Interview with Cassandra Bensahih on ending solitary and finding dignity

Cassandra Bensahih
Cassandra Bensahih

Cassandra Bensahih is Senior Organizer with the Unitarian Universalists—Mass Action, where she leads the End Mass Incarceration and the Economic Justice Campaigns, and also serves as coordinator of the Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement Coalition. In this interview, she discusses her life path from a traumatized and incarcerated woman, to community leader. Drawing on her personal story, Bensahih discusses why solitary — in all of its forms — needs to be ended, and addresses the profound crisis of COVID in MA prisons.

Part One: A personal transformation

Bensahih was struggling with addiction when she sent to MCI-Framingham, Massachusetts’ only prison for women. During her one year sentence, for which she spent 6 months in prison, she lost her home and her children. It took three years before she could get them back. Bensahih describes her decision to never return to prison, while explaining how the harmful impacts make it more difficult for many others to break the cycle and succeed outside the walls [15:13 minutes].

Part Two: Working to end solitary confinement

Bensahih explains the diverse forms of solitary used in Massachusetts and why there is a movement today to end it. She discusses models from other states and countries, and highlights why it is important for people who have experienced this form of torture to speak about it– and for others to listen [13:34].

Part Three: Deepening isolating during the COVID pandemic

During the COVID pandemic, people in prisons across the state and the entire country, have spent enormous amounts of time in lockdowns. Here, Bensahih describes extreme solitary, lack of any way to socially distance, and — what makes her most angry — was the gross negligence of people who worked at the prisons and put people at high risks. Today, she notes, COVID is ravaging the prisons [5:21].

Part Four: Change doesn’t come easy

In this final portion of the interview, Bensahih discusses how she is able to maintain her commitment to the incredibly difficult work of transforming a system. Recognizing the people and organizations that helped her find her voice, she emphasizes the power of working with and for her community. She issues a challenge to Massachusetts: why are we allowing inhumane treatment to continue? [8:47].

Bridget Conley is an Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads WPF’s research programs on atrocity response and incarceration. She works closely with the Executive Director on project development, fundraising and strategic vision for WPF. Currently, her primary research focus concerns the implications of American mass incarceration for local, national and international policies.

She also leads our program on mass atrocities and was a researcher on the mass starvation program. The author of Memory from the Margins: Ethiopia’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (Palgrave 2019); co-editor of Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), and editor of How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press 2016), she has also published on starvation crimes, the 1992 – 1995 war in Bosnia, mass atrocities and genocide, and how museums can engage on human rights issues.

At Fletcher, Prof. Conley teaches ‘Understanding Mass Atrocities’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory and International Issues.’ She also teaches undergraduate courses with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT).

She previously worked as Research Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, where she led the Museum’s research and projects on contemporary threats of genocide, where she produced multimedia public outreach materials, formulated positions on contemporary threats of genocide, and curated exhibitions.

She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University in 2001. When she is not in the office, she is happiest with her family or on a mountain summit.

Stay Connected