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Rev. Ron Stief Headshot

When Punishment Is Torture: An Open Letter to Former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.

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JESSE JACKSON JR MEDICAL LEAVE
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Editor's note: Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) is serving a 30-month sentence in federal prison for misusing campaign funds.

Having marched with your father many times for civil and human rights, and having gone to jail at times, I was deeply moved by your efforts to educate prisoners on their rights at the federal prison in North Carolina where you were held before being transferred to Montgomery, Ala. And I wasn't surprised to see those efforts it landed you in solitary confinement.

Thankfully, you were in isolation for less than a week, in part because people like you and me, well, we get special treatment. Almost no one else gets the quick hearing that you were afforded, where one can find out why he was placed into solitary. It is unheard of to then be released to the general population in just a few days. For some it turns into months, then years, even decades.

Prisoners who have spent time in solitary tell me that the precipitating event is often nothing more than receiving the "wrong" book, being a child in an adult prison, having one too many pencils or postage stamps, reporting rape, having your name appear on another prisoner's handwritten note that you had nothing to do with, saying the wrong thing to a guard, or acting out -- through no fault of your own -- as a result of untreated mental illness. All of these "offenses" can and do land prisoners in solitary.

Your experience shows the capriciousness of solitary confinement, and in the U.S. prison system it comes at a tremendous cost. Many human-rights organizations in the U.S. and across the globe have called for an "absolute prohibition" against its use for incarcerated youth and individuals with mental illness. Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture defines stays of more than 15 days in solitary confinement as torture, given the mental and physiological changes to the brain that begin to happen in an already damaged human body and spirit.

You were in isolation, and you were not the only one. On the day that you were put in solitary, there were 80,000 others being held in some form of isolated confinement, most experiencing it for far longer than 15 days -- by definition, torture.

Remember these statistics as a new, 1,600-bed federal prison comes online in a couple of years in Thomson, Ill., and pray with me that Illinois' political leaders and prison officials don't allow it to open as a high-security, Administrative Maximum (ADX) supermax torture chamber. Think of the prisoners in California's Pelican Bay, who this summer will mark the one-year anniversary of their third peaceful hunger strike, where they protested, among other things, the fact that the average stay in solitary in that state is 6.8 years. These prisoners enduring torture need your voice. Claim it.