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Prison Reform Advocates Get Boost From Supreme Court Justices

Local Group Aims To Draw Attention To Solitary Confinement With Replica Cells

Gilman Halsted/WPR

Advocates for ending the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons got a boost in confidence this week when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy told Congress it’s time to reform the system.

Justice Kennedy told the House Appropriations Committee this week that “solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” and he encouraged lawmakers to look to Europe for a better approach to disciplining inmates.

“The Europeans have systems for difficult recalcitrant prisoners in which they have them in a group in three or four and they can stay together for three or four and they have a human contact and it seems to work much better,” Kennedy said.

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Locally, the prison reform group Wisdom has been offering the public a chance to spend time in a replica solitary cell to raise awareness about the issue.

Derrick Parnell of Milwaukee spent a year in solitary in the 1990s while serving a 20-year sentence for burglary.

“Segregation robs you mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally in that order, ” Parnell said.

During an interview last week, Parnell glanced at the life size segregation cell sitting in the lobby of the Marquette University Library as he described what landed him in a real one. He was four years into his sentence when he got in a fight with his cell mate.

“I knew he had a condition of a kidney but somehow he took a blow to his kidneys,” Parnell recalled. “By the grace of god he lived so I was given 365 days segregation. I had to serve the whole 365 days.”

Parnell said he was a drug addict and suffered severe insomnia during his time in solitary. He said he was given medication to help him sleep.

“That was like a handicap because I’m a recovering addict. In actuality I just needed somebody to talk to. That would have been better medicine than just the medication itself the pills,” Parnell said.

The Wisdom group has set up the replica cells in locations across the state. Visitors are given headphones that play recorded sounds of actual solitary inmates banging on their cell doors. They’re encouraged to sit in the cell for 45 minutes.

David Liners, Wisdom’s director, said some who have tried it haven’t been able to stand it for more than five minutes.

“It’s narrower than they were expecting and just really the sound they find really disturbing,” said Liners.

Many inmates are sentenced to as long as a year in solitary. Liners said Wisdom wants that cut to no more than 15 days at a time.

“Solitary confinement should be reserved for very extraordinary circumstances and then only as long as is absolutely needed for safety reasons. That’s the ultimate goal,” he said.

The most recent figures indicate there are more than a thousand Wisconsin inmates serving disciplinary time in what prison officials call “restrictive housing.”

An email from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections says changes have been made recently that allow inmates in segregation more time out of their cells and access to psychological and medical services. But so far there has been no change in the length of time inmates can be held in solitary.

Reverend Jerry Hancock of Madison has been leading Wisdom’s campaign to end solitary confinement. He said Justice Kennedy’s comments this week gave him hope.

“I think Justice Kennedy’s remarks are a bright shining light on the torture of solitary confinement and it speaks directly to what’s going on in Wisconsin,” Hancock said.

Prison reform advocates plan a lobbying day at the state Capitol in late April to continue to press their call for change.