MSW students lobby for bill reintroduction

Kevin Trout, Katie Cianci and Sandra SharmaFrom left, Kevin Trout, Katie Cianci, and Sandra Sharma prepare for a meeting with their state legislators regarding reintroduction of a bill to stop solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles.

North Koreans used solitary confinement as a way to break down U.S. prisoners of war during the Korean War, broadcast journalist Ted Koppel said recently on “Rock Center with Brian Williams.” Koppel’s report highlighted 17-year-old James Stewart, an incarcerated juvenile who committed suicide after being placed in solitary confinement.

Isolation was used as psychological torture for soldiers and political dissidents, Koppel said, and “here, I’m talking about kids — it is just a national disgrace.” Williams added that solitary confinement can be a terrifying and soul-crushing experience.

It’s an issue that hits home with NASW student member Katie Cianci, whose brother is in jail for a drug offense. Even before reaching 18 years of age, he has been placed in solitary confinement several times, Cianci said, and it’s a practice done to minors in jails across the country.

“He told me it’s the worst thing any human being can go through and he would never wish it on anyone,” said Cianci, an MSW student at California State University School of Social Work. “He would be locked up in a tiny cell with no human contact, no link to the outside world. It’s sheer hell.”

Cianci’s story reached her classmates in her Urban Policy and Advocacy class at CSU, and what started as an advocacy practice presentation assignment turned into a real lobbying effort. Cianci’s fellow MSW classmates Jamie Biggs, Sandra Sharma and Kevin Trout worked as a group to get legislation introduced in the California Senate to stop the practice of juvenile solitary confinement in jails.

The parameters of solitary confinement vary in prisons from state to state, Trout said, but in general it consists of being locked alone in a 9-by-6 cell for up to 23 hours a day. It’s used as a means of protection and punishment for juveniles incarcerated in an adult prison, but he said it is an inhumane method that makes the problem worse.

“Humans are social beings and they need to be connected,” said Trout, an NASW student member. “Constant isolation has adverse effects on mental health in healthy people. So you take incarcerated minors with pre-existing mental health issues and put them into solitary confinement, then eventually release them into the world … as a juvenile their brains are still developing. This is an issue that was important to us as a group and it’s important to society as a whole.”

The group researched solitary confinement and looked for a California representative who would take up their cause, said NASW member and class professor Jose Paez.

They learned that state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, had introduced Senate Bill 1363 in 2012, which states that a minor or ward who is detained in, or sentenced to, any juvenile facility, jail or other secure state or local facility shall not be subject to solitary confinement. Although the bill did not pass, the group lobbied Yee’s office to try again.

“They contacted Yee and a couple of other senators, and they made him aware of who they were,” Paez said.

After phone calls, emails and a petition that sent more than 80 emails to Yee’s office opposing juvenile solitary confinement, their efforts paid off. Yee invited the students to participate in the reintroduction of the bill, now S.B. 61.

The new bill reflects the research and written language contributed by the group and is designed to give a greater impact than the previoulegislation.

If it passes, S.B. 61 will prevent minors who are detained in any juvenile facility from being subjected to solitary confinement, except for extreme cases.

“I’ve taught this class several times and I never saw students take this so far,” Paez said. “They are an incredibly dedicated and focused group of students.”

Sharma said Cianci introduced the issue of solitary confinement to her, and she has discovered it’s something that affects society as a whole, not just the prisoners who experience it.

“At the time that (Cianci) proposed this for our advocacy topic, I had no idea how detrimental solitary confinement was to one’s mind, body and soul,” Sharma said. “Further, the cost to society is both monetary for managing supermax prisons, and socially due to the increased mental health issues the prisoners have after being in solitary confinement for long periods of time.”

Many people don’t think the issue of solitary confinement applies to them, but it does, said Biggs, an NASW student member.

“The research (we did) shows that it’s costly to the state, and increases recidivism rates,” she said. “This is a change that we all need to get behind in order to ensure our state budgets are being used more effectively for education and social services.”

It is an issue that is gaining momentum, Trout said.

“Yes, prisoners need to pay their debt to society, but there needs to be a better way that doesn’t make the condition worse,” he said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because someone did something wrong, they are still entitled to be treated as a human.”

At first, the students didn’t believe they could actually get the legislation reintroduced, but said they now know they can be agents of change.

“I see that moving forward in my career either as a citizen or a social worker, if I see there is an injustice I really do have the power to contact a legislator or someone at the local level, at state or national, to express my voice,” Cianci said.

Sharma thought it would be impossible to meet with a senator, and too daunting and time consuming to advocate for social justice. But she’s since changed her mind.

“We have five members in our group. We each have very busy lives, graduate school, families, and some of us full-time jobs,” she said. “Still, it is not hard and totally doable. I hope that our story encourages others to be proactive in legislation.”

Biggs said the experience left her feeling inspired.

“Learning how easy it is to lobby our local senators on our own has been extremely empowering,” she said. “We are just getting started.”

The group is set to graduate this month.

“They all absolutely got an A in my class,” Paez said.

Yee introduced S.B. 61 into California legislation, and it is currently in the deliberation process. A final decision on whether the bill will pass is expected in August or September.

Solitary confinement

Solitary confinement, especially with juvenile detainees, is an international issue that has received intensive advocacy by a number of social justice and human rights organizations, said Melvin Wilson, manager of the NASW Department of Social Justice and Human Rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been the lead organization on the issue with their “ We Can Stop Solitary” campaign.

For more information on solitary confinement (provided by Kevin Trout), visit: