An item that’s been under my radar is the overuse of solitary confinement in prisons in the US. First there’s the radical, off the charts overuse of prisons themselves, then there’s the wild overuse of solitary in those prisons, and you have a shameful human rights situation. SHAMEFUL.
Human Rights Watch prepared a statement for a Senate committee in 2012.
Solitary confinement in US prisons is imposed for different reasons, but most commonly it is used as punishment for breaches of discipline (“disciplinary segregation”) or to manage prisoners considered to be particularly difficult or dangerous (“administrative segregation”). The increase in solitary confinement in the United States has occurred primarily through administrative segregation, particularly the segregation of prisoners in special super-maximum security facilities built solely for this purpose. Indeed, in our judgment, the proliferation of super-maximum security facilities is the most troubling development in US corrections in recent decades.
Other developed countries don’t do this. They don’t throw people in solitary and leave them there. We actually have a constitutional amendment that forbids cruel and unusual punishment, yet here we are, resorting to this cruel and unusual punishment with wild abandon.
Although there are differences between the specific conditions of solitary regimes in different prisons, they share a basic model. Prisoners in solitary typically spend 22 to 24 hours a day locked in small, sometimes windowless, cells sealed with solid steel doors. They lack opportunities for meaningful social interaction with other prisoners; most contact with staff is perfunctory and may be wordless (such as when meals are delivered through a slot in the cell door). Phone calls and visits by family and loved ones are severely restricted or prohibited. A few times a week, prisoners are let out for showers and solitary exercise in a small, enclosed space, sometimes indoors. They often have extremely limited or no access to educational and recreational activities or other sources of mental stimulation, and they are usually handcuffed, shackled, and escorted by correctional officers every time they leave their cells. Assignment to super-maximum security facilities devoted solely to solitary confinement—e.g., Colorado State Penitentiary, Pelican Bay State Prison in California, or Tamms in Illinois—is usually for an indefinite period that often lasts for years.
In some prisons, prisoners in solitary can purchase radios or televisions; participate in educational and skills-enhancing in-cell programs; and access books, newspapers, magazines, and the like. In others, prisoners are denied access to anything more than the basic necessities of survival. The restrictions can exceed the fathomable. In Pennsylvania’s most restrictive units, for example, prisoners have all the usual supermax deprivations plus some that seem gratuitously cruel: they are not permitted to have photographs of family members or newspapers and magazines (unless they are religious). In some prison systems, prisoners who follow the rules and who engage in prescribed programs can earn their way out of solitary; in others, prisoners can languish in segregation for years, even decades, with little idea of what—if anything—they can do to be re-assigned to a less harsh form of imprisonment.
Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib…and Pelican Bay and Tamms.
There is something wrong with us in this country.