Inventing Solitary: In 1790, Philadelphia opened the first American penitentiary, with the nation’s first solitary cells. Black people were disproportionately punished from the start.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 06/08/22: “As a heavy steel door slammed shut behind him, Caine Pelzer stepped into his new home with a jangle of handcuffs and shackles, wrists chained to waist, waist to ankles. It was April 2021, and Pelzer was among the first arrivals at the Intensive Management Unit at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County.

Pelzer, 43, had grown up in New York City, one of eight children — cutting school, fighting, and spending time in homeless shelters before becoming a star athlete at a residential school for students at risk of dropping out. He moved to Wilkes-Barre to play quarterback for a semiprofessional football team. Then, in 2002, he was convicted of a series of home-invasion robberies and sentenced to 22 to 44 years in prison. He soon found a new calling as a jailhouse lawyer.

Like some of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ most prolific litigants and troublemakers before him, he was placed in long-term isolation. He said he was told he held ‘too much influence’ in the prison. By the time he arrived at the newly created IMU, Pelzer had spent 13 years in 10-by-8-foot solitary confinement cells…

Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, 48, estimates he spent a decade in solitary at SCI Greene in stretches ranging from 30 days to three years. In that time, he began to view it as a problem with racial, mental health, and civil rights dimensions.

Holbrook, who is Black, was a teen when he first landed in a rural prison staffed by white officers…

Now, he’s executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a nonprofit that has repeatedly sued over the use of solitary in Pennsylvania.

One of those lawsuits in 2019 resulted in an end to Pennsylvania’s death-row solitary confinement. Other litigation addressed extreme cases like that of Arthur Johnson, who spent 37 years in isolation.”

Read the full story here.