All locked up in America

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Obinna Woko at the Human Rights Institute. Photo: Kean University

By Chiemela Igbokwe | Posted March 4, 2016

Obinna Woko became a supporter for prison reform after meeting a man who spent 22 years in solitary confinement.

22 years—alone.

“I have a belief instilled in me that solitary confinement practices are not ethical,” said Woko. “I think it’s a really good thing President Obama is doing addressing the subject.”

Woko, a Kean history major and student worker at the Human Rights Institute, had his commentary recently featured in The Washington Post in response to President Barack Obama’s  Jan. 26 op-ed, “Rethinking solitary confinement.”

Writing a letter to the editor is not an easy feat: according to its website, the Washington Post receives thousands of letters to the editor per week and only a select few are published—let alone a letter that is in response to an article written by our nation’s president.

Obama’s op-ed article told the story of Kalief Browder from the Bronx, who was arrested and accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 and sent to Rikers Island where it was reported that he had endured unutterable violence by of inmates as well as guards.

Kalief was no more than a 16 years old.

In 2013, having never stood trial, Kalief was released but the road to recovery was a tough. Life seemed to be nothing more than a constant struggle after the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day. One Saturday, Kalief Browder committed suicide at his home.

In his letter to the editor, Woko talked about Ojore Lutalo, who he met two years ago. Lutaloz—now released— spent 22 years in solitary confinement and now spreads awareness of what he thinks is an overused and unproductive practice to those willing to listen.

Woko also wrote about how the Human Rights Institute will be holding a conference titled Locked Up in America: The Business of Incarceration that includes an exhibition that lets visitors experience solitary confinement first-hand by stepping into a replica of a confinement cell.

Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating and long lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior.

Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially among juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

“United States is a nation of second chances,” said President Obama in his op-ed. “But the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look at your wife in the eye or hug your children.”

“Thanks to Mr. Obama’s vision and leadership, I hope that U.S. prisons become a model of rehabilitation, producing citizens prepared to pursue happiness in a land of second chances,” adds Woko.

The Human Rights Institute conference will discuss and explore three major aspects of the corrupt justice system: the repercussions and overuse of solitary confinement, the school-to- prison pipeline, and those who profit behind all of it. Students and anyone interested are invited and encouraged to come out and discuss ways to secure public safety, taxpayer value, equality and justice in the American prison system.

The conference will held at the Wilkins Theatre on April 8 at 3 p.m.

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