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Pop Quiz: Should The US Prison System Do MORE Solitary Confinement, Or NOT THAT?
We know it's bad, we know there are alternatives, it's time to cut it out.
Today is the National Day of Action Against Solitary Confinement, which is without question one of the worst things the United States actively does to its citizens. It is a practice that we know causes severe, long-term psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, paranoia, obsessions, hallucinations and even psychosis. Weirdly enough, you cannot actually lock people in a 5x9 cell for days, months, years and decades without that doing some really terrible things to their brains.
Despite the fact that the practice is largely reviled among those who have thought about it for 12 seconds past the “Hey! Don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time!” gut reaction point, a report published this past May found that there are more than 122,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in US prisons and jails — about 6 percent of all those incarcerated here. That is a lot of people. People who, mostly, are going to be released at some point. See how that might be bad?
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Solitary confinement, as practiced in the United States, is a violation of the international standards for the treatment of prisoners — known as the Mandela rules, after Nelson Mandela — which say that a person cannot be kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 days consecutively or more than 20 days in a month and considers anything beyond that to be torture. That would probably be a much bigger deal if United States prisons did not also violate all of the other rules on that list as well.
Medical societies like the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare, and the World Medical Association, along with international human rights organizations like the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, consider solitary confinement a human rights issue and a threat to public health and safety (again, because torturing people has consequences!).
You’re not going to see a lot of people defending “solitary confinement,” as it were. Not these days, anyway. Now, when they defend it, it’s always “punitive segregation” or “restricted housing” or “special housing units” or any other number of euphemisms that they insist are not solitary confinement, despite definitely being solitary confinement. The practice they defend is one in which prisoners who have proven themselves to be dangerous are put in a time out for just as long as it takes for them to calm down and behave. It’s the only recourse these corrections officers have sometimes, the corrections officer say, to protect the safety of other prisoners or even the prisoners themselves.
But if that were remotely what was actually going on in the US prison system, it would not be the massive international human rights issue before us today. We are not talking about people being put into solitary confinement for a few hours or even just a few days. We are talking about people being in solitary confinement for years and decades. We are talking about the Angola Three, three Black Panthers held in solitary confinement for 29, 42 and 43 years … before having their convictions overturned. We are talking about Ian Manuel who was put into solitary confinement in the Florida prison system at age 15 and kept there for 18 more years. We are talking about Anthony Graves, wrongly convicted of a crime when he was 26, who also spent 18 years in solitary.
The idea that those in solitary confinement are there because of violence or being a danger also happens to be nonsense. Most, actually, find themselves in there for minor infractions. According to assessments conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, “nonviolent, low-level disciplinary infractions—such as swearing, smoking, disrespecting authority, or possessing minor contraband—were among the most frequent reasons people were sent to solitary confinement.” There is also a tendency among corrections officers to interpret the behaviors of prisoners with mental illness issues as disobedience, which is why there exists such a high percentage of prisoners with one or more diagnosed psychological issues in solitary.
We don’t actually have to do this to people as a matter of safety. Alternatives that actually produce far better results exist. Norway has a far lower recidivism rate than we do and they don’t do any torture in their prisons at all.
Now, people (usually racist people) like to say “Oh, that’s Norway, we couldn’t do that here” — but when some prisons in North Dakota adopted some of the Norwegian Correctional Service’s philosophy and practices, particularly as it concerned those they would normally have put in solitary, it was far more effective at reducing prison violence in the long term than solitary was. I’d say “surprise!” except for how it actually seems pretty obvious that this would be the case.
We can do better, so why don’t we?
In recognition of the National Day of Action Against Solitary Confinement, the Federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce will be holding a virtual rally today at 2 p.m. Eastern with US Rep. Cori Bush and other congressional leaders in support of Bush’s End Solitary Confinement Act. Should you want check it out, you can register at SolitaryIsTorture.com.