The sprawl and immense overcrowding of American prisons isn't the only extreme about our unprecedented system of punishment. The severity of punishment inside is also worse than ever before.
In an excellent story in this week's New Yorker, Atul Gawande takes us into the hole and finds that - without much question - long term solitary confinement is torture. The United States today has 25,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, and many of these people spend years or decades with very, very little human contact. Some of them are there for repeated episodes of violence in prison and others for the most minor of infractions.
Gawande's story chronicles the mental anguish of living in a 9-by-6 box and being isolated from fellow humans 23 hours a day. Some people survive the experience better than others, but it amounts to torture for all of them. I know a man who spent more than 20 years in New Jersey prisons, and almost every day of it was in solitary confinement. He has managed to readjust to the world upon his release, but he'll be the first to tell you that it isn't easy. Gawande tells of people who have been broken by the experience and those who have come out of it damaged but functioning.
The reasoning behind solitary confinement is that it's a necessary evil to control the most violent prisoners. But it hasn't worked:
Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.
After the jump, a video from the American Friends Service committee with interviews on life in the hole.
Gawande points to a better way, and there's no surprise that it's called rehabilitation. The British tried solitary for a while, and took note of its failure to reduce prison violence. Then:
The British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.
The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.
Gawande's full story is here.
The American Friends Service Committee is one of few major organizations focused on ending the reliance on solitary confinement. Check out their Stopmax campaign here, and watch the video below to hear these stories straight from the survivors.
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