Behind the Bird: Extended Stanley Richards Q&A

Behind the Bird: Extended Stanley Richards Q&A


We are excited to share ‘Behind the Bird,’ additional content around the theme of our most recent edition of Fortune News, Prison Conditions Inside and Out. These articles highlight additional guest writers and include extended versions of pieces in the publication. 

Our first installment of ‘Behind the Bird’ is the extended Q&A with our Deputy CEO, Stanley Richards, on solitary confinement. Stanley shares more about his own experience in solitary and some of the misconceptions around ending the harsh practice in New York. 

Question: How is ending solitary confinement also connected to the long-term goals of ending mass incarceration? 

Stanley: Mass incarceration has multiple prompts that we have to address. We have to get at the underlying causes of mass incarceration, and that’s poverty, homelessness, hopelessness, mental illness, substance use, education. All of those societal issues are tied to mass incarceration, but so are the conditions of confinement. And solitary confinement is one of those conditions: when we detain people and people become conditioned to be in survival mode, that’s how they live their life even when they come home. As a formerly incarcerated person, for many, many years I went in and out of jail and prison because all I had learned was how to survive. It wasn’t until I learned that I didn’t have to accept it – that I didn’t have to be in survival mode – that my life began to change.  

Question: Can you share on the short-term and long-term effects of solitary confinement in your own experience? 

Stanley: For me, after I left solitary confinement, it’s hard to go into an open area in general population because you got used to that solitude. You get used to that isolation and it’s hard to reconnect – it begins to get comfortable being in your own head. So, how do you begin to socialize? How do you begin to trust? How do you make that shift from your own isolation to the general population? What I realized as First Deputy Commissioner when I toured some of the segregation units is that everybody is vying for attention, because they don’t have any interaction. Everybody’s yelling and calling for a minute of someone’s time because no one ever talks to them. The guards just act like they don’t exist. What does that do to you when you get out, not only just back into the general population but out into the world? I’ve been out of prison for thirty years, and people still tell me that I talk loudly. You’re unconsciously still just trying to be heard. It just proves that when we provide experiences of extreme isolation and brutality, people will learn how to live only that life. And the effects of solitary confinement can’t just be turned off. It’s engrained in you and it’s traumatizing and how you eventually deal with that trauma impacts your family, your community and those who you are incarcerated with.  

Question: What is the backlash to ending solitary confinement and how can we correct those false narratives?  

Stanley: I think the backlash is about the way it’s being framed, which is the false narrative that ending solitary confinement means people that commit violent acts in jail will not be held accountable. And that just is false. Both the HALT Solitary bill and Risk Management and Accountability System (RMAS) allow the Department of Correction to hold people accountable. The change is how we hold people accountable. We’re at the point where we have to say ‘This does not work – we need to do something differently.’ The real conversation is about what RMAS and HALT are changing about accountability and not allow the loudest voices to shape the narrative that we are not going to hold anyone accountable without solitary confinement. We can still hold people accountable while helping them build skills and develop tools they need to get out of that survival mode and embrace living their life to its fullest.  

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