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July 03, 2022

Solitary confinement should be abolished in American prisons, jails

Credit: The Orange County Register, Las Vegas Sun, Sal Rodriguez

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1862.  By that measure, America’s prisons reveal a rather abysmal state of affairs in what is supposed to be a highly advanced society.

According to a recent prison census, around 75,505 people are incarcerated in solitary confinement on any given day in America’s prison systems.

As it sounds, the practice entails the isolation of people in often small, rudimentary cells, by themselves, for sometimes indefinite periods of time — days, weeks, months, years or even decades.

As I reported in my early days as a journalist with Solitary Watch, many of those in solitary confinement are already mentally ill, so you can imagine the harm locking up and isolating such people can do.

The experience of prolonged isolation can and does mentally break people, even contributing to some suicides.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price,” noted Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in a 2015 opinion, adding that “common side effects of solitary confinement include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

While prison officials often insist the practice is needed to maintain order and safety, the National Institute of Justice has said that “there is little evidence that administrative segregation has had effects on overall levels of violence within individual institutions nor across corrections systems.”

It’s used because it’s convenient for poorly resourced and poorly managed prisons, but what’s convenient comes at the long-term expense of those subjected to the practice — and the public as well.

Back in 2011, UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez warned, “Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.” And as one might expect, solitary confinement doesn’t really serve the long-term interests of the public for that reason, as several studies have found that those who’ve spent time in solitary are more likely to commit crime again upon release.

Likewise, the experience of several states in reducing their reliance on solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool has shown that reducing the use of the practice doesn’t necessarily increase the danger of prisons.

In other words, the practice is known to be harmful, it isn’t helpful for in-prison or public safety, and yet it’s being used on a wide scale across the country.

Last month, Rep. David Trone, D-Maryland, and Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma, introduced HR 8048, the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2022.

The bill would establish a bipartisan commission to study the impact of solitary confinement, provide recommendations and provide federal grants to states in compliance with the recommended standards to provide mental health and drug treatment services.

Other co-sponsors include Republican Reps. Peter Meijer of Michigan and Nancy Mace of South Carolina, as well as Washington, D.C.’s Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat.  This bill deserves support and I hope California’s congressional representatives sign on to it. The more attention solitary confinement gets, the more it will be curtailed and even eliminated in favor of better and more productive ways of managing people in prisons.

It is untenable for the wealthiest nation, a nation predicated on respect for the dignity of every individual, to engage in what is really an act of torture.

While I know many don’t care about what happens in our prisons, incarcerated people are people, too. And since most of them will be released, practically speaking, it’s in all of our interests to ensure our prisons aren’t leaving people worse off upon release.

Solitary confinement is torture. Torture should have no place in the United States.