We’ve lost our way: A mother’s take on solitary confinement in Minnesota

I recently spoke at a press conference held by the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Minnesota (NAMI-MN) about proposed legislation to regulate the use of solitary confinement in Minnesota. A few of my comments were included in Star Tribune coverage of the event. My remarks are reprinted here in their entirety:

Good afternoon. My name is Sharon Rolenc, and I am here for my son. First, I want to thank NAMI-MN and the state lawmakers who authored this bill. I am profoundly thankful and grateful to you. My son Keegan spent 364 days straight in solitary confinement. When I received that first letter from him, I couldn’t believe was I was reading. Surely he wasn’t going to spend that length of time cut off from human contact. A year? Surely Minnesota didn’t engage in that practice. But it was true.
He wasn’t allowed visits. He didn’t get hugs from loved ones. He was not even allowed photographs so he can see his own son’s face. For the parents out there, imagine going a year without seeing your child’s face. Imagine going 364 days without a hug or human contact. And for his son, who was 5 at the time, imagine going a year without seeing your dad. Twenty percent of your short lifetime without seeing your dad. No visits where father and son can color together or read stories.
Before my son’s time in solitary, I have a vivid memory from the visitor’s room when I brought my grandson Jamaal to see his father. Keegan read the same book over and over and over to his son, who was laughing big belly laughs. Keegan glanced up at me and rolled his eyes. But he continued to read that book because he knew it brought his son joy. During a phone conversation while Keegan was in solitary, he told me “I’d give anything to read my son that silly book again.”
I find it profoundly sad that the year my son was incarcerated, the state released a study documenting the positive impact of visits from loved ones and mentors on reducing inmate recidivism. So how can we reconcile the use of solitary with these findings?
My son made mistakes, and he’s paid the consequences — and then some. But I know what’s in his heart and what kind of man he is.
Never once have I ever suggested that my son should not have consequences for his actions. What I have questioned was the extreme use of solitary. While my son was in solitary, I researched. And in my year of research, I found not one shred of evidence that points to the positive impact of solitary confinement, but volumes of evidence that point to the emotional, physical and psychological damage it inflicts — often driving inmates to the brink of suicide. I worried about my son’s physical and mental health. I spent a year of sleepless nights worrying. And he was young — 23 when he was sentenced to solitary. As someone who used to work with state epidemiologists and trauma physicians and brain injury prevention specialists, I knew full well that his brain was still developing. What impact would solitary have on this development?
So I’m here today to speak for other mothers of inmates. For their fathers, their sisters, their brothers, their children, their grandparents.
And I’m here for all the inmates who have no one to speak for them.
While my son was in prison, one of his work mates told him “you’re lucky to have an advocate on the outside. Many of us don’t. Please don’t forget us when you’re released. People need to know the struggles we face.”
I’m here for that inmate — and for all the other inmates who have no one to speak out for them.
I’m here for the mentally ill inmates, who suffer far worse consequences and longer sentences in solitary than even my son.
For the past few years, I have remained silent about criminal justice issues. I let society’s attitudes silence me. That was wrong. And when my son was sentenced to solitary — because make no mistake, it is sentence within a sentence — I realized I could remain silent no more. Because I can tell you this, there is absolutely nothing positive that comes out of the use of solitary confinement.
I’ll leave you with this: Anybody who knows me, knows that I am one of Minnesota’s biggest cheerleaders. I chose Minnesota as a place to raise my family, because I believe in our collective values. I believe in the Minnesota spirit. I believe in our sense of community. No other state out there lives and breathes the golden rule more than Minnesota. We value treating each other with dignity and compassion. This is truly a special place. But we’ve lost our way in this use of solitary confinement. I believe in my heart that we can set this right. We must restore oversight. The first step is this bill.
Thank you.

Prior to the press conference, the Star Tribune released an in-depth investigative series by Andy Mannix about solitary confinement in Minnesota, “Way Down in the Hole.” A year in the making, the series reveals the troubling lack of oversight in the Minnesota Department of Correction’s use of solitary — which led to inmates serving years (even a decade) in “the hole.”

The coverage has served as a catalyst for state lawmakers to re-examine the practice, and the Minnesota House of Representatives Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee holds the first hearing on the bill (HF742) this morning. My hope is that this legislation is just the beginning of meaningful reform.