Minister Uses Virtual Reality to Rally Religious Groups for a Ban on Solitary Confinement

People experience a sample of life in solitary confinement with the help of virtual reality glasses and headphones presented by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days on April 22, 2018, in Washington. Photo courtesy of NRCAT

At a one-day conference on torture later this week, the Rev. Ron Stief, a United Church of Christ minister, will display his latest educational tool to dramatize what it’s like to live in solitary confinement.

Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, will encourage participants at a daylong gathering to put on virtual reality glasses and a pair of headphones and experience for nine minutes what it’s like to live in a 6-by-9-foot cell.

“It does an amazing job of educating you,” said Stief, who’s been campaigning about this for more than a decade. “Nobody can put those on for those nine minutes and walk away with any thought that this is not torture.”

Stief is on a mission to take the glasses around to various religious groups. He’s headed to an Islamic Circle of North America conference in April and to the United Church of Christ General Synod in June.

On Saturday (March 9), he’ll be the keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by the North Carolina Council of Churches called to examine the state’s role in torture.

Stief’s many commitments are an indication of how the issue of solitary confinement has become a growing concern for religious groups in North Carolina and across the country that have come to adopt the now common nomenclature for the practice: torture.

The Rev. Ron Stief. Photo courtesy of NRCAT

In North Carolina, the topic of torture has been a sore spot since September, when a citizen-led commission concluded that Aero Contractors, based in Smithfield, N.C., worked with the CIA to fly suspected terrorists to torture facilities abroad under the now-defunct Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

But there is also a growing awareness about solitary confinement, a practice affecting 60,000 to 100,000 people in U.S. prisons.

Policymakers, criminal justice experts and the public now cite research showing that extreme isolation decreases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region related to learning and memory, and leads to a loss of hippocampal plasticity.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Mandela Rules, which, among other things, called for a ban on solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days.

Last year, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill signed by President Trump included a provision banning the practice of putting juveniles in solitary confinement.

Some states have also begun curtailing the practice, but Stief said that even as the federal prisons use it less often, states, counties and local jails still rely on it.

Stief’s organization is working with 11 states to pass legislation banning solitary confinement or work directly with prison administrators to eliminate it.

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Source: Religion News Service