Students organize sit-in to protest solitary confinement
Inmates who are without a high school diploma, young, gay or bisexual, all are more likely to have spent time in solitary confinement while in jail than other prisoners, according to the Bureau of Justice. One Rutgers organization is wants to change this statistic.
The Mountain View Project Student Organization held a demonstration Thursday night outside of Brower Commons to raise awareness about solitary confinement reforms, said Anna D’Elia, a School of Arts and Science senior and president of MVPSO.
The demonstration, "7x9," was created by Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) at Princeton University.
The goal was to raise awareness for the overuse of solitary confinement, D'Elia said.
"The use (of solitary confinement) on vulnerable populations, people with mental illness, people who are LGBTQIA+, pregnant women, and how it affects these people and their integration back into society,” she said.
D’Elia started the program after the Princeton president for SPEAR reached out to her, she said.
MVPSO set up a 7x9 duct tape rectangle outside of Brower Commons to represent a cell that inmates spend 23 hours a day in. Inmates are able to leave the cell for one hour a day.
The organization protested for 24 hours, with one person remaining inside of the rectangle at all times, except for the last hour, which represents the one hour a day inmates are allowed from the cell, she said.
“We’re hoping people stop by. That’s why we’re doing this for 23 hours, sitting in a 7x9 space. We’re hoping people see it, connect with it in some way they wouldn’t have if we didn’t do this,” D’Elia said.
The organization collected signatures for a petition, she said. The petition is in support of the NJ-S51 bill, which would limit the time an inmate can spend in prison and the reasons why they can be placed in solitary confinement.
The bill currently passed in both the New Jersey House of Representatives and Senate, and will now go to Chris Christie for approval.
Mickey Montalvo, a former convicted felon who was placed in solitary confinement during his incarceration, attended the demonstration.
“I went to the meeting last week and I found it extremely interesting that there were people out there willing to help people like me,” Montalvo said. “Being a formal ex-con, a lot of people don’t want anything to do with us. I’m planning to be a Rutgers student, so I volunteered to help.”
Montalvo is planning to matriculate in Rutgers University in the summer 2017, with the aid of New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP).
The NJ-STEP program aims to provide higher education courses for formerly incarcerated individuals by working with higher education institutions in New Jersey that are in partnership with the State of New Jersey Department of Corrections, according to NJSTEP.
“(My experience) in solitary confinement was not pleasant,” Montalvo said. “They let us out every two days, for two hours. The days in between that, we’d be out of the cell for seven to ten minutes a day just so we could shower. There were also a lot of days we didn’t get our recreation time. It was very stressful.”
MVPSO is also sponsoring a project called "Letters to Solitary," D’Elia said. The project will allow students to correspond with people in solitary confinement.
Many people are disconnected from prisoners, D'Elia said, and writing letters will help students show more insight and compassion toward inmates.
"For the person in solitary confinement, it’s the little things. They may not have family or people they can go to, so a little thing like writing a letter can really make a difference and lift their spirits up,” D’Elia said.
Chloe Dopico is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.