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Around Town: Solitary confinement crisis brought home by model cell

Around Town: Solitary confinement crisis brought home by model cell

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Former inmate Talib Akbar knows about solitary confinement. He estimates he did 10 stints of it over the course of a 20-year prison term.

The Madison resident, who was released from Waupun Correctional Institution in October 2013, said to pass the time he would make friends with the insects that came into his cell. He would get a book or two a week, but otherwise said he was extremely lonely and isolated during his periods of solitary — one lasting 10 months.

“There’s not enough activity in there,” he said. “Guards just pass you by. ... When something’s wrong with you they don’t care about your condition unless it’s an emergency — and that means bleeding. Not a nose bleed or a little cyst or something, but blood pouring out of you.”

Last year, Akbar, 62, who was at the maximum security prison for two counts of sexual assault, wanted to help people understand what it’s like in prison, so he drew a picture of a solitary confinement cell that the interfaith group WISDOM used to build a replica.

That cell is on exhibit until Thursday on the third floor of the Central Library. Visitors are invited to walk into the cell and check out audio from the reference desk to simulate the loud sounds prisoners hear in solitary confinement.

“The cell is obviously very small and very bleak, but the noise is something that is constant. It’s 24/7,” said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, a former Dane County deputy district attorney, who is director of First Congregational United Church of Christ’s Prison Ministry Project, which installed the cell at the library. “It’s pounding, moaning, screaming, and I think that’s what most unnerves people.”

The cell has been in about a dozen venues, most prominently at the state Capitol in fall 2014. In the last year, more than 4,000 people have had some sort of contact with the cell, and Hancock said the overwhelming reaction is of horror.

“Just stepping into the cell makes people deeply affected, particularly when they hear the sound,” he said.

Bev Mazur, who is on the social justice committee of Unity of Madison Church, was one of many people who toured the cell Sunday. Even without using the headphones, she found the cell disturbing.

“It looks really grim. It makes me sad,” Mazur said. “It doesn’t seem like a useful idea to reform a person’s outlook.”

Information posted outside the cell says that from Dec. 1, 2011, to Dec. 1, 2012, Wisconsin placed more than 4,000 men — or 20 percent of the state’s entire prison population — in solitary confinement, far exceeding the national average.

Hancock said he is pleased that the state Department of Corrections has proposed some changes, including reducing the initial time that someone can be put in solitary confinement to 90 days. Before the change, inmates could spend 180 days or even a year in solitary confinement, he said.

“Ninety days is still six times the international standard for torture,” he said. “That just shows torture is still deeply embedded in the Department of Corrections. And that’s something the people of Wisconsin ought to be deeply concerned about.”

The solitary confinement cell replica ties into Go Big Read, UW-Madison’s annual campuswide reading program. Organizers wanted a book this year that fit into a theme of inequality in America. Chancellor Rebecca Blank chose Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” which centers on race and the criminal justice system.

Liz Amundson, a librarian at Central Library, sat on the selection and steering committee for Go Big Read, and in that role crafted discussion questions, which got her thinking deeply about the book. Her goal was to connect the book with Madison and to Wisconsin.

She wanted to make people aware of what’s happening here since so many of the examples in the book are from the South.

“Someone from Wisconsin might think the book doesn’t apply,” Amundson said. “Things in Wisconsin need to change as well.”

Stevenson’s book is about one person’s work, and one organization’s work, in bringing about change. And Amundson wanted to give credit to groups in Madison working to change Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections.

“We don’t have the death penalty here, but we have a solitary confinement crisis here,” she said.

Samara Kalk Derby covers events in and around Madison on Sundays. If you have an idea for Around Town, contact her at or 608-252-6439.


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