Mary Dean, if you speak to her, will strike you as an exceptionally gentle and soft-spoken woman. One should be aware, however, that her quiet aspect houses a formidable, lion-hearted warrior in the struggle for justice.
I began my recent conversation with Mary by asking her how and why she was drawn into a life of activism. She traced that history back to childhood and her experiences growing up on the South Side of Chicago. The effects of extreme poverty were visible everywhere, and in grade school she was volunteering in soup kitchens. Mary has been combating social injustice ever since. While a student at St. Louis University, she became involved in the Catholic Worker Movement, deepening her awareness and commitment to alleviating the burdens of poverty. She is also engaged in numerous efforts to correct policies that promulgate social and economic injustice – locally, nationally and globally.
Mary’s activism has on occasion resulted in her arrest. As a result of her participation in a peaceful action to call for the closing of the School of the Americas, a U.S. run training facility for Latin American military personnel, Mary was arrested and sentenced to 6 months in Federal prison for trespassing on Federal land. In 1995 she engaged in a nonviolent protest against nuclear weapons, for which she was also arrested. In this incident, she was placed in solitary confinement for a couple of days in Ashland County Jail in Wisconsin.
These experiences gave Mary some first-hand insight into the practices inside the U.S. criminal justice system. She said that she witnessed the degree to which “the focus was not on rehabilitation – not at all.” Two years ago Mary became a paralegal, and then began working for the nonprofit legal organization Uptown People’s Law Center. She utilized her experience and skills to craft a bill setting limits on the use of solitary confinement in Illinois. She researched legislation that other states had put in place to restrict the use of solitary confinement, and collaborated with a coalition of activists to craft the final wording of HB 5417, the “Isolated Confinement Restriction Act.” This group then met with IL House Representative La Shawn Ford to seek his support, and he agreed to sponsor the bill.
Mary and her colleagues celebrated a milestone on Wednesday, April 20, when HB 5417 passed through a hearing in front of the Restorative Justice Committee, of which Rep. Ford is the Chair. The next step will be for the bill to be considered before the Illinois House.
In my conversation with Mary, I realized that there was much I did not know about the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. To focus on Illinois: as of 2013, approximately 2,300 prisoners in the state were being kept in solitary confinement. One of the most harrowing aspects of this statistic is the length of time that many prisoners are spending in this type of confinement. Over 60% are in for less than 1 year, 30% for more than 1 year, and 10% for more than 10 years. To put those statistics in perspective, the U.N. considers anything over 15 days in solitary to be torture. There is widespread agreement on the destructive nature of this type of confinement among courts, prison authorities, and bar associations. That isolated confinement causes extreme emotional, physical and psychological trauma is well known – these facts aren’t even up for debate. How then, can we possibly justify the unrestricted use of such confinement?
In brief, HB 5417 would:
– Limit the use of solitary to no more than 5 days in any 150 day period.
– Use solitary only when absolutely necessary: when there is reasonable cause to believe that an individual poses a serious threat to himself or others, and less restrictive measures would be insufficient. (Right now, prisoners can be sent to solitary for very minor infractions.)
– Ban the use of solitary confinement against people with disabilities, serious medical conditions, pregnancy; people who are LGBT; or anyone under 21 or over 55 years of age.
Other stipulations in the bill would require a medical and mental evaluation within 24 hours for any person placed in solitary, and documentation – including reviews every two days by prison personnel – explaining why less restrictive confinement would be insufficient.
Since the 1998 creation of the Persephone Project, Still Point Theatre Collective has been engaged in arts outreach programs to women incarcerated in Illinois correctional facilities. Our Facilitators have encountered hundreds of individuals who, in our program, expressed a sincere need and desire to grow and heal. A criminal justice system, by definition, should provide justice. Rehabilitation should be the ultimate goal – but as Mary observed, it is so often not the case. When it comes to the rights of people in prison, we would be errant to remain silent.
Mary Dean represents the true meaning of the word activist: one who is actively engaged in the responsibilities of citizenship. Here she has joined with others to painstakingly work within the system to bring about a legal change that would represent a step toward greater humanity and decency – that could save a significant number of human lives from experiencing severe damage. We should extend gratitude to her, to UPLC Executive Director Alan Mills, to Rep. Ford, and to all others involved in bringing this legislation before the Illinois House of Representatives.
This brings us to YOU – and the role that you can play to support the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. If you agree that the current unrestricted use of solitary confinement in Illinois correctional facilities is inhumane and unjust, and if you are an Illinois resident – please call or write your state representative to voice your support for HB 5417.
by Anita Dacanay