Using First Person Narratives to Advocate for an End to Solitary Confinement


Tactical Aim: 
Country or Region: 
Partner Organizations: 
American Friends Service Committee

Solitary confinement is an overused practice around the world. This is true even despite the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (1955) and the Nelson Mandela Rules (2015). Both of these international standards severely limit the use of solitary confinement. 

Unfortunately, there is little data on exactly how many prisoners live in isolation globally. There is no common reporting system and thus little accountability across prison systems. Solitary Watch estimates that more than 120,000 prisoners in the US are living in solitary confinement. Many of these are in prolonged isolation. This means isolation lasting more than 15 days, but in some cases, for months or years. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these numbers. The physical and mental health effects of prolonged isolation are detrimental, and there is no benefit to the individual’s rehabilitation and reentry into society.

One area where solitary confinement is overused is in the US state of Michigan. More than 3,000 prisoners in this state are held in solitary confinement. Prisoners are isolated in closed cells with no meaningful human contact for 22-24 hours per day. The Silenced Project collects letters that detail the circumstances of these prisoners. The project then publishes these letters in a publicly available digital archive.

Prisoners write in their own voices and often in their own handwriting. They describe the treatment, conditions and mental health effects of solitary confinement. One prisoner tells of a guard that would purposefully wake prisoners from sleep every 30 minutes. The Silenced Project shares these first person narratives to ask readers to take action to end solitary confinement. An online art gallery created by survivors of solitary accompanies the collection.

In Michigan, there are no limits on the amount of time a prisoner can be in solitary confinement. According to UN reports, prolonged solitary confinement amounts to psychological torture. In their letters, prisoners recount incidences of starvation, water restrictions, restraints and more.  Solitary confinement is linked to anxiety, depression, paranoia, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts. Sensory deprivation causes severe and long-lasting PTSD. Mental health effects of solitary confinement persist even after prisoners are released. This makes reintegration into society even more difficult.

“Every oppressive societal inequity on earth is amplified behind razor wire. The racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny... They go from a constant murmur to a hellish unending scream.” 

- The Silenced Project

Advocates of the AFSC Michigan Criminal Justice Program collect these personal letters.  Readers link to resources where they can sign petitions or contact their legislators. Organizations are able to sign on in support of the Open MI Door campaign. The campaign also includes a mental wellness toolkit for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones. The site also offers to connect users with attorneys and advocates working on this issue.

Solitary confinement is a practice deeply instilled in the US criminal legal system. National reform remains challenging. Unlock the Box is a nationwide campaign to end solitary confinement. This campaign advocates for the enforcement of the Mandela Rules for prisoners and detainees. The Mandela Rules aim to combat the inhumane custody of prisoners. They highlight the state’s “obligation to treat all prisoners with respect for their inherent dignity.” The Mandela Rules prohibit torture and other ill-treatment. Like Open MI Door, Unlock the Box promotes the need for mobilization and policy change on a national level. Both campaigns encourage survivors to share the abhorrent conditions and effects of solitary confinement. 

The Open MI Door campaign has had successes at the state level. Upon engaging with the voices of those who have been Silenced, people are driven to action. Open MI Door has collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition to end solitary confinement in Michigan. The campaign has garnered the support of more than 50 local organizations. Open MI Door continues to ask for signatures and endorsements. Other US states have seen successes as well. New York has significantly curtailed the use of solitary confinement through the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. Additionally, in Nevada, the ACLU has led a successful campaign to limit the use of solitary in juvenile facilities. While the fight continues in many US communities, these successes give hope to advocates and loved ones of incarcerated individuals.

“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” - Nelson Mandela

The Loudest Cry Is the One You Can't Hear. Poem by Luis Rodriguez. from Zealous on Vimeo.

Silenced is a project by Art for Justice and AFSC Michigan Criminal Justice Program in collaboration with Zealous. It is part of the Open MI Door campaign of Michigan Citizens for Prison Reform (MICPR).


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

This tactic emphasizes the power of personal stories in the fight to affect change. It taps into the power of reading the words of real people experiencing the abuse. They write in their own words and handwriting. From the impacts of this tactic, we learn that success can come when individuals get involved. This engaged individuals to take interest in advocating for local and state policy.