By Anna Conley ACLU Staff Attorney
Last week was my first time in a prison interviewing inmates as the new ACLU staff attorney and director of the Montana Prison Project. I thought I'd share a few reflections on my experience.
I was nervous before going because I learned from others who had visited before that there was no guard in the room with the inmates and myself. As soon as I got there and started interviewing inmates, I realized two things.
First, I didn't have to worry about a guard being in the room because the inmates were respectful, grateful for the visit and didn't appear to be interested in causing any problems. Second, the inmates were nervous about being retaliated against in prison for meeting with an ACLU attorney about prison conditions, and they probably wouldn't have said anything had a corrections officer been in the room.
Talking with these people was bizarre because they just seemed so normal - most of them like you and me (with a few more tattoos). Some of them were extremely intelligent and all were down-right cordial. It was hard for me to believe they had done the things they were incarcerated for. Many of them had done the things that led them there many years ago when they were much younger, and many under the influence of drugs. Many had done time many years before, had gotten out, and then ended up back in prison on a parole violation. It seemed like many lifetimes had passed between the person who had committed the crime and the person who sat before me.
I was particularly struck by my interview with an inmate in solitary confinement. Through the clear plastic wall you could see and feel the despair in this young person's eyes arising out of the severe isolation he was experiencing day after day. It struck me that the best words for what he was experiencing were "cruel, unusual and inhumane."
The ACLU of Montana has been working on the issue of solitary confinement for the past two years, and recently reached a settlement with Montana State Prison over the use of solitary confinement on juvenile prisoners.
After spending only one day in prison, the length of the inmates' sentences was what weighed most heavily on me.
We must think long and hard as a society about putting people behind bars for decades and even lifetimes.