Solitary confinement: Isolating me in prison didn't make anyone safer – USA TODAY

At the age of 21, I was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison and sent to a New York state facility. It was a dark and violent place filled with cries of pain and suffering. 
My wing was a corridor of 24 cells that housed mostly Black bodies longing for help. And after a prison theft – during which I was accused of wrongdoing, but not involved – I was sent to solitary confinement and spent a year proving my innocence. 
Walking out to see sunlight after a year was painful. Being around people again felt different. Trying to be normal felt abnormal. 
Now 10 years since my release from prison, I am still fighting to understand why the United States continues to use solitary confinement to harm and destroy human beings, despite President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to end this horrific practice.
Connecticut is among the latest states to limit the use of solitary confinement. Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation in May ending its prolonged use in state prisons and jails. New YorkNew Jersey and other states have also placed strict limits on what I know to be torture.
California lawmakers passed a bill in August to restrict when solitary confinement can be used, but for some reason Gov. Gavin Newsom still hasn’t signed it, despite widespread calls for him to sign the bill into law.
I celebrated Connecticut’s victory with fellow advocates and leaders in the criminal justice reform movement. We jumped for joy and were determined to implement these new laws. As a leader in this work, I know that no matter how long it takes, when we fight, we win.
The United States values freedom. This includes the right to be free from harm, the right to second chances, the right to be in community with family and the right to feel safe in our bodies.
Yet we’re still the world’s most incarcerating country. And many incarcerated people, as many as 75,000 people on any given day, remain locked away in solitary confinement. Too many choose to die by suicide because they perceive death to be easier than enduring the torture of being alone for days or months.
I spent 2 1/2 years in solitary confinement at different times during my imprisonment, including six months in “protective custody” (another name for solitary confinement) when I arrived at Rikers Island because my case was considered high-profile. I had been sentenced for involvement in the kidnapping and murder of a man
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Goodbye, San Francisco. Americans fleeing dysfunctional cities.
Across the country, states are beginning to acknowledge that solitary confinement is ineffective, causes irreversible psychological harm and is a direct threat to public safety, inside and outside of our nation’s prisons. To this day I cannot unsee my neighbor in the cell next to mine hanging from her bedsheet.
I have suffered almost irreparable harm.
As more and more reports emerge of unbearable prison conditions, human rights abuses and the collateral harm of isolation, the solutions become clear: Solitary confinement, by any name, does not keep people who live or work inside these spaces safe.
States must follow the lead of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, as well as more than a dozen other states that have passed reforms, to implement alternatives to this ineffective tool of punishment if they truly intend to keep their loved ones and communities safe.
As I travel across the country working to advance policy change in prisons, I am often asked: If not solitary, then what? Let’s be clear, incarcerated people are not wild animals who have to be kept caged in order for them not to cause harm. Yes, separation is needed in prisons, but not isolation.
The people in solitary, like I was, are human beings who need the same human connection as anyone else. Adult correctional settings have achieved better outcomes from programs that use separation, without isolation, involving full days of out-of-cell congregate engagement and programming, including with people who have engaged in serious and repeated acts of violence. 
Many have lacked access to mental health care, education and housing, and have been abused by poverty over a lifetime. The solution is to choose care over punishment, people before politics and to listen to alternatives that are being proposed by people like me and countless others who have survived the same conditions.
We need to get these people out of solitary confinement, state by state, and in our federal prisons and detention centers.
Donna Hylton is the president and CEO of A Little Piece of Light, an organization that advocates for women and girls who have been traumatized by the criminal justice system. She is among many solitary survivors featured in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture project called Humans out of Solitary.
This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.


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