On May 2, members of the United Nations (UN) Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement (EMLER) held hearings in Minneapolis to gather testimony related to racism and policing. The event, which was held at the Urban League building at 2100 Plymouth Ave N, was one of six stops on EMLER’s visit to the United States.
International human rights lawyer Kerry McLean, who has done work for UN Anti-Racism Coalition (UNARC), set up Tuesday morning’s hearing. According to McLean, the goal of EMLER’s visit—part of a two-week tour that included hearings in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City—is to examine the causes and realities of systemic racism faced by people of African descent involving law enforcement and the legal system, and to learn how laws may lead to disproportionate interactions between law enforcement and Black people compared to people of other races.
UN representatives who heard testimony included Juan E. Méndez of Argentina, and Dr. Tracie L. Keesee, an American who is the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE). Six people gave testimony about the effects of solitary confinement, particularly on minors, followed by a coalition of families that gave testimony on having had a loved one killed by police.
Lucina Kayee, executive director of Atlas of Blackness, helped organize speakers who were willing to testify about their experiences in solitary confinement. Kayee says she personally experienced solitary confinement several times when she ended up in the shelter system as a youth.
Antonio Williams, who helps people of color reintegrate into society after completing their prison sentence, asked the UN to “put the full pressure” on the United States to ban the use of solitary confinement not only for children but for everyone.
“You don’t ever stop thinking about it,” Williams said, of his time in solitary confinement. “You just learn to kind of suppress it a little bit, so it doesn’t overtake what you’re doing in the moment. Prisons, in and of themselves, are an unnatural environment. Everything that makes us humans, prisons try to stomp that out of you.”
Williams spent 14 years in prison, approximately four years of which were spent in solitary confinement. He says the experiences of solitary confinement still deeply affect him. Loud noises startle him, and the sound of keys makes him uncomfortable since officers jingled their keychains as they made their rounds. Also, the complete lack of touch for years while in solitary confinement, has made all human touch something he has to force himself to do.
Williams credits writing with saving his life while in solitary, saying he wrote narratives about the conditions inside the prisons he was in, even though his writing caused retaliation from the guards.
Beginning as a teen, Myon Burrell spent 18 years in prison for a crime he maintains he did not commit. “When I first came into [solitary], I just remember hearing people yelling and screaming and crying,” Burrell said. “Me, as a child, it was a super devastating experience because I’d never seen grown men be so hopeless and have nobody to come to their aid.”
Burrell says he still has to sleep with towels wrapped around his head since doing so was the only way he could block out the fluorescent lights in his cell to fall asleep.
Elizer Darris was given a life sentence as a juvenile for first-degree homicide and was immediately placed in solitary. He later got the life sentence overturned on appeal.
After being given a life sentence, Darris stockpiled sleeping pills. He says he was “shocked” to wake up after taking an overdose of pills one night. He lost a friend in prison, who was also sentenced as a juvenile to a life sentence, to suicide. Darris says juveniles in adult correctional facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than adults.
“The UN should issue a position statement calling for a commitment of all nations to end solitary commitment for minors and condemning such practices as torture,” he said. “The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has already stated as much. I also call upon the UN Security Council to add solitary confinement as the seventh great violation of children and to express a commitment to ending the practice.”
The second group to testify to the UN representatives was a coalition of families who had a loved one slain by police in Minnesota. The group included Toshira Garraway Allen, Valerie Castile, Courteney Ross, and Mark and Cindy Sundberg, among others.
Mark Sundberg noted that Minneapolis was much smaller than the other large cities where UN EMLER was conducting hearings on their tour, such as New York, saying Minnesota should be known for beautiful lakes but was now known for “cops that kill people of color.”
McLean knows that the testimony for UN EMLER will not change things overnight but is hopeful something could come out of the testimony, noting how the Obama administration sometimes incorporated suggestions from experts on incarceration.
“We know there’s no way that these experts are going to say something, and things magically change,” McLean said. “But with the current government, they might consider some of the things the experts say.”