April 5, 2016
By Christopher Sich
Dominican’s identity statement states that that the university is known for its enduring commitment to social justice and its service in the creation of a more just and humane world. Imagine an interdisciplinary course committed to the creation of a more humane world, in addition to connecting disciplines like criminology, religion and theater.
Theology Professor Anthony Suarez-Abraham and Sociology Professor Michelle VanNatta, along with the help of Theater Professor Bill Jenkins, created a one-of-a-kind course at Dominican that combines these three concentrations. The course is titled: Solitary Confinement and Human Rights.
The purpose of this course is to educate the Dominican community on the issues of solitary confinement in search of justice and the creation of a more just and human world.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more than 80,000 men, women and juveniles in solitary confinement in prisons across the United States.
Suarez-Abraham has strong feelings against the use of solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement is a form of torture and it is against any form of rehabilitation of the human person and spirit,” Suarez-Abraham said. “It goes against any form of any conceivable rehabilitation.”
According to Jenkins, most prisons put prisoners in solidary confinement in an 80-square-foot cell, smaller than a typical horse stable, for 23 hours a day, with only one hour of exercise per day. According to the American Friends Service Committee, these prisoners endure “no-touch torture”, such as sensory deprivation, permanent bright lighting, extreme temperatures and forced insomnia.
All three professors teaching this course say they oppose solitary confinement and Suarez-Abraham said he believes it should be abolished.
“It does not mean that they (prisoners) should not be held accountable for their crimes,” Suarez-Abraham said, “but our laws are to rehabilitate, solitary confinement only dehumanizes them.”
Solitary confinement also greatly affects the mental state of prisoners. Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, found in a study that roughly a third of solitary inmates were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.”
Dustin Stidmon, a student in the course, was shocked to learn that victims of solitary confinement experience such tremendous physiological damage.
“My opinion on solitary confinement and the prison system has changed greatly because of this class,” Stidmon said. “I have gained the belief that no one, no matter the crime, deserves such a damaging punishment such as solitary confinement.”
Jenkins has the same belief. He says that solitary confinement actually makes people worse.
“Most people that are put into solitary confinement come out ill,” Jenkins said.
Solitary confinement is only one aspect of prison that concerns Jenkins.
“We must help those in prison get an education, and if they are able to get out we need to do a better job of providing resources instead of giving them a no-win situation,” Jenkins said.
The 14 students enrolled in this course are not only taught the concept and effects of solitary confinement and human rights, but also have the chance to build an 8x8x8 foot solitary confinement replica cell.
“We have built an actual replica, to the best of our ability, that we are hoping will be soon exhibited in the Underground,” Jenkins said. “It is a passive display that you will be able to enter.”
According to Jenkins there will be information provided for students to learn more about this issue and written comments will be collected from people about their feelings entering the cell.
In the completed cell, chalked names are visible on the inside walls.
“The names written on the inside of the cell, in chalk, recognize those that have had to endure solitary confinement,” Jenkins said.
According to Suarez-Abraham the message of the cell is to give the Dominican community a real sense of the experience and insight on how helpless one can feel even by spending only a couple minutes in the cell.
Suarez-Abraham says this course fits strongly within Dominicans mission; it brings the question of justice and the question of how we can create a more just and humane world.
“This class grabs your attention and throws what you thought you knew about solitary confinement out the window, and it truly educates you on all the misconceptions about solitary confinement,” Stidmon said. “I would full heartedly recommend this course; this course is very eye opening.”
The student interest in the class and the issue of solitary confinement has opened the possibility to the creation of similar interdisciplinary courses.
“Next spring we will offer an immigration and human rights course where we will construct a fence,” Suarez-Abraham said, “and the solitary confinement will most likely be offered every couple years.”