Public Experiences Solitary Confinement
A life-size replica of a solitary confinement cell, complete with the sounds of solitary, made a visit to the Communication Arts Center at University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley from October 5-9. The cell modeled on a cell at Waupun Correctional Institution came to UW-Fox Valley to allow the public to briefly experience solitary confinement and raise their awareness of the issues associated with the use of solitary confinement.
To contrast the stark conditions of solitary confinement, CEA-Wisconsin provided an exhibit of artwork and creative writing done by inmates in Wisconsin facilities. The display of approximately 25 paintings created by inmates in Ken VanMieghem’s classes at the Wisconsin Resource Center and creative writings done by inmates throughout the state as part of CEA-Wisconsin’s Creativity Contest illustrated how the human spirit can continue to exist in harsh environments.
The events, hosted by Esther, were meant to bring attention to the use of solitary confinement in the state's prison system. Esther is a grassroots and non-profit interfaith social-justice organization. Esther aims to bring together people of faith and communities of faith in the Fox Valley region of Wisconsin together to build community and to identify and act on issues of injustice. Faith communities covenanting with Esther are united based on shared values such as equality and human dignity.
Three conversations about mental illness and solitary confinement in Wisconsin were held by Esther at UW-Fox Valley in conjunction with the exhibit:
• On Monday, October 5, a community forum focused on mental illness and incarceration. The forum’s goal was to look at how people with mental illness are being incarcerated and how they are affected by solitary confinement, but it also highlighted what's working well locally. Speakers included Paula Verrett of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Fox Valley; John Wallschlaeger, a crisis intervention trainer and mental health pioneer; and Outagamie County Judge Gregory Gill, who oversees the Outagamie County mental health court.
• At a luncheon on Tuesday, October 6, about 25 Fox Valley religious leaders met to experience the cell, discuss the use of solitary confinement, and talk about possible steps they can take to change the system.
• On Tuesday evening, a community forum focused on solitary confinement and prison reform. It looked at how Wisconsin applies the use of solitary confinement and what can be done to change the system. The Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison, was the featured speaker.
One of the event’s organizers, Stephanie Gyldenvand said the cell received mixed reactions, depending on a person's experience. Many come out wondering why the corrections system treats people this way, and some family members are angry after experiencing what a loved one has gone through, she said.
Coincidently, the Wisconsin DOC has recently announced a “culture shift" in its use of solitary confinement in prisons, eliminating it as punishment for minor rule infractions and cutting the time inmates spend in isolation for more serious offenses. As part of a legal settlement with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, DOC officials say in most cases, the state prison system will no longer discipline inmates for self-harm or suicide attempts by sentencing them to time in solitary confinement. And mitigating factors such as mental illness will be considered in meeting out punishment.
On Sunday, December 6th, Esther will hold its 11th Anniversary Banquet: Building the Beloved Community at the Grand Meridian in Appleton. The keynote speaker will be Douglas Walker, criminal justice reform coordinator, United Methodist Church. The artwork which was displayed at the UW-Fox Valley event will be part of a silent auction, with the proceeds going to support Esther’s projects. The public is welcome to attend. More information about Esther’s banquet may be found at [esther-foxvalley.org