Students walking through Mason Hall first-floor lobby on Friday would have encountered a canvas tarp structure. On the front of the structure they would have seen a door painted on the canvas. If they stepped inside, they would see three things: a cot, a sink connected to a toilet and a table. Everything is seemingly kid-sized. A small horizontal window is painted high on the wall. Painted on the back of the canvas door is a small metal slat.
This structure is an approximation of the solitary confinement cells found in Michigan’s prisons, jails and juvenile facilities, according to Lois Pullano, founder and leader of the Citizens for Prison Reform initiative. CPR is one of seven organizations steering the Open MI Door campaign to end solitary confinement in Michigan.
“Individuals in Michigan are held in this space, most of them for 22 or more hours a day,” Pullano said. “The only time that they are brought out of this cell, they back up to the door, and they are shackled backwards through this food slot,” Pullano said pointing to the metal slat painted on the back of the door.
By setting up an exhibit in the middle of Mason Hall, Pullano said she hopes to bring awareness to University of Michigan students of the conditions of the more than 3,200 people in Michigan facing solitary confinement, which is defined as isolated confinement for more than 20 hours a day by the United Nations.
“This is the approximate size of a restrictive housing unit or isolation cell,” Pullano explained, standing inside the exhibit. “The Department of Corrections does not refer to it as solitary confinement. It’s less harsh to call it segregation or restrictive housing than it is to actually say solitary confinement.”
As of June 2020, the Michigan Department of Corrections reported that 378 people were held in prolonged solitary confinement for between six months to over 20 years. There were a total of 33,617 individuals incarcerated in Michigan’s prisons and jails in 2020.
The exhibit is a partnership between CPR and the students in the active-learning course Psychology 211 on criminal and juvenile justice.
Briana Scott, PhD candidate in the combined education and psychology program, leads the course. She said students in her active-learning course are placed at nonprofit organizations in the Washtenaw County area that are doing criminal justice and reform work for adolescents and adults.
“We have talked about the dangers of solitary confinement and how human connection and relationships are basic human needs,” Scott said. “We’ve talked so much about these issues, but for this to exist at the University and for students to come experience will bring a whole new perspective about what it’s really actually really like. Of course, this isn’t like an exact replica of what it’s like to be in solitary. You don’t know that experience unless you’re actually in it, but it’s kind of as close as we can get being in the free world.”
The students volunteering at CPR were invited to participate with the Open MI Door campaign. In addition to ending solitary confinement in Michigan, the campaign is pursuing policy changes to prohibit using isolation to protect individuals of vulnerable groups, such as those who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. It also seeks the establishment of an independent and transparent oversight committee of the isolation conditions and confinement conditions in general.
CPR and Open MI Door have nearly 9,000 signatures on their petition to end solitary confinement in Michigan. Once the petition reaches 10,000, Pullano said the petition will get placed on the desk of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“We are asking (Whitmer) to create a task force and to use her executive powers, if that’s what it takes, to address not only the prison system but our jails,” Pullano said. “We started this campaign to address solitary in our prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities. We want to not just open the doors and see people let out of solitary. We also need to shift and change the culture inside.”
LSA senior Laura Henriksen, a GSI leading the student volunteers at CPR, said that while working with CPR she learned some individuals incarcerated in Michigan had been in solitary confinement for more than 30 years.
“I don’t know how we could put someone through that, for that long without human contact,” Henrikson said. “You think, ‘Oh, they’ve done terrible things, they deserve to be there,’ but do they really deserve this solitary confinement and not having any human contact for days and days on end?”
For Pullano, this campaign is not just professional, but personal. She shared that her son was incarcerated with a five-month minimum sentence. She said he entered at the age 15 with a known mental illness and ended up incarcerated for five years because of the increased difficulty he faced when attempting to conform to prison rules.
He left prison, Pullano said, with physical and emotional scars from his time in solitary. Pullano said she has heard many stories of the damage that solitary confinement has done on incarcerated individuals and their families.
“Most people don’t have a clue what goes on inside the system and that was me, too,” Pullano said. “I did a 180 and it took my son being involved. I am hoping that we can really wake people up and help them to start spreading the word and start talking about this issue.”
In a 2020 report released by CPR on the long-term impact of solitary confinement, family members stated that isolation “often affected one’s ability to engage with others, making them feel paranoid, mistrusting, and short-tempered.”
Part of the campaign is sharing the stories of those who are currently or were formerly in solitary confinement. Those who visit the website can view stories by mental illness category, such as hallucinations or panic attacks.
“We have many individuals (in solitary confinement) who have a mental illness,” Pullano said. “If you did not go in with a mental illness, there’s a good chance that you’re going to develop a mental illness pretty quickly.”
Pullano said that in addition to wanting all incarcerated individuals to be treated with dignity, she wants the conversation regarding the purpose of prison systems to change.
“We really have to understand that…those inside are going to come back out,” Pullano said. “And I think the question we have to ask is, who do you want in your community? Someone who has had the opportunity to have basic life skills. Do you want them to have that, or do you think that heaped-on punishment and them becoming bitter instead of better is really the approach we want to make our community safer?”
Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.