet dripping. Wind, under the door. All these things are attacking me. And you can’t turn them off. They’re on all day.

As far as Scott Paltrowitz from the Corrections Association of New York is concerned – this is inhumane. It’s nothing short of torture.

Paltrowitz: We know that people deteriorate while they’re in solitary

So they act act out more. They get more tickets. More time in solitary. What’s worse, Paltrowitz says is that:

Paltrowitz: The vast majority are in there for nonviolent conduct.

Five out of six people start out in there for nonviolent offenses, according to a recent report by the NYCLU. Christine Hermann is the, head of the Vera Institute’s Segregation Reduction Project. She says solitary confinement is so extreme, it should be a last resort. The problem is it’s become a default.

Hermann: The answer to every little infraction, whether it be two extra postage stamps or stabbing someone is the same. It’s throwing them in the SHU.

That’s S.H.U. – special housing units. Her group is leading the effort to curb the use of solitary confinement. First step is spending time in jails to find out:

Hermann: Answers to questions like who is in segregation, how they get there, how long they stay, how they get out.

For the next 14 months they’ll build a database and share it with the public. Then make policy recommendations.

The conversation has already started. Mayor de Blasio last month banned the use of solitary for inmates under 22.  But opposition comes from the guards in the prison. They say they need a strong punishment like solitary to keep order. The union that represents corrections officers didn’t return my calls. They released this video, featuring Michael Powers, the union president, after New York State closed four prisons and cut back on solitary confinement units last month.

Powers: Prisoners have significantly less incentive to obey officers or civilian staff. The result is that our prisons are as dangerous as ever, and this could have been prevented.

Back in his apartment, Mualimm-ak tells me the thing that saved him is he got out. Like out out. He remembers the day corrections officers were banging on his cell.

Mualimm-ak: “You won’t believe this.” You know how you’ve been crying about how you’re innocent?” Well, turns out you were right.

His conviction on three of four counts had been overturned.

Mualimm-ak: “We’re, you know, letting you out. Here’s $40 and a bus ticket. Make it.”

Next stop: 42nd Street.

Mualimm-ak: When I left my cell that day, I kept looking back. Like I was missing something.

The bus dropped him off during rush hour. In one day, he went from a 6 x 9 cell to…Times Square. He walked toward the sidewalk.

Mualimm-ak: And I’m so used to stopping at yellow lines in prison, that I automatically just stood there.      

Mualimm-ak didn’t make it much farther. He had a panic attack. Went to the hospital. Missed parole. Ended up back in jail, where he still owed time in solitary.

When he finally got out for good, he lived on the streets for two years. He was alone.

Mualimm-ak: All of my friends and people I know, are still in cages.

But he’s not. Since he got out three years ago, he’s been fighting for those who are still inside. He spends his days attending meetings, speaking on panels and talking to lawmakers. He lives with his son Shaquille who’s also joined the cause. Sitting a child sized desk, Mualimm-ak shows a video that’s just come out called  “Children of the Incarcerated.”- featuring his son.

Shaquille: What I do is try to open awareness to youth about the pitfalls and traps that are set up for us.

Mualimm-ak beams.

Mualimm-ak: I’m proud of my guy, you know.

Mualimm-ak, both of them, are fighting to ban solitary, from the 6 x 9 bedroom they share in the Bronx.

Ariel Ritchin, Columbia Radio News.


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