Prisons are using solitary confinement to drive inmates to the point of insanity and suicide, all at an exorbitant cost to unsuspecting taxpayers.
Since the nineteenth century, prisons have used solitary confinement as a method of controlling unruly inmates. The prisoner will be locked in a small room, usually around 80 square feet, for 22-24 hours a day.
The technique is not new, but it has been relied on more and more in the past decade, and it is time to really examine whether paying more for this technique makes sense when it quite likely constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
How many prisoners are held in solitary confinement?
It is difficult to know exactly how many inmates are in solitary confinement, because states vary in definitions of the term and what constitutes confinement. However, currently available estimates suggest that between 80,000 and 100,000 inmates are held in some form of isolation.
This estimate is based on data obtained from 34 states, housing 73 percent of all prisoners, which found over 66,000 people in restrictive housing. This figure does not include local jails, juvenile, military and immigration facilities.
The costs of solitary confinement
It costs about $78,000 to keep an inmate in federal solitary confinement, according to a report by the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. This is three times more than the $22,000 it costs to house the average federal inmate.
Solitary confinement is more expensive than typical incarceration for several reasons. First, the construction of solitary facilities costs more. “Supermax” prisons, due to their reliance on single cells and enhanced security technology, cost two or three times more to construct than typical facilities.
Next, the costs of staffing isolation units is higher because prisoners in solitary confinement are required to be escorted by two or more officers any time they leave their cells, and work that in other prisons would usually be done by prisoners must be done by paid staff. Because of enhanced security, staff also takes more time to perform regular searches on prisoners in solitary confinement.
Mississippi recently reduced the number of prisoners it holds in solitary from 1,000 to about 150, and closed down its supermax unit. According to the ACLU, the reforms are saving Mississippi’s taxpayers an estimated $8 million a year.
When is solitary confinement used?
There are facilities around the United States known as “supermax” prisons that are comprised almost entirely of isolated cells for the purpose of solitary confinement. At least 44 states and the federal system now have supermax prisons.
Additionally, solitary confinement is used in other prisons as a way to punish prisoners who disobey guards and to protect prisoners from being harmed by other inmates. However, there are no strict rules in place to ensure that this is how the method is used.
Rather, prisons have their own punishment systems that are not overseen by larger governing bodies. When prisons have a hearing process to determine a prisoner’s guilt, they are nearly always found guilty.
Inmates can be placed in solitary confinement for months or years not just for violence but also for possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, ignoring orders or using profanity. Others end up in solitary as a result of guards not knowing how to deal with prisoners’ mental illness.
Still others are confined for their own “protection,” especially if they are gay or transgender, have unsavory political beliefs or report abuse by prison officials. Ridiculous examples of solitary confinement include: a group of Rastafarian men in Virginia that spent a decade in because they refused to cut their hair, 400 South Carolina prisoners that dared to use social media and a separate group of South Carolina inmates who had the gall to make a music video.
What are the effects of solitary confinement?
Studies on solitary confinement have overwhelmingly shown that solitary confinement is mentally and emotionally harmful.
Psychiatrist Stuart Grassian interviewed hundreds of prisoners in 2006 and found that one third of them were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.” He concluded from his findings that solitary confinement can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome that induces hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, diminished impulse control, hypersensitivity to surroundings, and difficulty with thinking, concentration and memory.
One study found that prisoners in solitary confinement engage in self-mutilation at rates higher than the general population.
Other studies have linked solitary confinement to high recidivism rates. Research found that individuals released directly onto the streets after solitary confinement returned to prison at a rate of 64 percent, compared to those who spent time in the general population after solitary confinement and returned at a rate of 41 percent.
And, solitary confinement has been proven as a contributing factor to suicide for decades. In 1986, a national study of 401 jail suicides found that two out of three were among those held in isolation. In 2007, a study examined attempted suicides in prisons and identified solitary confinement as a major factor in suicide attempts.
The fight against solitary confinement
Legal organizations have filed lawsuits against prisons that rely on solitary confinement. In May 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against the state of California for its use of prolonged solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay prison, which has been infamous for common solitary confinement. In a study of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, psychologist Craig Haney found that prisoners “lose the ability to initiate or to control their own behavior, or to organize their own lives.”
In 2015, they settled for drastically reducing the population in confinement by modifying the system for choosing which inmates to isolate.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting solitary confinement for years, and founded their own campaign, “Stop Solitary,” that details stories of those driven mad by isolation. Prison officials have even come out in recent years admitting that the harmful effects of solitary confinement are not worth continuing the practice.
Switching away from solitary confinement as a practice has clear benefits. The state of Mississippi reduced the number of prisoners in solitary confinement at its Parchman facility and developed new units for prisoners with mental illness. As a result, the number of violent attacks went from a high of 45 in March 2006 to five in January 2008, saving the state more than five million dollars in the process
Solitary confinement can be mentally detrimental to inmates and thus it absolutely qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment, which prisoners should be protected from by their constitutional rights.
The UN Committee Against Torture has repeatedly condemned solitary confinement and upheld that is constitutes torture. President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and many more international figures have denounced solitary confinement.
Some states have been reforming their use of solitary confinement in the past decade, but there is a long way to go before the practice will be eliminated, and it has gone on for far too long because prisons have very little regulation of their inner treatment of inmates.
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