Solitary confinement in this country has devolved from a short-term punishment imposed infrequently for violating prison rules into a routine form of prison management. Today, tens of thousands of local, state and federal prisoners are held in prolonged abusive isolation — in tiny, windowless cells for up to 23 hours a day.This was well-known to those of us who study penology long before 2006. The recidivism rates for those who get out (and yes, 98% of those in solitary are going to get out) is astonishingly high, well beyond the 67% of regular inmates.
On Tuesday, a Senate judiciary subcommittee met to consider the many costs of this practice — the first time that Congress has even acknowledged the problem.More than 80,000 of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners are held in isolation, noted the subcommittee’s chairman, Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois. While defenders claim that solitary confinement is needed to control the most violent prisoners, prolonged isolation is known to induce suffering and mental illness. About half of prison suicides take place in isolation units.A 2006 study of prison safety and abuse led by a former federal court of appeals judge, John Gibbons, and a former attorney general, the late Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, raised concerns about higher recidivism rates when prisoners are released directly from solitary to the community. High rates of security segregation can actually increase incidents of violence.
Senator Durbin says he is working on legislation that would require greater transparency about state and federal use of solitary confinement and looking at ways to remove barriers that make it nearly impossible for inmates held in solitary to protect their rights in court. The first step, though, should be clear standards minimizing the use of this form of punishment, including an immediate, strictly enforced bar on holding children and mentally ill inmates in severe conditions of isolation.
Good luck with that. As much as I applaud the Durbin hearings, there is a "cold day in hell"'s chance that this legislation will ever be forced upon those states who abuse solitary (Texas, California). As Joan Petersilia notes (via Doug Berman at Sentencing Law & Policy) once the economy turns around, the get tough dopes will probably return with a vengeance.
She worries that, as in previous decades, prison population totals will moderate or recede in the short run in large part as a way to save government money -- but when the economy improves, political leaders will start filling prisons again when they have no proof that non-prison programs worked.It's enough to make you hope for more bad economic times.