ON THE SCENE: Play reveals injustice of solitary confinement
October 6, 2017


Imagine living in and being confined 23 hours a day to an 8-by-14-foot space, which includes your bed, wash basin and toilet. Imagine living there anywhere from 30 days to 30 years.

In New York state prisons, more than 4,000 men and women are living in such conditions, nearly 1,000 in the North Country. The United Nations has declared over two weeks in solitary as torture and called for an absolute ban on solitary lasting more than 15 days.

One might think that people living in solitary are all there as punishment for some heinous crime, but according to Tyrrell Muhammad of the Correction Association of New York, that's often not the case. He should know, as he spent seven of his 23 years in prison in solitary, the first time because someone gave him an extra blanket instead of the regulation one per inmate. The extra blanket was considered contraband, and that cost him six months in the box.

Two years ago, Sara "Mariposa" Fonseca, then a month away from release after serving 12 years, threw a cup of water at a male nurse. She was sent to solitary, given four extra years, and since has received two more.

Solitary results in sensory deprivation, the lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness. The outcomes can be severe physical, emotional and spiritual damage. No one comes out untouched.

Forty percent of prison suicides in 2014 and 2015 took place in solitary. Nationally, according to the Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators, approximately 80,000 inmates are living in solitary, about 5 percent of the prison population. Of those in solitary, 66 percent are people of color. At, 16 percent, Louisiana has the highest percentage living in solitary while New York has 9 percent.

Around 2 to 3 percent are sent into solitary for protective reasons and 28 percent for disciplinary reasons. The vast majority are sent to and kept in solitary for "administrative segregation," a catch-all phrase that covers minor infractions to disruptive behavior often determined by the corrections officers, such as Muhammad and Fonseca's offenses. Administrative solitary rarely has a fixed length of stay and once in, an inmate's time is often increased. Recently a few states, such as North Dakota, have begun developing guidelines to set lengths of stay for administrative segregation infractions. Nationwide, pressure has been building for the reform or elimination of solitary.

Muhammad felt that it was a corrections officer who slipped him magazines that kept him sane and enabled him to survive his time in the box.

"I did time at Clinton Dannemora," said Muhammad. "The environment is definitely depressing and abusive, but I found some good people there. There was a guard who used to give me National Geographic, Reader's Digest and other magazines while I was in solitary. It was a life-saving incident because I was hallucinating. He gave me magazines to keep me engaged and keep me current. I really appreciated that. He was the rarity. Most of his co-workers disapproved of his helping me, but I believe there has to be more like him. I am trying to encourage and find more people like him because they save lives. I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for his kindness."

For Fonseca, it was having Julia Steele Allen as a pen pal. They met in 2005 when Allen, then a theater student, was volunteering and participating in workshops for California female inmates. During Fonseca's 14 months in solitary, Allen suggested they co-write a play based on their correspondence while she was in the box. This play, "Mariposa & the Saint," was performed by Allen and Ray Huth at Keene Arts on Saturday, Sept. 30.

Martha Swan, founder and director of John Brown Lives!, Jane Haugh and Betsey Thomas-Train of Keene are three advocates for prison reform leading a local initiative to end solitary confinement beyond 15 days and encourage people to write to prisoners confined to solitary. Earlier in the year, Haugh and Thomas-Train led a mission moment presentation at the Keene Valley Congregational Church, which was followed up recently with four people reading excepts from letters they received from inmates in solitary. For most of the correspondents, these letters were the first that have received in years.

"The young man's name to whom I write is John," said Thomas-Train. "He has been in prison since the age of 18. Now he's in his mid-30s, the age of my son. He has been in solitary confinement for 13 years. In his first letter to me, he wrote, 'I am humbled and deeply appreciate your generosity for reaching out to me. Since I have been in solitary I have lost contact with my friends and family, so you can imagine how your letter being placed on my cell bars was like a ray of much-needed light. It was the first I have received in eight months.'"

Delivering the mission moment in church that day was Carol Harriott of Brooklyn, New York, whose son Albert is currently in solitary at Dannemora. She spoke of the difficulties visiting her son who is imprisoned so far from home, which can include being turned away at the last moment after a difficult 12-hour all-night bus ride.

"One of my ordeals about solitary confinement is I'm a mother," said Harriott. "You don't bring your child into the world to see them in jail. It's a guilty feeling on the mother wondering what did she do wrong. It's hard. Plus the amount of racism I have seen and experienced visiting him affects me very much. It's a torment because if you go to the jail and they have something against your child, they will take it out against you as well as your family member. They hate him because he'll write them up if they don't treat him or others right. They call him a 'Smart N***er,' and me a 'Smart N***er mother!'

Harriott then went on to list the minor incidents that were used to put and keep Albert in solitary. Similar incidents were illustrated in Saturday's performance of "Mariposa & the Saint," well-acted by co-author Allen. There are two actions that Allen and local activists Haugh, Swan and Thomas-Train are seeking. First and foremost, they want to encourage people to start writing to inmates in solitary, and second they want to urge New York state elected representatives and the governor to support HALT, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, A. 3080/S. 4784.

For those wishing to write or learn more about writing to inmates, contact Betsey Thomas-Train at or Jane Haugh at


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