Taking a Stand

Monday, Jan 23, 2017
by Kyle Berlin '18

I am a member of Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) at Princeton University, a student activist organization with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. The following is my account of a January 11, 2017 rally against solitary confinement in Trenton, NJ that was attended and co-sponsored by SPEAR.

On an unseasonably warm January day, a crowd of about a hundred people gathered in front of a towering brick wall swirled at the top with barbwire. Two watchtowers loomed overhead, militaristic and menacing beside the sun. A guard craned his head out from one of the towers to see what was going on.

The crowd, despite appearances, was not standing in the middle of a warzone; they were standing in the heart of New Jersey’s capital city of Trenton, down the street and across the train tracks from a McDonald’s, in front of New Jersey State Prison. 

The crowd’s volume grew, both in number and in sound. DJ Cuqui Rivera hooked up a speaker system, hoping to amplify the voice of the assembled so that those on the other side of the wall—and those guarding the wall—could hear. 

The crowd’s message was simple: they were there to protest against solitary confinement and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would have reformed it in New Jersey.

Many of the hundreds of people incarcerated just on the other side of the wall are in the Management Control Unit (MCU)—otherwise known as solitary confinement, where they are kept to their cells for up to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end.

The United Nations considers solitary confinement to be torture when imposed for periods of more than 15n days. Of the 34 prisoners known to be in solitary in the New Jersey State Prison alone, all but one had been kept there for over a year. 

The crowd—which included clergy, activists, students, a state senator, two gubernatorial candidates, two dozen social justice organizations, and a bunch of average concerned citizens—took their turn at the mic, one after another, speaking against the cruelty of such confinement, against Christie’s false claims that solitary doesn’t exist in New Jersey; speaking for those who are hidden away inside.

Amos Caley, a leader of the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJ-CAIC), which assembled the crowd, exhorted: “Just think. 13 feet of space, amounting to a 3 foot by 4 foot living space, for 23 hours a day, and for months or years in duration.”

Lydia Thornton, one of several survivors of solitary in the crowd, recounted what it was like to sit for days on end in that tiny metal space, only let out three times a week to shower while handcuffed to a pole. Science proves the devastating toll solitary takes on one’s psyche, but Thornton’s experience makes it sink in. In the adjacent cell, she recalled, “you hear them say ‘I am going to kill myself’ and go silent. And you’re yelling for somebody down there…to come help this person next to you that you know darn well has done something because you heard the thump.”

But Thornton, as many in the crowd, remained determined. “I did nine and a half months of solitary in this building. And it changed me. I won’t say it broke me because I don’t believe it did. What it did is changed me into the person you see standing here today who is not going to shut up.”

“What we see today represented here is the truth,” the Reverend Charles Boyer addressed the crowd. Look, he said: “All of us made here in the image of the divine, and all of those in there, sitting in solitary, in the image of the divine…they will be seen, we will stand in for them and we will shout, we will yell, and we will tear the walls down until solitary is ended in New Jersey.”

Tearing down walls: the crowd, standing in front of a wall, in an age of wall-building, believed this to be an act of destruction that is actually an act of love.

Learn more about SPEAR. Read the organization’s recent article with The Marshall Project. Additional co-sponsors of the rally in Trenton included the American Civil Liberties Union, NJ; American Friends Service Committee Immigrants Rights Program; American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Program; Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Trenton and Princeton Chapters; Health Professionals and Allied Employees, NJ; Integrated Justice Alliance; Jewish Alliance for Change; Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministries, NJ; National Religious Campaign Against Torture; People's Organization for Progress; T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry, NJ

Photo by: Nora Schultz '19