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Go Directly to Jail. Do not Pass Go. Do not Collect $200.

March 11, 2012

Today’s New York Times has one of those rare articles that cracks the walls of conventional wisdom.  The article, Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity, ought to be required reading for legislators and government executives, but also for taxpayers.  The article details the discovery by prison officials that solitary confinement is not only costly, it is ineffective.

Solitary confinement, as practiced in American correctional systems, typically consists of confinement of one prisoner to one cell, 23 hours a day.   The prisoner might be allowed a shower and some exercise in the 24th hour – alone.  The exercise doesn’t happen in a prison yard, it happens in a “pen” that the inmate gets to directly from his cell, without coming into contact with another human being.  Same routine for the shower.  If the inmate needs medical care, or has to leave the solitary confinement unit for any other reason, he leaves in shackles, typically escorted by three guards – one on each side, one behind, all on high alert.

Correctional officials almost universally use the phrase “the worst of the worst” for prisoners confined in isolation.  The most important point in the Times article is that the label is self-fulfilling.

Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher B. Epps told the Times that “prison officials started out isolating inmates they were scared of but ended up adding many they were simply ‘mad at.'”  Isolation was intended for inmates who were violent, but isolation came to include inmates who broke rules or disobeyed orders.

Isolation cells are much more expensive to build than conventional prison cells, because of the elaborate security measures necessary to maintain the isolation.  And they cost a lot more to operate because the employee-to-inmate ratio has to be high.

Sometimes when you pay more, you get more.  But with isolation, we’re paying more and getting less.  Solitary confinement will drive a sane man mad.  By 1890, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller recognized that prisoners in isolation descended, “after even a short confinement, into a semifatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide.”  Tragically, not since 1890 has the Supreme Court directly addressed the psychological effects of solitary confinement.

Many prisoners in solitary confinement fall victim to mental illness.  The lack of normal human interaction and mental stimulation induces insomnia, depression, rage, hallucinations, violence and suicidal behavior.  The closest human contact might be the howls of other solitary prisoners in the night, the stench of feces smeared on cell walls, the rantings of the mentally ill.  Inmates in solitary might throw feces and urine at guards, serving to confirm the “worst of the worst” prognosis.

In 2007, under budgetary pressures and court orders, Mississippi began to relax the conditions on one solitary confinement unit.  Prisoners were released from their cells for a few hours a day.  A basketball court was built, and group meals were allowed.  An incentive program allowed prisoners to earn additional privileges.

Violence dropped.  Seventy percent of isolation inmates were moved to general population.  By 2010, the isolation unit was closed.

Americans do not have a history of creative thinking in relation to crime.  Our approach to crime remains remarkably Puritanical – bad acts must be punished; the sin must be exorcised from the sinner.  American prisons are fundamentally the same today as they were 200 years ago; only the details have changed.

And when Americans do something, we do it big.  The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world – 40 percent higher than Russia, 50 percent higher than Cuba, 120 percent higher than Iran, and more than four times the rate in Saudi Arabia.

The United States also executes more prisoners than any other modernized country.  Only a couple dozen countries still perform executions.  In 2010, the most recent year for which Amnesty International has published numbers, the United States executed more prisoners than any country other than China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen.  In what other area would we want to keep company like that?  Joining that club is like joining the Axis of Evil.  We executed more people in 2010 than Qadaffi’s Libya – more, in fact, than all of Africa and Europe.

Neither science nor experience supports the notion that people commit crimes simply because they are bad.  Our prisons are overwhelmingly populated by poor, uneducated, young, minority men.  The incarceration rate for African-Americans is higher than the overall rate in every state in the United States – in some instances, five times as high.  Why would the poor, the uneducated, the young, members of minorities, and men, be less moral than the better off, the better educated, the older, white people and women?

No matter how many people we throw in jail and no matter how long we keep them there, no matter how rough we make the experience of incarceration and no matter how many prisoners we execute, crime continues.  In any other area of human endeavor, sticking to a plan that hasn’t solved the problem after 200 years would be considered a terrible idea.  In Mississippi, they found out that 70 percent of isolation inmates didn’t “need” isolation.  I would suggest that 70 percent of prisoners don’t “need” incarcaration.  Our jails are full of petty criminals and drug addicts.  I would also suggest that if we dealt more satisfactorily with the 70 percent, we might find it easier to think more creatively about the 30 percent who are left.

I know it’s simplistic, probably just as simplistic as the crime-must-be-punished reflex.  But here’s a thought:  when a poor, undereducated kid commits a crime, maybe we should send him to rehab, or find him a job.  Maybe we should send him to college.

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One Comment
  1. scottypv permalink

    A powerful article. Thank you.

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