PLAP Panel AudienceBy Jacob Alderdice, J.D. ’14

Watch a video of the event

Solitary confinement in prison, a practice under scrutiny for hundreds of years, continues to be widespread here in Massachusetts and across the United States.  On Monday, February 25th, the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), along with several co-sponsors, hosted a panel on solitary confinement.  HLS students and PLAP Policy Coordinators Jeanne Segil ’14 and Sia Henry ’14 put the event together, assembling a panel of experts that encompassed several sides of the opposition to this practice.

Austin West was standing room only as over one hundred students, activists, and outside community members came to see the panel moderated by Matthew Segal, the Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts.  The panel included Professor Jules Lobel, the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Mikail Deveaux, the Director of Citizens Against Recidivism, Dr. Stuart Grassian, an expert in the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and Bobby Dellelo, an advocate who has spent five years in solitary confinement in Massachusetts prison.

Photo Credit: Tony Irving Photography

A powerful and moving conversation ensued among the five men.  Mr. Deveaux set the tone for the night by reminding the audience to think of incarcerated individuals as people, not just as prisoners.  He acknowledged that even advocates can have a “they’re not us” mentality about inmates, which can keep the public at large from seeing them as human beings.  Professor Lobel discussed his legal work in the area, including the CCR’s recent lawsuit against Pelican Bay State Prison in California, in which 500 inmates have been in solitary confinement for over ten years.  He lamented the lack of courts’ recognition of prisoners’ mental anguish and suffering, a feeling shared by Dr. Grassian.

Dr. Grassian pointed to the multitude of research on the severe and debilitating effects of confinement, spanning from colonial America to present day.  While Dr. Grassian spoke of the research into the “torture” of solitary confinement that is “far greater than physical pain,” Bobby Dellelo confirmed this for the audience by sharing his experiences.  Mr. Dellelo spoke about the five years that he spent in complete isolation in Massachusetts prison, describing how he felt himself going crazy leading to an inability to interact with other people.

At the end of their talk, when Professor Lobel and Dr. Grassian were talking about what needed to be done to achieve legal victories, Mr. DeVeaux jumped in with a challenge to everyone present.  He said that change would come “if the general public were more aware” of the issue, and exhorted everyone to get involved.  Matthew Segal answered the challenge by inviting advocates in the audience to speak about their work, and their links are below.

Prisoners’ Legal Services
Physicians for Human Rights
American Friends Service Committee
Between the Bars

Related Links:
New Yorker article on Bobby Dellelo (and Solitary Confinement Generally)
Huffington Post article on Pelican Bay Lawsuit

Read the full article in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.