A bipartisan group of lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill last week for the first congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, joined other religious leaders to urge Congress to end the practice. Killmer is a minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Do you consider yourself to be of a specific faith?
I am a Presbyterian minister committed to the Presbyterian Church. What I appreciate most about our tradition is the belief, which has its roots in John Calvin, that God is sovereign over the entire world -- that there is no part of the world which is not impacted by God's activity in the world. What I think that means is that wherever there is brokenness, God is at work healing that brokenness, making it whole. The Church tries to be faithful to what God is doing in the world, and that's what I've tried to do in my life -- working for justice and peacemaking for 44 years.
Tell me about solitary confinement. Why is it a moral issue?
The United States has used prolonged solitary confinement since the 1790s. There are 45 prisons with just solitary confinement cells today.
Prisoners are typically locked down 23 or 24 hours a day in small cells with no meaningful human contact. Inmates may be allowed an hour of recreation in a caged pen. We confine people in these isolated conditions for weeks, years, even decades on end.
Research shows solitary confinement causes both physical and emotional harm. It is a moral issue because solitary confinement harms people, and it consequently violates our values as a nation.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is working in 10 states to help develop state legislation to limit the use of solitary confinement. We have also produced a film on the issue, and we have a statement opposing prolonged solitary confinement that people of faith are encouraged to sign. People can learn more at nrcat.org/prisons.
How should society draw the line between justice and compassion on those judged?
All societies have prisons as a means of imposing penalties when people break the law. Imposing penalties is important because we want to do everything we can to discourage criminal behavior. But what we don't want to do is violate our own values or be so mean and cruel to people that we actually cause physical and emotional harm. This is especially true because many of these prisoners will be released into communities.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
Working for justice and working for peace drive me. I know that brokenness exists in families, communities, in nations and between nations. For me and many other people of faith, trying to be a part of God's healing of that brokenness, trying to prevent brokenness from happening again, is extremely important. I really do feel driven to be faithful to God's work in the world, including ensuring that the harm that is being caused in prisoners who are in solitary confinement is ended by changing the current policies.
- Liz Essley