The Gospel tells us the good news: that Christ died on the cross so that each of us can enter into fellowship with Him (1 Corinthians 1:9).
We are also called to have fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7). Prison Fellowship Ministries, as indicated by our title, seeks to cultivate fellowship inside prison walls. For decades, our staff and volunteers have made fellowship in prison possible by facilitating Bible studies, discipleship programs, and other ministries. Yet, there are a significant number of prisoners that are not able to participate.
PFM’s advocacy arm, Justice Fellowship, has increasingly shed light on this population within our prisons that is perhaps most hungry for fellowship: the thousands of men, women, and juveniles currently held in solitary confinement. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that over 80,000 prisoners are held in “restricted housing” across the country. Some of these prisoners have spent decades in isolation.
In his column last week, Washington Post writer George Will asserted, “Clearly, solitary confinement involves much more than the isolation of incorrigibly violent individuals for the protection of other inmates or prison personnel.” Indeed, in many facilities over the past several decades, solitary confinement has become a default management tool for even low-level prison rule violations. Prisoners with mental illness – who are difficult to manage when their illnesses go untreated – are often placed in solitary confinement.
While conditions vary across facilities, individuals placed in solitary confinement typically spend 22-24 hours per day alone within their cells. They have little meaningful interaction with other people – beyond an officer periodically passing by to confirm they are still alive. The time spent out of their cell is often still alone, just in a larger confined space for exercise. Meals are shoved through a slot in the door. As weeks, months, and even years pass by, the lack of stimulation takes a toll on prisoners’ minds.
Christians know just how important fellowship is for spiritual well-being. It’s no surprise that individuals held in solitary confinement report experiencing hallucinations, paranoia, and increased suicidal thoughts.
Since the vast majority of prisoners will one day be released, we all have a stake in making sure their treatment in prison prepares them to be safe and productive members of society.
Disturbingly, prisoners are often released directly from solitary confinement to our community, with no transition time in the general prison population. A pilot study in Washington state confirmed that prisoners released directly from solitary confinement have significantly higher rates of recidivism.
Recognizing the risks posed to prisoners and our communities by solitary confinement, Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) held the first-ever Congressional hearing to specifically address solitary confinement last year. Pat Nolan, the director of PFM’s Center for Justice Reform, was a featured speaker.
Thankfully, in part as a result of increased advocacy by groups like Justice Fellowship, we have seen corrections leadership take great strides to reduce the use of solitary confinement in the past several years. Since the Congressional hearing last year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has reportedly reduced the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement by 25 percent. Further, the Bureau has agreed to a comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons. The assessment will be conducted through the National Institute of Corrections, which also successfully assisted states like Mississippi and Colorado in reforming their solitary practices.
We should give thanks for these reforms, which are making fellowship available for an increasing number of prisoners. We should also not give up praying and advocating for those who remain in solitary confinement deprived of fellowship. If you would like to receive updates about legislation to limit the use of solitary confinement in your state, be sure to sign-up for Justice Fellowship’s email alerts.